Originally published in slightly different form on June 30, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.
In a recent article here, “Why Dogs Pull on the Leash,” I used the behavior of dogs who pull on the leash as a forensic fulcrum, to show the ways that alpha theorists and behavioral scientists explain canine behavior, and then compare and contrast those explanations with mine, which is through an energy theory of behavior: part Kevin Behan1, part Sigmund Freud2. My position was that dogs pull because they have a strong drive to connect to things in their environment, and that when you learn how to redirect the energy behind that drive back toward you, your dog will have much less of a tendency to pull or will simply stop pulling altogether.“We invented civilization to impress our girlfriends.”
I also said that this natural (yet hypothetical) drive is probably guided by an as yet undiscovered, yet mathematically-provable, force of nature whose influence can be felt in all living organisms, at all stages of evolution, from the binding force in chemical bonds, to the ways that plants send their roots down to the soil, right on up to you, gentle reader, viewing this article on your internet computer machine. All forms of life have a drive to connect to things that provide pleasure, information, or that sustain life.
If we look at the butterfly effect: (the wings of a butterfly, flapping in the Amazon rain forest can affect weather patterns in the arctic circle, etc.) we see that everything on earth—from microbes living happily in the human digestive system to high-rollers at the New York Stock Exchange—seems constantly driven to form or maintain connections.
New research done by botanists shows that the process of sending out roots to retrieve nutrients from the soil is not random or accidental, that plants in fact “choose” where they want to send their roots, based on where they feel (or chemically perceive) the best connections to be located. In another study, researchers found that plants have an ability to not only choose to make connections with nutrients, they also integrate information about the locations of nutrients available to themselves and to their phyto-rivals. They even exude allelochemicals to try and stunt the growth of their competitors, a type of behavior that was assumed to only happen in animals. Still other studies demonstrate that some plants show evidence of acting as if they were social organisms (i.e., they recognize kin), and that they show altruistic behaviors toward their closest genetic relatives by making a what seems to be a kind of emotional connection with them.
In each case, these behaviors were set in motion by what I think could rightly be called an evolutionary pre-cursor to the drive to connect we see in higher life forms such as cats and dogs, and human beings.
Another group of scientists, seeking an answer to the mystery of collective motion in animals (i.e., the ways that schools of fish and flocks of birds suddenly swerve in uniform motion), found strong evidence to support the idea that in some organisms collective behavior may be due to an increase in the presence of a single chemical, cyclic adenosine monophosphate c(AMP). They came to this conclusion after studying the cellular slime mold, a strange fungus-like amoeba, found scattered across forest floors. These organisms are normally small enough to go unseen or unnoticed until they somewhat magically gather together into an aggregate, sometimes as big as 3 square meters, and move together slowly, not as a group, but as a single organism.3
So now we can see the possibility that my hypothetical drive to connect may, in fact, be operative in the natural world at many different levels, from the chemical bonding process upwards. In fact, if we go much further up the evolutionary ladder, we find that another simple chemical, oxytocin, motivates mammals to form many different kinds of emotional bonds and connections. Promiscuous male prairie voles, for example, become monogamous when their levels of vasopressin (a male version of oxytocin) are increased. And in human beings oxytocin is known to be released during orgasm, breast feeding, when a mother gazes at her child, or even when a person pets a cat or a dog. It’s also released when couples kiss; levels of oxytocin go up in the male and down in the female.
The simple fact is that troughout Nature, sexual chemistry is driven by, well, actual chemistry.
I’m going to go out on a Freudian limb here, inspired in part by the Orson Welles quote above, and say that like an oil spill, male sexual desire, in one form or another, permeates human civilization. Most of the weapons we’ve invented—spears, arrows, knives and guns (all common synonyms for the phallus)—were invented by men, not women. And while it’s become a bit of a cliché, it’s still true, nonetheless, that men are, by nature, hunters while women are gatherers. Men form teams and armies, women form social networks.
Which brings up our next point: While the behavior of a plant, sending its roots into the soil, is more related to hunger than sexual desire, there are similarities between the way a root penetrates the soil and the way the male sexual organ penetrates the female form. There are also similarities between the phallus and an oil rig. (If you don’t think so, you haven’t been paying attention to the “Drill, baby, drill,” jokes.) Yet the real reason we drill for oil isn’t sexual, per se; it goes back to our need to connect.
How so? Planes and automobiles need fuel. And both were invented so that we could more easily, and more frequently, form connections than we could while traveling via stagecoach or horse and wagon.
Still, modern humans have an unfortunate tendency to ignore or downplay the interconnectedness we share with nature and with each other. (This flaw may show itself more fully in men than it does in women.)4 And our inability to see how connected we are to nature, and to each other, is one of the primary causes of un-natural disasters like the current crisis in the Gulf of Mexico,5 which, like the butterfly effect, is creating ripples throughout the entire global ecostructure and economy.
It gets clearer each day that the human race needs to get back in touch with Mother Nature, which means, perhaps, that we need to get back in touch with our feminine side.
In my first novel, A Nose for Murder, my female lead, Dr. Jamie Cutter, a forensic pathologist, is having an argument with her significant other, Jack Field, a former NYPD homicide detective turned dog trainer, who objects to going Christmas shopping with her and her friends.
