Reasons to Believe

Do Animals Experience Sin and Guilt?

Some people believe that humans are simply highly evolved animals and, thus, possess no features that are not manifested–at least to a small degree–in other animals. Consequently, some scientists and many in the general public conclude that sin and evil are not unique to humans. The most cited pieces of evidence in favor of this conclusion are the vicious dog syndrome and "guilty look" dog behavior.

                                                    [Image courtesy of: C Tidefan]

We've all encountered mean or vicious dogs. In most cases, however, the dog's behavior can be linked to its desire to serve and please its owner. Often the dog is simply trying to protect its owner's turf. Once such a dog understands that the visitor is not a threat to its owner, its behavior turns from aggressive to affectionate and playful.

There are dogs, however, that are always in attack mode. Such dogs are owned by people who are always in attack mode. It is not that these dogs are evil or sinful. Rather, they want to please their malicious owners. What pleases their owners is violent behavior. In this context the old proverb is true, "You can learn a lot about a man by observing the behavior of his dog."

A common assumption about to dogs is that the "guilty look" proves that these mammals experience guilt in doing a forbidden action. Recent research done by Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College in New York put this "guilty dog" look hypothesis to a decisive test.1 In her experiment she put fourteen different breeds of domestic dogs through trials that varied the opportunity for the dogs to disobey their owners' command to resist eating a desirable treat.

Horowitz found that the "guilty look" had little to do with whether or not the dogs had eaten the forbidden treat. Her experiments showed that admonishments by the dogs' owners were the cause. In fact, obedient dogs that had not eaten the prohibited treat, but nonetheless were scolded by their misinformed owners, exhibited a "guiltier look" than the dogs that had eaten the treat. Therefore, Horowitz concluded that the "guilty look" is a response to the owner's behavior and not to any appreciation of a misdeed.

In other words, the dogs were not aware of any kind of sin or wrongdoing in their actions. They were simply trying to please their owners. The reason why the "guilty look" is manifested in domestic dogs and not in other species of birds and mammals (what the Old Testament terms soulish life) is that domestic dogs probably rank at the top of the list in their desire to please humans and in their capacity for exhibiting a wide range of facial expressions.

What the Bible declares about the unique characteristics of the human species remains uncontradicted by scientific record. Among all life on Earth, only humans are spiritual and, thus, only humans are capable of expressing sin and evil.

1. Alexandra Horowitz, "Disambiguating the 'Guilty Look': Salient Prompts to a Familiar Dog Behaviour," Behavioural Processes 81 (July 2009): 447-52.

Subjects: Life Design

Dr. Hugh Ross

Reasons to Believe emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ. Read more about Dr. Hugh Ross.