Socrates stated that the unexamined life was not worth living when on trial for his life. Of course, he lost both. Let’s put the old Greek on hold for a while and consider the dog.
Canis familiaris indisputably lives up to his reputation as man’s best friend. He seems effortlessly to possess all the qualities that humans admire, but which they find difficult to attain or retain. The dog is descended from an extinct wolf species. They were domesticated between 15 to 30 thousand years ago. Thus, humans were still hunter gatherers when dogs became part of their lives.
It is likely that human civilization could not have emerged if dogs had not first been integrated into human activity. Their ability to alert humans of the approach of other humans with hostile intentions was likely their initial job. Once humans stopped wandering and began to live in larger numbers, adopted agriculture, and domesticated other animals – mostly as a food source – the propensity of their dogs to warn was augmented by their ability to protect and then by countless other tasks. Dogs are able to learn almost anything that is physically and mentally possible. And it seems, a lot that first appears beyond their capacities. The argument can be made, and I will make it, that dogs were domesticated before humans were. Humans likely are still not fully domesticated.
How the first dog came in from the cold remains conjectural. The experiments of Dmitry Belyayev in the previous century and his successors to this date give much information on how a wolf became a dog. Belyayev and coworkers started with silver foxes (Vulpes vulpes). These animals are aggressive towards humans and are difficult to handle. Belyayev was exiled to Siberia because he did not conform to the nonsensical scientific dogma of Trofim Lysenko who rejected Mendelian genetics and thereby gained the support of Stalin. After the death of the dictator Belyayev was rehabilitated and made a hero.
Belyayev selectively bred his foxes according to how tame they were – ie, how close could a gloved hand get to the animal before it responded with aggression. The brief video below summarizes what he did and what his successors are still doing. By breeding for tameness they were selecting animals with genes that not only influenced behavior, but which also affected morphology. They were accelerating evolution by a variant of natural selection which likely explains the fairly rapid conversion of a wolf into a dog.
The genetics of the evolution of a wild fox to a domesticated one are now under serious scrutiny. The foxes allow investigators to focus exclusively on the genes that govern canid behavior and their connected effects on morphology without regard to all the other genetic alterations that accompanied the conversion of a wolf to a dog. For example, selection favored those early dogs which could adapt to human food. Thus, the genetic changes governing wolf to dog are much more complex than those in the foxes. Furthermore the foxes have not been subjected to socialization with humans which would also favor the selection of additional genes thus making the dog genome more complex and difficult to identify the genes responsible for behavior.
Extrapolating to the dog-human scenario, it seems likely that wolves genetically predisposed to interact with humans did so with increasing frequency and with deeper interplay over a relatively short time. Thus, the conversion from wolf to dog didn’t take very long. We conclude that man domesticated the dog.
It might be more accurate to reason that the dog domesticated man and that this process is still incomplete and ongoing. Man was not civilized when the dog first joined us. The Flemish author Maurice Maeterlinck, perhaps best known for Pelléas et Mélisande which was the basis for Debussy’s opera of the same name, said the dog alone among the animal kingdom had made alliance with man. Without this pact we might still be wandering amid the steppes and jungles. Communal living, large scale agriculture, and cities (with the unwanted side effect of infectious diseases and epidemics) could not have emerged without canine assistance.
In order to aid his human companions the dog has morphed into a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. As mentioned above, he has shown incredible skill in performing any task within his physical and mental skill set as well as others that would have been deemed impossible if the dog had not mastered them. The inescapable conclusion is that from the human perspective, the dog is nature’s perfect product.
The dog has achieved a level of excellence that no human can claim. He finds the unexamined life well worth living. So, back to Socrates.
He didn’t write anything, thus all we know about him comes from the record of ancient authors – most important of these are Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon. Aristophanes satirized him as a clown given to sophistry. Plato has Socrates as the protagonist of his dialogues making it difficult for the reader to distinguish Socrates from the author. Xenophon’s account is likely the most accurate.
In the Apology Plato describes the Delphic Oracle as proclaiming Socrates the wisest of men. Socrates was not convinced of the accuracy of this declaration and tested it by conversing with the Athenians considered the wisest men in the city. These conversations convinced Socrates that though these men were thought wise, they really knew very little. Hence if he were wise, it was only because he realized that he knew virtually nothing while all the rest of the supposed wise men were unaware of their ignorance.
Here’s the problem. If the unexamined life is not worth living. Is the examined life worth more as it only reveals how ignorant the examiner is? One can just as easily surrender to ignorance without a fight as after a struggle. Today there is so much more to be ignorant of.
Socrates’ position as the the wisest man around along with his endless questioning of conventional thinking made him the first victim of cancel culture. Condemned by a jury of his peers to death by a draught of hemlock he proved that the examined life far from not being worth living might prove fatal.
As far as I know, Socrates did not have a dog. He did have a wife notorious for her shrewishness. According to legend, she once dumped a loaded chamber pot over his head proving, that at least as for domestic arrangements, Socrates really was as ignorant as he claimed.
Humans seem to have mastered only folly, mismanagement, and conflict. Socrates got canceled at about age 71. Today he wouldn’t make it to 40. So what to make of the above meanderings in a world where Jerry and Jenny have flooded the planet with silly money and where the US Secretary of State gets lectured on the sorry state of American cancel culture and deficient human rights by the Chinese Foreign Minister – the Chinese Foreign Minister! And worse has no coherent response.
I can think of two pieces of advice. Go west young man, far west. The other is speak softly and carry a long leash with a dog on the other end. Finally, why can’t a man be more like a dog?