Darwin’s Dogs

Celebrating the bicentennial of the father of evolution
By Mark Derr, February 2009, Updated February 2015

Early in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Charles Darwin uncorks a passage to illustrate the capacity of dogs to love that is guaranteed to break the heart of all but the most unfeeling cad, and one that should hang over the door of every laboratory engaged in experiments with animals. “In the agony of death a dog has been known to caress his master,” he says, “and everyone has heard of the dog suffering under vivisection who licked the hand of the operator; this man, unless the operation was fully justified by an increase of our knowledge, or unless he had a heart of stone, must have felt remorse to the last hour of his life.”

A number of dedicated readers objected when those words and a slightly different version of this essay ran in the Winter 1999 issue of Bark, saying that the editor and I were forcing them to look at the human capacity for cruelty to dogs and other animals with which they were all too familiar. Darwin’s words remain because they bespeak much about the man whose bicentennial birthday we celebrate this year—his clear eye, his intelligence, his compassion, his deep respect and love for nature and its fruits, and his conviction that we are related fundamentally to all life. Sadly, that Darwin is nearly unknown in an America where a significant number of people believe Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection compares unfavorably with a distortion of religion and science called creationism, or intelligent design.

A casual reader of Darwin’s collected works might assume that the man was obsessed with pigeons, which he avidly bred and studied as models for his theories. But closer examination reveals the full depth of Darwin’s affection for all animals and his special love for dogs, who bound through the pages of his work, illustrating his theories of evolution and domestication as well as animal intelligence and emotion. After disembarking the Beagle in 1832 (although purely coincidental, what better name for a ship on which a naturalist is sniffing out the mysteries of evolution) to explore Patagonia and environs, he made a special trip to investigate the shepherd dogs of South America, described a few years earlier by the great French naturalist Alcide Dessalines d’Orbigny.

I suspect that Darwin, a proper skeptic, wanted to determine for himself the veracity of d’Orbigny’s account of these mongrels: Suckled on ewes’ milk and raised with sheep from infancy, they traveled with their flock, taking it to pasture, bringing it home, protecting it from marauding wildlife and dogs. In their spare time, they hunted partridges and jaguars for their masters, who abused them horribly, even to the point of slashing them with knives.


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In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin doesn’t confirm the hunting and slashing, but he does observe that, after the shepherd dog brings the flock in, he goes to the house for a piece of meat and then skulks away with it “as if ashamed of himself,” pursued by “tyrannical” house dogs. But upon reaching his flock, the dog, who, like all his kind, was castrated at an early age, turns and routs the house dogs with a bark. Darwin saw the whole performance as an example of the dog’s powers of affection and association, what today we call bonding and behavior modification by castration. It is a lesson everyone who considers the big white guarding dogs genetically preprogrammed to protect sheep should consider. (Or they can go look at Navajo sheep dogs, raised in this old Spanish way.)

Unfortunately, Darwin, like those other intellectual giants Marx and Freud, is seldom read but frequently invoked— wrongly—by his proponents and opponents alike. His classic phrase, “natural selection,” means simply, as he explained in The Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication (Vol. I), that those individuals “best fitted for the complex, and in the course of ages changing conditions to which they are exposed, generally survive and procreate their kind.” Those who survive to pass their genes on to the next generation are by definition the fittest. They need not be the biggest, strongest, boldest, brightest, baddest or best at corralling millions in the stock market. Indeed, there are circumstances in which the meek and cautious survive while the marauding bullies perish, victims of their own aggression.

Darwin believed in the power of dogs to help shape human evolution, writing in The Descent of Man: “The strongest and most vigorous men—those who could best defend and hunt for their families, who were provided with the best weapons and possessed the most property, such as a large number of dogs or other animals—would succeed in rearing a greater average number of offspring than the weaker and poorer members of the same tribes. There can, also, be no doubt that such men would generally be able to select the more attractive women.”

Operating slowly over a long time frame, natural selection is more potent than what we humans can accomplish through selective breeding of domestic animals. Breeders can’t create new traits for domesticated species, Darwin said, they can only concentrate or de-emphasize those already present. Through “methodical,” or conscious, selection, a breeder decides what characteristics he wants and then strives to reach them. “Unconscious” selection, on the other hand, involves “the preservation by man of the most valued, and the destruction of the least valued individuals, without any conscious intention on his part of altering the breed.”

