To Build a Fire

The Man and Dog

How are the man and the dog similar? How are they different?

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The man and the dog both seek companionship, feel the cold, and are in need of warmth and food.The man is clearly not an experienced Yukon adventurer. He ignores all the facts that indicate danger--he underestimates the cold, he ignores the absence of travelers in the last month, he de-emphasizes his soon-to-be-frostbitten cheekbones. Again, processes are important: he does not make any mental processes, taking facts and assigning them increasing significance. While this may seem at first like an intellectual deficit, what the man truly lacks is instinct--the unconscious understanding of what the various facts mean.

The dog, on the other hand, is pure instinct. While it cannot intellectualize the cold as the man can, assigning numerical values to the temperature, it has "inheritedŠknowledge" about the cold. Without thinking, the dog knows the cold is dangerous, knows the spring is risky, knows to bite at the ice that forms between its toes, and even knows not to get too close to the fire for fear of singeing itself.