If you have ever looked at a dog waiting to go for a walk and thought there was something age-old and almost human about his sad expression, you’re not alone; Charles Darwin did exactly the same.
But Darwin didn’t just stop at feeling that there was some connection between humans and dogs. English gentleman naturalist, great pioneer of the theory of evolution and incurable dog-lover, Darwin used his much-loved dogs as evidence in his continuing argument that all animals including human beings, descended from one common ancestor.
From his fondly written letters home enquiring after the health of family pets to his profound scientific consideration of the ancestry of the domesticated dog, Emma Townshend looks at Darwin’s life and work from a uniquely canine perspective.
Chapter 1: Beginnings
‘You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.’
This chapter would give a short history of Darwin’s childhood, his upbringing and education, and his early influences. It would show how he grew up surrounded by dogs and dog breeders. The chapter would look at how ideas about pedigree breeding may have influenced his early thoughts. (The chapter would also look at the Voyage of the Beagle.)
Chapter 2: Mechanisms
‘One out of every hundred litters is born with long legs, and in the Malthusian rush for life, only two of them live to breed. If prey are swift the long-legged one shall rather oftener survive … in ten thousand years the long-legged race will get the upper hand.’
Darwin began to formulate his theory on his return from the Beagle voyage, and he drew particularly on Malthus and Lyell who were two of his most important intellectual influences. From these two thinkers he developed his sense of the length of time over which evolution took place, and the huge fecundity of nature compared to the small numbers of surviving organisms. This chapter would look in particular at his early researches, corresponding with dog, pigeon and vegetable breeders, trying to find real-life examples which would prove his controversial theory.
Chapter 3: Problems
‘Did you ever see black Grey-hound (of any sub-breed) with tan feet, & a tan-coloured spot over inner corner of each eye; I want such case, & such must exist because theory tells me it ought!’
Darwin knew there were many problems with his theory: not just religious objections, but also scientific ones. This chapter will show how he attempted to face such possible objections head on, immersing himself in detailed cataloguing of how varieties might evolve into species, spending twenty years overall refining his early theory.
Chapter 4: Origins
‘With respect to the colouring of domestic dogs, I at one time hoped might have thrown some light on their origin.’
In 1858 Darwin received the alarming news that Alfred Russel Wallace had developed a parallel theory of evolution. He was galvanised into action and the Origin of Species appeared in 1859, its first chapter devoted to domesticated animals and plants, its entire text full of canine examples. This chapter would look at the Origin in detail, examining both what it did, and did not say (crucially, and despite all myths to the contrary, it did not touch on the issue of human origins).
Chapter 5: Similarities
‘A dog frames a general concept of cats or sheep, and knows the corresponding words as well as a philosopher.’
It was only ten years after the publication of the Origin in 1859 that Darwin dared to publish on the controversial subject of human evolution. In ‘The Descent of Man’, dogs featured more centrally than ever before. Dogs and apes are used repeatedly to prove how very few of human beings’ ‘unique’ characteristics are actually unique. His wonderful writing on the subject of dogs will be much-quoted in this chapter, showing how he believed them to be one of the most advanced creatures alive bar human beings.
Chapter 6: Predictions
‘I can believe almost anything about them.’
Darwin’s entire career is interwoven with his relationship with dogs. In this chapter we’d look at the predictions Darwin made, and examine how they have been proven to be correct using the latest genetic techniques as well as animal behaviour experiments.
Have you ever looked at a dog waiting to go for a walk and thought there was something age-old and almost human about his sad expression? If you have, you’re not alone. Charles Darwin did exactly the same. But Darwin had a highly enquiring mind, and didn’t just stop at feeling that there was some mysterious connection between humans and dogs. English gentleman naturalist, great pioneer of the theory of evolution and incurable dog-lover, Darwin used his much-loved dogs Shelah, Spark, Snow, Czar and Pincher as evidence in his continuing argument with those who doubted his notion that all animals (including, most controversially of all, human beings) were descended from one common ancestor, long in the past.
Shelah, Spark, Snow, Czar and Pincher: Darwin had always possessed an eye for a good dog. Sometimes, too keen an eye. In 1829 when Darwin was still vacillating over a career choice between medicine and the ministry, his exasperated father wrote to him, despairingly: ‘You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family’.
Luckily fortune came to the rescue in the shape of a posting on the HMS
Beagle to survey the coasts of South America, where Darwin spent the next
five years having all his preconceptions about the natural world exploded.
He returned to London in 1839 with hundreds of boxes of specimens and time to study, and almost immediately found himself thinking the unthinkable.
Was it the case, as his collections suggested, that species did not stay just as created by God, but had evolved from other species – perhaps not requiring divine intervention at all?
It seems a revolutionary moment, and yet Charles Darwin was not even the first person in his own family to think such heretical thoughts. His grandfather Erasmus had theorised that one species might evolve into another, much against the tenets of his friend Carl Linnaeus. Elsewhere in revolutionary France Lamarck argued that a giraffe stretching energetically up to eat leaves could eventually pass permanently onto his children the fruits of his tireless labours, changing with each generation.
But until Darwin began pondering the subject, no one had come up with a really convincing explanation of the mechanism by which evolution might take place. For Darwin, the place to start thinking about how evolution worked was not the moral savannah of Africa nor the wastes of Sweden, it was amongst the dog breeders of England. Open a copy of the Origin of Species, published in 1859, and Chapter One begins with domesticated English plants and animals familiar from every country farmyard: wheat, rabbits, cats, and even ferrets.
The question for Darwin was this: how might new species come into being?
In order to consider the mechanism, he chose to make a seminal analogy. In Darwin’s conception of things, nature is like a dog breeder, picking characteris-tics out that she wants to emphasise, and suppressing those that she rejects.
Darwin used dogs as an example of how much variation there was in one interbreedable group of animals. Though interbred mongrels quickly come to look roughly the same, a skilful breeder can pick out traits in a matter of generations that will create breeds as different as greyhound, bloodhound, terrier, spaniel, and bull-dog.
Though the interbred mongrels look roughly the same, some will have longer necks, some shorter, with each characteristic varying in the same fashion. That individual with the most advantageous characters is “best adapted” to its environment; and most importantly, can pass those characters onto its offspring. In Darwin’s theory, unlike Lamarck’s, the giraffe does not need to try to stretch to the sky. It is simply the giraffe who happens by luck to be born with the longest neck who will be able to eat the leaves other giraffes cannot reach. And that giraffe’s lucky offspring who may inherit this fabulous trait.
It wasn’t just dogs that Darwin studied; he became a pigeon fancier, expert in the many unusual breeds such as Short Faced Tumblers and Fantails. And it was the idea of the slow progress of breeders towards the traits that they wanted which struck Darwin most strongly. ‘We cannot suppose,’ he wrote in the Origin, ‘that all the breeds were suddenly produced as perfect and useful as we now see them; indeed, in several cases, we know that this has not been their history. The key is man’s power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him.’
Nature, said Darwin, uses the pool of potential variation in the same way as a breeder, and ‘selects’ the individual best suited to the present environment in which it is trying to survive. Nature is blind, and completely without intention, but the best-adapted creatures will survive more easily than any other, passing on their adaptations to their offspring. Finally, there was a mechanism for evolution to take place which made good English country farmyard sense.