Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis, is an interesting read for philosophically inclined readers or people who think about what separates humans from animals. But it’s a terrible book. I do not recommend it.
Even so, it’s worth a blog post. It is a story of, you guessed it, fifteen dogs. These dogs are given “human consciousness,” as part of a bet between Hermes and Apollo. Well, they’re given human consciousness if by that you mean human language. I view consciousness differently from the author. I also believe that dogs have many of the elements of consciousness already, with no need for intervention by mythical gods.
The dogs are boarders at a kennel when they are given these abilities; they form a pack and escape.
One troubling aspect of the book is how rapidly most of the 15 dogs are dispatched to pretty unpleasant deaths. Several are killed by their packmates, which raises another philosophical question: Why is it that at the center of the human-like dogs’ behavior is cruelty, cliquishness, and a propensity to murder their friends? The situations and means of the dogs’ deaths at their colleagues’ paws are easily imaginable among humans, but are very undoglike behavior.
The other aspect of “human consciousness” that the author obsesses over is language. All of the dogs develop an uncanny (!) ability to understand some phrases and words in English after repeated exposure, much like, oh, every other dog in the world. They also develop their own language, with elements of English and elements of Dog. One becomes a poet (in the new language), which really annoys several of the others. A couple learn to speak weirdly accented English that some humans can understand.
The focus on language reinforces a conceit that is common among people who study animals with the goal of proving how and why humans are superior. Many argue that only humans have language. Only humans have human language, but many species use language: A communication system with rules (“grammar” or rules of syntax) that is widely understood by members of the speakers’ culture. Some nonhuman species go one better: Their language is understood by all members of the species, regardless of culture or geography. Humans aren’t there yet.
The crux of the bet is that if even one of these human-like dogs dies happy, Hermes wins the bet; if they are as miserable as humans, Apollo wins. Since most of the dogs die in terrible ways, Apollo takes an early lead. But even that is absurd: Anyone can live a mostly happy life but at the moment of her death be scared or sad or surprised or in terrible pain — and not necessarily happy. Does that cancel out her entire life?
I’m not sure that the ability to speak English would make most dogs happier. Or more miserable. And I am not sure that dog happiness is much like human happiness. But above all, I really don’t think dogs need divine intervention to either understand humans or be happy. Cali has done both quite well since the day we met.