It’s said that a cat is “like a dog” if it’s acting social: begging for food, alighting upon laps, asking to be pet. Ailurophobes — cat haters — will contend that felines are inferior companions because to act “like a cat” is to be aloof, self-possessed, uneager. A cool cat, if you will.
To gain a perspective on why, it’s useful to look at history, as in evolutionary history, and the ways that humanity has co-evolved with its companion species. In a column for The New Statesman, philosopher John Gray waxes philosophical on Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in the Living Room and several other books about cats. As Gray tells it, cats were always “hyper-carnivores,” eating lots of meat, lounging in trees, and enjoying being strewn about the globe.
As human beings and their agriculture encroached upon cats’ territory, habitats were destroyed, and cat-human conflict drove down the populations of larger species. But the Felis silvestris, “a small and sturdy tabby,” pressed on, feeding on the animals drawn to human settlements and finding themselves useful to people, thus tracking across the world as mousers and companions. “Cats initiated this process of domestication themselves, and on their own terms,” Gray observes.
Their trademark independence within domesticity is a legacy of their wild forebears. Gray continues:
The independence of cats is one of the features most admired by those of us who love them. Given their evolutionary history as solitary hunters, it is easily explained. Seeking their prey alone, cats – with the exception of lions and sometimes cheetahs – have not developed patterns of collective action and hierarchy of the kind found in dogs and other pack animals. ‘Herding cats’ is a metaphor based on fact: cats don’t live in herds.
Think on that the next time a cat saunters away from you when you ask for its attention. It’s not you, it’s the long train of feline evolutionary history. While it may look like a tabby, its disposition is still, at least in part, tiger.