The limbic part of the brain fits over the top of the reptilian brain. This structure evolved over the top of the reptilian brain in all mammals because mammals give birth to babies, not eggs. It developed in some birds as well (because there are some steps involved in caring for hatchlings), but where reptile parents (and a lot of bird parents) are completely disinterested in their young, mammalian parents have a much more hard-wired "caring" orientation since they have to protect their young for long periods of time. Mammalian parents must nurse, rear and defend helpless babies, while reptile parents simply lay eggs and slither away. Because of this intense, nurturing aspect of rearing young, all mammals form some sort of close-knit social group, be it with their herd, tribe at-large, or just within their immediate family. This social grouping is what led to the evolution of the limbic region in mammalian brains. The limbic region developed because a mammal parent needs to know if its baby is sad, happy or in pain. Mammal parents also need to communicate things to their babies (and within their social group) about approaching danger or to call for help. Take a kitten or puppy away from its mother and what follows is the "separation cry", which is the basic mammalian baby’s emotional response. A separated puppy calls to its mother with desperate cries because its mother is the safest, most protective thing in the world. Baby mammals call loudly despite the fact that such cries could also signal their vulnerability and location to nearby predators. But a baby mammal cannot survive without its mother either way, so death by starvation or death by predator only differs in length of time. But non-limbic, self-sufficient baby reptiles make no separation cries when taken away from their mother. After the "feeding" period is over for baby birds and they leave the nest their crying ceases as well. Signaling vulnerability and weakness (in the case of an infant snake) not only signals to predators that it’s currently vulnerable, but also signals to its own kind that it’s vulnerable… a dangerous proposition since, without an emotional, limbic connection, hungry reptiles often see their young as nothing more than a free meal. Therefore a baby lizard’s silence can be as lifesaving as the loud, lifesaving separation cries are for a kitten or puppy. This is another illustrative point about the emotional connections between mammals that are lacking in reptiles. Very often, if hungry enough and with a scarce enough food supply, a mother reptile mother will eat her young. Her hunger overpowers her protective drive and she begins to see her babies as purely nutritive in value. But the protection urge is so strong in mammal mothers that not even starvation will make a mammal mother turn on her young. She’s so protective and emotionally connected that she’ll starve before even scavenging the carcass of her deceased baby. These emotional, limbic connections are obviously as strong in humans as they are in every other mammal. The limbic brain has been a part of mammalian life (and human life) for millions of years and it’s a very powerful, often dominating part of the human brain. It is so dominating that it can even overrule the densest, most complex and third part of our Triune Brain: the neo-cortex. The Third Part: The Neo-Cortex The neo-cortex developed over the top of the limbic region and it’s where human beings completely distance themselves from all other animals and all other mammals. Our neo-cortex is so large and so powerful that we’re able to comprehend abstract ideas like time and math. It’s where all of our intellectual power lies and it’s basically, in a nutshell, the very thing that makes us human. But our complex neo-cortex was the last part of the triune brain to develop, and although it’s much larger than the other two regions, it often struggles to control and communicate with the limbic brain. When a person feels they are perhaps too emotional or depressed or they cannot properly control their anger or fear, these are the times the limbic region is overpowering the neo-cortex. This friction between the two and the neo-cortex’s inability to rationalize what the limbic brain is doing, has given birth to every field of psychology known to man. No matter how powerful your neo-cortex is and now matter how dizzying your intellect, you simply cannot will yourself to be happy after a tragedy. You cannot make yourself love the right person (or stop loving the wrong person) and although you may know you’re depressed, your neo-cortex cannot overpower the limbic brain to help you "rationalize" your way out of it. In short, you cannot, through any force of intellectual will, completely overcome your limbic brain. Why is this important to understand? Because it illustrates that no matter how intelligent a human is, no matter how strong their neo-cortex, they are still often ruled by the inner workings of the limbic brain. And that basic part of the brain has a lot of power. Without our neo-cortical consent, the limbic brain forces emotions upon us. Despite our intelligence and contrary desires, our limbic brain can forge subconscious connections with other humans and other mammals against our will. If you think your emotions aren’t this basic, and not ruled by your higher brain functions, just look at other mammals; even with relatively tiny neo-cortical brainpower other mammals experience every emotion we do. And their emotional experiences are exactly what forges a subconscious emotional connection with us. Turn on a nature show and watch any mammal mother protect her baby and you’ll identify with her actions and instincts immediately. Watch Animal Planet for just a few minutes and you’ll see other mammal species experiencing the exact same range of emotions you and I feel – sadness, anger, depression, jealousy, nervousness, shame, greed, longing, happiness and love. There is no emotion you can feel that other mammals can’t. So you might watch your fellow mammals on Animal Planet and think of their emotions as “humanizing” when, in fact, they’re really just mammalian. Reptiles and birds though, are limbically stunted. Without a limbic relationship it’s much more difficult for humans to identify and connect with reptiles and birds – though many a bird or reptile owner (and PETA) may argue differently. When a snake is being eaten by another snake, the eaten one retains