In a recent experiment dogs were said to have displayed jealousy when their owner paid attention to a stuffed dog that could be made to bark and wag its tail. It was based on an experiment with pre-verbal children who likewise were said to become jealous when their parent attended to and lavished over a doll. So is the dog’s response an evolutionary precursor to jealousy as we see it in humans? Yes. Does the brand of jealousy that an adult human experiences differ in kind from these two examples? Yes.
Lee Charles Kelley has written a very good treatment of this experiment, focusing on the writings of Darwin around the notion of continuity in evolution, which many interpreters of this experiment such as Drs. Bekoff and Coren have cited in support of their positions that dogs can indeed feel jealous.
There’s little need to add to Lee’s argument other than for purposes of going on the record and to point out that such experiments generally demonstrate the opposite of what they are interpreted to mean by the mainstream.
What’s really being evidenced is the overpowering and subconscious effect that physical memories exert on feelings, something humans begin to gain a considerable distance from as we gain language, and to such an extent that our verbal minds differ in kind rather than by degree from animals in this regards.
Were we to substitute a person for either a dog, or the prelinguistic child, in either experiment, the distinction between true human jealousy and its evolutionary antecedent becomes clear. If for example our Significant Other walked about the house fondling, schmoozing and embracing a stuffed paramour of our sexual persuasion, one would not become jealous; one would become disturbed. This is because in conjunction with a capacity to experience jealousy, which requires a thought (i.e. the capacity to compare one moment or point of view with another), one would also be able to recognize that object of our partner’s affections was a stuffed dummy. One wouldn’t feel jealous, one would fear that one’s partner had gone crazy. If someone is capable of experiencing jealousy (an interruption of flow associated with a thought of causation) then one is simultaneously capable of discriminating between inanimate and animate forms. For example, humans play catch with a ball and we derive great pleasure from it, probably through the same emotional/motor responses that motivate dogs to chase a ball with the intensity akin to taking out a rabbit. But no matter how much we may love to play catch, we never go on to think that the ball is an actual prey animal and then have to resist the compulsion to dismember and swallow its fragments like many a ball crazy dog has to be trained not to do. Our playing with a ball differs in kind from a dog’s play with a ball.
As Bekoff says a number of anecdotes equal data. I’ve known thousands of so-called jealous dogs in my life and one of the first things that struck me in the beginning of my career was how site-specific the instances of aggression were. Two dogs that would kill over an owner’s attention in the kitchen, could frolic with abandon when out in the yard as if nothing had just happened even when blood had been drawn. (In fact the vast majority of instances of “jealousy” between dogs happen in compressed spaces.) But we see that when people become jealous, they are jealous wherever they are, they carry it around with them from place to place and from moment to moment. That’s what the conceptualizing intellect does and so context isn’t the defining feature of adult human jealousy. So what is here being labeled as jealousy is in fact insecurity. The dog is fearful that it’s connection to its owner is broken and this is because most owners use their attention as a vehicle for their affection and dogs aren’t wired that way. When sensing a disconnect, a dog relives negative memories from its emotional past and then acts to turn these off. Very young children can fall through the same crack, getting the imprint from their parents that being the center of attention is the metric of connection.