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Socializing Humans

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

     ... author/anthropologist/animal-lover. A classically trained anthropologist, Ms. Thomas is widely known for her books, The Hidden Life of Dogs, its sequel The Social Life of Dogs, and Tribe of Tiger. She is also a novelist, combining lyrical story-telling and keen observations of science in Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife.  Ms. Thomas, her parents and brother were the first white people to live among the Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert, recalled in The Harmless People and Warrior Herdsmen. Her multi-species family lives in New Hampshire.


Wolves domesticated people (not the other way around,) and dogs are the result. They are our slaves and we are often extraordinarily harsh masters. America is full of “"dog fascists,"” people who have an overwhelming and inappropriate need to control dogs. This is the truth, according to Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.

Ms. Thomas is awake to dogs in particular and creatures in general. She's been especially attentive to the multitude of individuals with whom she has shared her household: dogs, cats, parrots and humans. And having paid attention, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has a unique ability to pass what she has learned along to the rest of us.

In addition to sharing her observations with millions in The Hidden Life of Dogs and now The Social Life of Dogs, Ms. Thomas is a classically trained anthropologist. She, her parents and brother were the first white people to live among the Bushmen of the Kalahari in the 1950s. She has experienced and told us about The Old Way, before we distanced ourselves from the other animals. In addition, her novels are magic carpets into what she believes resembles the lives our Paleolithic ancestors lived. It's as if she gives us back our sixth sense, not unlike our own newly appreciated vomeronasal organ.

Much of what Ms. Thomas describes about us and other animals is rooted in biology, based on her observation of what scientists are learning. Empathy is central. Mammals and birds have empathy aplenty, Ms. Thomas is confident -- sadness, happiness, fear -- and they use to great effect in dealing with other creatures.   Her description of the everyday lives of other creatures sounds like a Zen Master's.

While w're not nearly as good observers as other animals, Ms. Thomas suggests that we humans could learn from our brethren, particularly those who live among us -- our pets. No sentimentalist, she. There are no dogs who are not slaves, she reminds us. We own dogs. We can kill them if we want to, without consequence to ourselves. We take their children. We sell and buy them. It's considered desirable to make a dog do whatever we want. What few laws there are to protect any animal are only protection from extreme brutality, rarely enforced, with inconsequential penalties. And they have no hope of freedom.

With that kind of absolute power comes an obligation to be the best owners possible. How? Acknowledge the commitment we make when we take a dog. It's for life. Forever. Then, get to know your dog (or any other pet.) Think of him or her as a sentient being, as an individual -- different from a person, but like a person. She or he thinks, feels, has its own family, a future and a past. That past is what formed the dog, not its breed. Consider what has happened to your dog and respect its experience, even if circumstances keep you from knowing the details. With observation, the dog may reveal it in part.

Ms. Thomas is certain that however much we have altered their appearance, dogs have never lost their wolfish souls. From the time they domesticated us at our Paleolithic campsites, we've shared the life of social creatures. They deserve our respect. In return, whether or not we are deserving, they love us. Worthy teachers, indeed.


[This Program was recorded June 6, 2000, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas describes entering the world of dogs and of Paleolithic people to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Ms. Thomas describes how she thinks non-human animals live lives in which everything is important. She describes how very individual dogs are and suggests why.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:38

Conversation 2


Elizabeth Marshall Thomas explains the workings of the vomeronasal organ, a sense organ which most mammals have, including humans (in whom it was long thought to be vestigial, though no longer.) She gives examples from a variety of species. She gives instructions for finding one's own vomeronasal (also know as Jacobson's) organ. The interaction of conscious and unconscious communications is considered. Ms. Thomas tells a dog story from her household to illustrate the kinds of emotional mysteries scientists have been unable to approach or measure.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:35

Conversation 3

Affirming that social scientists sometimes suffer from physics-envy, Ms. Thomas wonders about what science ultimately can know. She describes what she has learned about the power of group membership among the animals with whom she is familiar. She explains how the dogs in her household divided up the people, relating this experience to how wolves initiated the idea of domestic animals among early humans. She explains the process by which she believes this came to pass in Paleolithic camps. She describes a dog's ideal group, with variations, and how the dogs in her household accomplished their ideals, contrary to her expectations. We've changed dogs' appearances, she assures us, but not their souls. She gives examples.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:19

Conversation 4

Ms. Thomas' explains how her own life experiences with hunter-gatherers and in glacial environments have complimented the scholarship she brings to her books. She recalls with relish her years with the Bushmen, noting how today's lack of resources will forever keep the Bushmen from returning to the Old Ways. Noting that under the surface, Bushmen are exactly like us, she describes her powerful feelings of affinity with them.  She considers the power of empathy, explaining why recognizing qualities we have in common with other creatures is not anthropomorphizing. She remembers with dismay the disdain the Bushmen suffered simply because they lived as hunter-gatherers

Conversation 1 RealAudio13:50

 Conversation 5

Hoping that one day species-ism will be as unacceptable as racism is today, Ms. Thomas speaks to the Old Way by which the Bushmen lived. Expanding on her concept of “"dog fascist," Ms. Thomas suggests that people often make very little effort to understand the creatures with whom we live. She notes the consequences of people treating dogs either as babies or as intrinsically bad, with examples.  She decries the unnecessary castration of male dogs, arguing for vasectomies. Since dogs are in effect our slaves, she suggests ways to make that condition less onerous for them. She shares her distaste for the consequences of breeding. She offers advise for how to treat a dog appropriately and well, and gives specifics for how all of us can be better pet owners.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:11

Conversation 6

Treat any pet, whatever the species, with respect, Ms. Thomas urges. She describes the empathy creatures employ in order to live peacefully together.  She offers examples from a variety of species, including humans.  She tells a story from her household of how the dogs -- guided by empathy -- solved a fundamental problem with no human intervention.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:36


We recorded our first program with Liz Thomas in 1997, when she welcomed us to her home in New Hampshire.  There we had the privilege of meeting the stars of The Social Life of Dogs: all of the dogs except the late lamented Sheila, the cats and, from a distance, the parrots. While we missed meeting Mr. Thomas, we did had the honor of meeting Ms. Thomas' mother, the famed anthropologist, Lorna Marshall. With this second program, we now savour the joy of having had Liz in our home. She will always have a place in our hearts.

Related Links:

The Social Life of Dogs: The Grace of Canine Company, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, is published by Simon & Schuster.

Our first program with Ms. Thomas is here.  In 2007 she published The Old Way, a remarkable account of humans fully integrated into their environment. The first of a series of programs exploring that book we titled Who Are We?

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