And if they could, would they care, asks philosopher John Gray in his new book.
- In "Feline Philosophy," philosopher John Gray argues that self-awareness isn't the epitome of evolution—and it leads to suffering.
- Gray investigates Pascal, Spinoza, and Lao Tzu to understand why humans are so uncomfortable with themselves.
- Whether or not humans aspire to become like cats, Gray says nature teaches us the lessons felines inherently know.
There she lies, basking in the sunlight sliver that creeps through the kitchen window every morning around this time. What thoughts must run through her feline brain as she curls to lick a paw or turn an ear toward the garbage truck barreling down the street? The complexities of karma, her pending mortality, the bitcoin downturn?
Rubbish, all of it. Time, karma, mortality (and definitely bitcoin) don't enter her consciousness, or so claims English political philosopher John Gray. The former London School of Economics and Political Science professor has written influential books on global capitalism (bad) and atheism (good). Now he trains his sights on our most profound teachers—so profound they have no concern over whether we learn a thing from them or not.
In "Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life," Gray writes,
"Humans cannot become cats. Yet if they set aside any notion of being superior beings, they may come to understand how cats can thrive without anxiously inquiring how to live."
The bulk of Gray's fantastic book does not concern cats, however. They offer an aspirational model, certainly, yet Gray focuses on humanity's insatiable (and predominantly fruitless) attempts at happiness and our inability to reckon with the illusion of morality. Unlike the modern rebranding of eastern practices as a salve for suffering, he points out that Taoism, in particular, has always been more pragmatic than metaphysical.
Referencing Lao Tzu's straw dog commentary on the basic irrelevance of humans—at best, we're not special—Gray writes,
"The universe has no favourites, and the human animal is not its goal. A purposeless process of endless change, the universe has no goal."
John Gray: Cats, Humans and the Good Life
Cats, like humans and all other animals, do have goals: food, sex, shelter. Certainly not existential distress. Gray notes that the technological fervor dreamed up by transhumanists in their quest for disembodied consciousness is nothing more than a Theosophical fever dream. We haven't really traveled as far forward as our self-appointed credit pretends.
Humans are not designed to understand the complexities of the universe, nor even of our own biology. Even the notion of morality, as often marketed by religious traditions, is a farce, since people are only really "expressing their emotions." The only recourse we have for discussing emotions—physiological changes that disrupt homeostasis and warrant explanation—is language, and language is a powerful but limited mechanism for discussing reality.
And what is reality again?
She turns onto her back to expose her belly to the sunlight.
Metacognition, often championed as the great divine upgrade elevating humans above the pack (instead of, say, opposable thumbs, group fitness, or an incomprehensible ability to inflict violence), is actually the "chief obstacles to a good life," as Taoists phrase it.
Gray leans heavily on a number of thinkers—Aristotle, Hume—but the minds of Pascal and Spinoza prove most feline. Pascal knew sitting silently in a room is harrowing—pre-smartphone! We need diversions, he knew, endless entertainment and amusements to distract a mind as uncomfortably matched to its environment as our own.
Spinoza is the most Taoist of Western thinkers. Gray finds solidarity between Lao Tzu and ol' Benedict in the latter's notion of conatus, "the tendency of living things to preserve and enhance their activity in the world." Sadly, our enhancements cost the weight of the world. Despite what we believe, other animals don't aim to become more human-like, nor did evolution finalize its process with us. Other species have little problem becoming what they are. That's a uniquely human deficiency.
Humans, Gray writes, find actual fulfillment by applying a "Spinozist-Taoist ethic." We can actually be happy by being ourselves.
"A good life is not shaped by their feelings. Their feelings are shaped by how well they have realized their nature."
Photo: ViRusian / Adobe Stock
In the end, we become like cats thanks to an indifferent world. Only humans invent stories that reflect reality not whatsoever. Our brains chronically fill in knowledge gaps; those gaps often offer incorrect assessments. Existence is conditional to our environment regardless of how we try to manipulate it in our favor. You can only exploit nature for so long before she grows bored or angered by our tinkering—but there we go assigning human traits to a process that will never play by our rules.
This the cat knows—by not knowing, or caring, at all.
Despite the persistent myth, cats do display affection; they can learn to love their human roommates. Do our three cats climb into bed with my wife and me every night out of comfort or simply to keep warm? Irrelevant. Humans are conditional animals too. At least cats don't confuse pragmatism with emotion. They're content with what comes. We are not.
"If cats could understand the human search for meaning they would purr with delight at its absurdity. Life as the cat they happen to be is meaning enough for them. Humans, on the other hand, cannot help looking for meaning beyond their lives."