Frustrated with his “maleness,” she says, “You know, Jack, it wouldn’t hurt you to get in touch with your feminine side once in a while.”
“I’m already in touch with my feminine side,” he says. “It’s what I use to train dogs with.”
You may not be aware of it, but there are far more female than male pet dog trainers in America. Part of the reason may be cultural. For example, while those percentages seem to hold true in English-speaking countries like Canada and Great Britain, they’re actually reversed in Mexico and Brazil.
Yet, like Jack Field, most of the male dog trainers I know of, or at least those who are good at it (in my opinion), tend to exhibit their feminine side a bit more when working with dogs. I think the reason for this is that feminine energy is in some ways more compatible with canine energy; that is, women and dogs are more naturally motivated to form emotional connections than men are. Yes, both genders have a drive to connect; but men are more driven to connect physically; to fix things, to make things move, to get things going, to build dams and guns and rockets, drill for oil and invent the assembly line. (While early man may have invented the wheel, at heart it’s a feminine object.)
Kevin Behan has said that dog training is about providing structure (masc.) and facilitating the necessary flow of emotion (fem.) that will induce obedience behaviors naturally. For too long the tendency has been to focus on structure while ignoring flow. Hopefully, with enough female dog trainers, or enough men who are in touch with their feminine side, we’ll reach a tipping point, and things will fall back into balance. (Mind you, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with masculine energy, or that female trainers are automatically less dominant, simply that I think there needs to be more of a balance between masculine and feminine energy.)
This is important because dogs are not just our closest connection to Nature; they provide us with our deepest connection to ourselves. The more we learn about the real reasons for simple canine behaviors like pulling on the leash—which has nothing to do with acting dominant or being positively reinforced (ideas from the decidedly masculine perspectives of Konrad Lorenz and B. F. Skinner), and which behavior is more likely to be caused by an inner drive to connect emotionally to objects of attraction (a feminine idea, coming from neo-Freudian Melanie Klein)6—the more we’ll understand ourselves. And that will benefit both genders and both species.
Hopefully, it might also benefit Mother Nature in some small way.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
1) Sigmund Freud has gotten a bad rap for his reported tendency to see all aspects of life in sexual terms. However, I’m going to stick with his position (or my understanding of it, anyway), which is that the libido is the localized sex drive and its component forms, used primarily for reproduction, while its evolutionary predicate, Eros, is a more catholic (i.e., universal) form of energy, which probably existed in some form before the first sexual organisms came into being.
2) The mathematical equations originally written to explain the aggregation process in slime molds were based on Alan Turing‘s algorithms, with which he intended to solve the problem of morphogenetic fields. (He died before he could finish his work in this area.) They have since been modified for use in programming the behaviors of action figures in video games. These equations also became the basis of the program StarLogo, which mimics the activities of self-organizing systems such as ant colonies, bee building hives, flocks of birds, and will be applied to wolf packs sometime in the near future.
3) An experimentwas done in Japan, where scientists arranged oat flakes in the pattern of the cities around Tokyo, then gave slime molds access to the grain, resulted in the construction of fractal pattern of nutrient-channeling tubes that bore a striking resemblance to the fractal pattern layout of the Japanese rail system. One conclusion drawn from this (perhaps facetious in nature) is that the slime molds showed as much intelligence in designing the best railway routes as the Japanese engineers did.
4) There are numerous male naturalists who, in fact, exhibit a softer or more feminine side than we would associate with someone like Konrad Lorenz, say. For one, I think Jacques Cousteau was a very masculine fellow, but there’s no question that his love for the ocean was both manly and feminine at the same time. The same holds true for the way Adolph Lurie and David Mech approached their studies of wolves. Both were manly men, like modern Davey Crocketts, in a way, yet to me there’s also a feminine quality to way they were careful not to disturb their subjects or their ecosystems.
5) In some ways, the BP disaster—which isn’t a “spill” at all but a “discharge” (both of which can be seen as male sexual terms) or an oil “geyser”—has played itself out almost exactly as if it were a sex scandal. A) From a purely logistical, if not a legal, standpoint, the company probably shouldn’t have been drilling where they were drilling (a mile deep), B) they weren’t using the proper safety precautions (for that depth), and C) they’ve been lying through their teeth about the fall out.
6) In dominance training the use of force is fairly routine. And while positive training is a kinder way of training dogs, it’s also got the word “force” (positive reinforcement) written in to its theoretical architecture. This is no accident, nor is it merely a matter of semantics. Much of the initial research that gave us behavioral science was based on forcing animals, sometimes directly sometimes passively, to engage in some very unnatural behaviors.
It’s also important, I think, to note that training techniques based on the works of Lorenz on the one hand, and Pavlov and Skinner on the other, while seemingly quite different in their principal philosophies, are still more about structured learning than they are about the flow of a dog’s emotions.
Meanwhile, Sigmund Freud, despite his apparent misogyny and, perhaps, a kind of uber-masculine personality, created a form of psychology weighted far more toward the feminine principle than what we find in Lorenz, Pavlov, or Skinner. The very idea that one could work out the psychological issues of one’s patients by encouraging them to free-associate is clearly more about flow than structure.