The Other I

January 9, 2009

Suli, the spider, and the mouse

One would be forgiven if, on meeting our guard dog, Suli, one concluded that she would be perfectly happy to annihilate everyone and everything that strayed into her orbit save for a very small number of people for whom she would lay down her life.

Her absolute, total, and unquestioning loyalty to us was humbling.  But there was another side to this independent dog.  One day Peter and I noticed her staring with fascination at the floor where she was lying in an upright position.  She was watching a spider crawl toward her and onto her paw.  She did not stir.  Then very carefully she lifted her other paw to pet it.

Unfortunately, although the spider was fairly large by spider standards, it was quite small compared to a Kuvasz paw.  Upon receiving Suli’s friendly overture, it curled up into a ball and remained frozen.  To reassure it, Suli very carefully pet it again.  I’m sorry to say it seemed to have killed it.  Whether the spider died of fright or of the dead weight of Suli’s embrace, I do not know.  Suli was crushed, and tried to lick it back to life.  But the attempt at resuscitation failed.

Some weeks later we were walking in deep winter snow, when Suli stopped, as was her wont,  began to dig, and uncovered a field mouse.  When she saw it, instead of attacking the mouse which seemed to be trying to back into the snow and disappear, Suli paused and then very carefully brushed the snow she’d displaced to re-cover the cowering mouse.  How the mouse felt is unrecorded, but Peter and I were quite astonished.

There is a theory called socio-biology that tries to explain apparently altruistic behavior as an expanded manifestation of survival of the fittest.  The theory is that the more genes two animals share, the more they will do to ensure the survival of the other, even if it means laying down their own lives in the process.  Which, the theory goes, is why a mother will so often be willing to lay down her life for her child.

Altruistic behavior shown by one species to another species, however, is not easy for socio-biologists to explain, since the genes held in common are very few.  Pure selfishness does not seem to operate here.  On the contrary, kindness seems to be its own reward.

It’s not all that easy for those who believe in original sin to explain either.  Man, born in sin, should not be prone to this kind of behavior, except among those who have been redeemed of their sins.

And yet it shows up among primitives and barbarians and all sort of people who, by one standard or another, have not been saved.

Personally, my hunch is that the theories are wrong, and that there is a deeper impulse to goodness and kindness and caring than they would have us believe.

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