Gray offers a prescription for our duress. His ten feline commandments are ultimately for us; cats would use the pages for litter if given the opportunity. Consider the following three cliff notes for the anxious animals that we are. The irony: to achieve them you need to stop trying to achieve them—another paradox cats have no issue embodying.
- Do not become attached to your suffering, and avoid those who do.
- Forget about pursuing happiness, and you may find it.
- Beware anyone who offers to make you happy.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
The main bioactive compound in catnip seems to protect cats from mosquitoes. It might protect humans, too.
- For centuries, humans have observed that cats exhibit strange behaviors when exposed to catnip and silver vine.
- A new study examined how the main bioactive compound in these plants affects cats' opioid systems and protects them against mosquito bites.
- The findings suggest that the compound nepetalactol could be used to develop new mosquito repellents for humans.
Why does catnip have such a strong effect on cats? For at least 300 years, humans have observed that when cats encounter the plant, the majority behave as if they're high, becoming playful and hyperactive before reliably slumping into a nap. But catnip also elicits another strange behavior: Cats rub their faces and bodies against the plant, seemingly trying to cover their fur with it.
A new study proposes cats do this because catnip acts as a chemical defense against mosquitos.
Published in Science Advances, the findings suggest that cats evolved specific olfactory receptors to detect the bioactive compounds in catnip, which produces euphoria while protecting them from irritating bites and diseases. This protection might've helped the stealthy animals better stalk and ambush prey.
The findings shed light not only on feline behavior, but also on how nepetalactol—the main bioactive component of catnip and silver vine—might be used to protect humans against insects.
Nepeta cataria, commonly known as catnip
Credit: Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) via WikiPedia/Public Domain
In the study, researchers from Iwate University in Japan exposed nepetalactol-laced paper to different types of felids, including domestic and feral cats, a leopard, two jaguars, and two lynx. The team also exposed nepetalactol to dogs and mice, but only the cats elicited the expected behavioral response.
To find out why cats react uniquely to nepetalactol, the researchers measured the animals' endorphin levels before and after they were exposed to the substance. The results showed that nepetalactol raised endorphin levels in cats.
But when cats were given drugs that blocked opioid receptors, their endorphin levels didn't rise, and their behavior didn't change. This suggests that cats' "μ-opioid system is stimulated by an increase in endogenous β-endorphin secretion when olfactory neurons are activated by these iridoids," the team wrote.
Nepetalactol as a mosquito repellent
To test the efficacy of nepetalactol as a mosquito repellant, the researchers anesthetized two groups of cats. For one group, the researchers applied nepetalactol to the cats' heads. The other group was left untreated to serve as a control. The researchers then exposed the cats to Asian tiger mosquitos and counted the number of times the insects bit each group.
The results showed that the group treated with nepetalactol was much less likely to get bitten, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. The same proved true in a "more natural" experiment, in which cats were allowed to rub their faces on the plants themselves.
"This is convincing evidence that the characteristic rubbing and rolling response functions to transfer plant chemicals that provide mosquito repellency to cats," the team wrote.
The world's deadliest animal
While the researchers don't fully understand why nepetalactol activates the μ-opioid system in cats, they think the compound could help humans avoid mosquito bites. After all, some of the study contributors have applied for a patent covering the use of nepetalactol as an insect repellent. Gizmodo reports that the researchers even tried applying the compound to their arms, which seemed to prevent mosquito bites.
For thousands of years, humans have aimed to protect themselves from mosquitos. The Egyptian queen Cleopatra was said to sleep surrounded by a mosquito net. The Romans used vinegar mixtures. And Mississippians turned to the American beautyberry plant.
Today, DEET is the most widely used mosquito repellent, but it's slightly toxic and can cause side effects, including seizures, though rarely. Developing better mosquito repellents could save many lives. The World Mosquito Program reports that mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria and yellow fever affect more than 700 million annually and kill approximately one million.
The discovery pushes back humanity's history with domestication.
- Until now, it was thought that cats weren't domesticated in Central Asia until much later.
- The completeness and details of the skeleton suggest it was someone's pet.
- Isotopic examination reveals a high-protein diet most likely provided by caring humans.
Piecing together history through archaeology is inherently sketchy. Clues that tell a complete story could be anywhere — so much depends on the artifacts that just happened to have been found. It's a credit to archaeologists' knowledge and imagination that they've been able to piece together as much about the distant past as they have.
The recent discovery of a nearly complete skeleton from 775–940 CE belonging to a house cat living along Asia's Silk Road significantly pushes back humanity's history with domesticated animals. Prior to this find, the domestic Felis catus L. — as opposed to F. l. ornat, the wild steppe feline — according to DNA testing, wasn't seen in the archaeological record of Central Asia until around the colonial period of the 18th and 19th centuries. While the remains of domesticated dogs are commonly found, cats are not, and certainly not specimens that are sufficiently complete. This allows archaeologists to infer much about the individual animal's life story. This cat's story is published in the journal Scientific Reports.