Usually the two worked in tandem in subtle ways. By Darwin’s time, several Greyhound breeders had crossed their dogs with Bulldogs to add courage, Pointers were crossed with Foxhounds for speed and agility (to match faster horses), and Bulldogs were downsized after the demise of bull baiting. The breeders doubtless were seeking to match the fastest dogs, for example, but they could hardly foresee what the animal would look like, and it was, Darwin says, different from the old hound.

Absent any knowledge of genetics, Darwin demolishes the practice of inbreeding (called “interbreeding” or “breeding in to in”), saying it arises from a misbegotten belief in “purity of the blood,” and extols the virtue of crossing and hybrids. Inbreeding may appear to work, he says, but in the long run it produces weak, infertile animals, prone to malformation and disease. On the other hand, too much outcrossing leads to reversion to the basic dog. The key to success was to choose the best, the fittest, and proceed. In The Descent of Man, he asserts that “hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed,” meaning those who were unsound mentally or physically. (More than a few modern breeders should take heed.)

Although Darwin frequently used dogs as examples, they presented difficulties not found in pigeons. He recognized that variability was essential to the adaptability of wild species, and that domestication, for reasons we still don’t understand, unloosed the variability inherent in the wild progenitor of an animal. But the astounding variety of dogs, from the noble Greyhound, “the perfect image of grace, symmetry, and vigor,” to mutant Bulldogs, with their exaggerated heads and undershot jaws, and the turnspit dogs, with their dwarfed legs (they were literally used to turn spits), befuddled him. He could only conclude that they must have come from several different wild species, primarily the wolf and jackal, a notion we now know is incorrect.

With varying degrees of success, humans have attempted to reorder the behavior of those wild progenitors. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin observes that pointing, encircling a herd or flock, and retrieving are among the general wolfish hunting and puppy-rearing traits that have been “rigorously” selected for by nature. “Less rigorously,” or less precisely, humans had concentrated one or more of those traits in specialized breeds of dog for herding, pointing and retrieving. Other changes were more profound. He writes in The Descent of Man that dogs “may not have gained in cunning, and may have lost in wariness and suspicion, yet they have progressed in certain moral qualities, such as in affection, trust, worthiness, temper, and probably in general intelligence.” They had also become more biddable, or trainable.

Underlying much of Darwin’s thought was his profound belief, shared with other 18th- and 19th-century naturalists, that animals differed from humans largely in degree, not kind. He argued that as one moved from lower to higher orders of animals, the influence of instinct declined and intelligence increased, and dogs and horses were near the top of that hierarchy. In fact, Darwin believed domestic animals were generally more intelligent than their wild progenitors, a notion that in this century has been reversed—to the detriment of all animals.

In the opening chapters of The Descent of Man, he brilliantly argues, using dogs as prime examples, that animals feel “pleasure and pain, happiness and memory.” They inherit the capacity for terror, suspicion, fear, deceit, timidity, bad and good temperament, rage, and vengefulness. More significant, they possess the powers of reason, imagination, love, jealousy and pride. They believe in the supernatural: “There must be something special, which causes dogs to howl in the night, and especially during moonlight, in that remarkable and melancholy manner called baying.” They are also religious in a way, substituting the master for God. Not possessed of human language and learning, they nonetheless communicate—who among us can’t recognize the meaning of our dog’s barks, chortles, growls, bays, yodels and howls?—and learn in their world. When in response to a whispered, “Where is it?” a dog charges from to tree to tree, she proves that she has a notion that there is something to hunt or fetch; thus, she engages in a form of abstract thought.

Dogs, and other animals, possess a sense of beauty, or aesthetic appreciation, although mostly confined to sexual attraction. Their moral sensibility is manifest in their knowledge of right and wrong and their assistance to their family, pack or herd. But they are also altruistic: “It must be called sympathy that leads a courageous dog to fly at any one who strikes his master, as he certainly will.” In another instance, Darwin tells of a story Audubon related —“that he had reared and tamed a wild turkey who always ran away from any strange creature. This bird ultimately escaped into the woods. Some days later, Audubon saw what he thought was a wild turkey and ordered his dog to give chase. But the bird did not run away, and the dog, when he came up, did not attack the bird, for they mutually recognized each other as old friends.”

Darwin admits that animals may lack self-consciousness, the ability to reflect on the meaning of life and death, their place in the cosmos. “But,” he then slyly asks, “how can we feel sure that an old dog with an excellent memory and some power of imagination, as shown by his dreams, never reflects on his past pleasures or pains in the chase?” How indeed?

Illustrations by Franny Orphée