its unblinking eye and its expression doesn’t change as it's being swallowed. Its face and eyes are as blank as when it procreates or hunts prey of its own; it doesn’t scream out for help or communicate pain or fear in any manner. It just robotically attempts to get away – to survive – and that’s it. And while some birds have evolved and developed limited limbic brains and some emotions over time, their emotional signals aren’t manifested in their faces so their beaks and eyes remain blank facial expressions as well. Birds also (despite any limbic capacity they may have developed), usually only operate on a one-way emotional street, whereas emotional recognition is often a two-way street for mammals -- meaning that cats, horses, dogs, pigs etc., are capable of not only experiencing all the emotions we experience, but also recognizing and identifying them across species. This cross-species, emotional recognition is why we care a lot more about someone who kills a dog rather than someone who kills a bird. We don’t just identify and recognize emotions in other mammals but we also experience an intense bond when those other mammals identify and recognize whatever emotions are going through us. Ask a horse or cat owner if Seabiscuit or Muffin has ever sympathized with their depression or recognized happiness in their owner, and you’ll probably hear a resounding, yes. This is not unique. It’s just mammalian. But the underlying bond created when that mammal sympathizes with you is incredibly powerful. When a dog tries to cheer up a depressed owner there’s almost nothing that will ever break that bond and soon the owner starts to view all dogs as nearly human. So this explains why we don’t care about Pedro cockfighting and why we hated Vick so much. Pedro killed birds and Vick killed mammals and we bond with mammals more than birds. But if we accept that we’re more emotionally tied to mammals over reptiles and birds, then why do we allow people to hunt and kill so many mammals? Why have we put Vick in jail for 24 months but we don’t persecute hunters that shoot and kill thousands of deer every year? Deer are mammals just like dogs. Well, to be quite blunt, dogs are different. They’re completely different in their relationship to us, even amongst all other mammals. Through centuries upon centuries of breeding and living with humans, dogs have become reliant upon us. Dogs cast their evolutionary lot with man instead of with natural selection in the wilderness, and because of that, humans are what keep dogs, as an entire species, alive and flourishing. This is the primary reason why no other animal on the planet cares as much about us as dogs do. Our closest primate relatives, like Chimpanzees and Gorillas, have an advanced neo-cortex that allows them to recognize minute facial expressions in humans. But dogs, with a much smaller neo-cortex, have also developed a similar ability. A frown or a smile on your face can illicit a similar emotional response in a dog. Try smiling at a horse and see what happens. Try frowning at your cat and see if he cares at all. This is not to say that horses and cats and many other mammal species can’t be trained to recognize facial expressions, but dogs do it almost from the age they’re born. Brian Hare, a Harvard Anthropologist, has conducted many experiments proving this… and here’s a brief excerpt from a Malcolm Gladwell Article that gives a nice summary of his results:
...Hare has done experiments with dogs where he puts a piece of food under one of two cups, placed several feet apart. The dog knows that there is food to be had, but has no idea which of the cups holds the prize. Then Hare points at the right cup, taps on it, looks directly at it. What happens? The dog goes to the right cup virtually every time. Yet when Hare did the same experiment with chimpanzees—an animal that shares 98.6 per cent of our genes—the chimps couldn't get it right. A dog will look at you for help, and a chimp won't."Primates are very good at using the cues of the same species," Hare explained. "So if we were able to do a similar game, and it was a chimp or another primate giving a social cue, they might do better. But they are not good at using human cues when you are trying to cooperate with them. They don't get it: “Why would you ever tell me where the food is?”Dogs pay attention to humans even when humans are doing human things. “Dogs are really interested in us," Hare has said. "Interested to the point of obsession. To a dog, you are a giant walking tennis ball."
The neo-cortical development and intelligence of our primate cousins far outstrips the same cranial development in dogs, but dogs have a unique attitude about humans. If you ever feel like putting yourself through a painful emotional evening, watch an episode of Animal Precinct on Animal Planet. You’ll see dogs that have been cruelly abused, neglected and mistreated for long periods of time and yet those mistreated wretches are so genetically tied to humans that they’ll still look to us for help, comfort, love and salvation despite having been abused by other people for most of their life. It is this childlike state, this utter dependence on humans that earned Michael Vick his two-year sentence in Leavenworth. To most of us, what Vick did is unforgivable… it almost suggests a cruelty and malice as bad as beating a child.
But as I mentioned before, dogs never evolved alongside the African people like they did with the Europeans and Asians. Because of this, Africans and African-Americans might still view dogs (on average) differently than whites do (Jamie Foxx’s defense is obvious evidence of this). However, that’s still no excuse for what Vick did.
A violent Polynesian warrior visiting New York would not be forgiven for murdering a man who looked salaciously at his wife, even if that custom has been a part of his culture for millennia. And just as the Polynesian warrior’s past culture would not earn him any leniency, neither can Vick earn leniency for his crime.
But nevertheless, perhaps we can better understand his actions. Perhaps we can feel a little less hypocritical when someone asks us why there was a mass witch-hunt (complete with torches and pitchforks) for Vick, but not even a whimper of protest was made about Pedro. Perhaps we can understand why the NAACP and Jamie Foxx probably still don’t understand why we’re so upset and we can start to understand why they're not upset.