The Silk Road
Image source: Nithid/Shutterstock
The legendary Silk Road was not, its name notwithstanding, a single road. Rather, it was a network of trade routes running across Asia from China to the Mediterranean. It was at its height between 130 BCE (when it was officially established by China's Han Dynasty) and 1453, when the Ottoman Empire closed it down.
While the Silk Road's primary purpose was commercial — the transport of goods across the ancient world — the communities through which it passed were exposed to a rich assortment of distant cultures, and its influence was thus profound. When the Silk Road was shut down, explorers took to the world's oceans in search of new trade routes that might replace it.
One of the many communities along the trade route was the early medieval settlement of Dzhankent, located in Kazakhstan, east of the Caspian Sea. It was populated primarily by a pastoralist Turkic tribe called the Oghuz. The Oghuz were nomads who controlled Dzhankent and ruled the surrounding region until the 11th century.
The Dzhankent cat
Image source: Haruda, et al
The tomcat skeleton was found in Dzhankent, and had apparently been deliberately buried, though there is no evidence of any sort of ritual involved, or even clear grave delineations. Still, the deliberate burial means its bones were well-preserved.
"A human skeleton is like a biography of that person," says lead investigator Ashleigh Haruda from the Central Natural Science Collections at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU). "The bones provide a great deal of information about how the person lived and what they experienced." In the case of the cat, there were enough remains — its entire skull including its lower jaw, along with parts of its upper body, legs and four vertebrae — to understand quite a bit about its life.
Haruda's team included both archaeologists and DNA specialists. The tabby did not have an easy life, says Haruda, who conservatively estimates the cat was at least one year old at the time of death.
X-ray and 3D imaging of the bones revealed that "the cat suffered several broken bones during its lifetime." Isotope analysis revealed a high-protein diet, and according to Haruda, "It must have been fed by humans since the animal had lost almost all its teeth towards the end of its life."
From an historical point of view, the cat's presence in the Oghuz community suggests a surprisingly early change in the way these people viewed animals. "The Oghuz were people who only kept animals when they were essential to their lives," says Haruda. "Dogs, for example, can watch over the herd. They had no obvious use for cats back then."
Admit it, caring for your pet can make you happy too. Science is working on why.
- A study shows that caring for your pets can improve your well-being.
- The researchers found the act of caring provided more improvements than mere companionship.
- These results aren't limited to pets. Plenty of studies show caring for others can improve your well-being.
Admit it, you treat your dog like it's a person and act accordingly. It's kind of okay though, tons of people do.
Researchers with the Interdisciplinary Center of the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology asked 104 dog owners to keep a journal for 21 days. The test subjects rated how much they agreed with statements about their interactions with their pet such as "When I interacted with my dog, I tried to show it that I really care for it" or "When I interacted with my dog, I tried to let it feel free to be its true self." They also responded to questions of how they were feeling, and if they supposed their dogs cared about them.
As predicted, owners who gave their dogs more support reported higher levels of well-being, felt closer to their pets, and noted less psychological distress. The effect was more substantial than the benefits gained from receiving support from pets, suggesting that giving support satisfies a need by itself.
The dogs involved in the study could not be reached for comment but are assumed to have enjoyed the attention.
The authors interpreted these findings in the light of Self-Determination Theory, or SDT. A theory of human motivation that focuses on innate drives and needs, it centers around the idea that humans function well when our internal motivations are satisfied and less so when they are not. The key motivations are:
- Autonomy, defined as a need to be a causal agent.
- Competence, defined as the need to experience mastery.
- Relatedness, defined as the need to interact and connect with others as well as the need to experience caring.
One possible explanation of the pet effect observed here is that owners are anthropomorphizing their dogs and allowing their owners to perceive tending to a dog's needs as similar to tending to another person's needs. In particular, this is satisfying the need for Relatedness. Whether dogs actually have the same need to connect with others or to be supported so it can "feel free to be its true self" as humans do remains unknown.
In any case, it does appear that you can satisfy your need to care for something by trying to make your pet happy. Exactly how far this effect can be pushed and if it still works if people aren't anthropomorphizing their pets are areas for future study.
But I don’t own pets, so how does this apply to me?
The ideas behind SDT can be applied in many situations, not only ones involving pets. A variety of other studies have shown that providing care for others can improve your well-being, but have focused on what happens when humans tend to other humans.
Science has confirmed what many pet owners always knew, taking care of your fur-covered friend is often more of a joy than a chore. This study points to new ways to improve your well-being by interacting with both humans and animals to make everybody feel a little better.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to play with a cat.