Dogs resemble pigeons, scavenging on human detritus. Female dogs are like cuckoos, whose offspring profit from dubious paternity. What is a Dog? abounds in intriguing revelations as we share the comic and tragic adventures of Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, world-ranging wastedump-combers and sheepdog-selectors. Most shepherds, we learn, do not know their dogs. Dogs “bind” as well with a milk can as with a human. Dump-dog populations increase at night. Kennel-club values belong in the same historic context as those of eugenicists.
Academic infighting apart, the authors make six major claims:
1 Canis familiaris originated not through human agency – like loganberries or striated tulips – but domesticated itself by associating with humans.
True: the canids we call mere “dogs” descend from ancestors whose random genetic mutations favoured collaboration with humans. In consequence they effectively isolated themselves to breed ever more domesticable pups. Humans did not need to steal wild cubs or build breeding pens.
2 Dogs originated as a “real, naturally evolved, self-selected” adaptation to the food dumps agriculture created.
Probably false: hunting is the most likely context in which human-canine interdependence began. The Coppingers’ objections – that the cost of feeding a hunting or sledding dog is prohibitive, that dogs are too small to be cost-effective and that the only “reason” to deploy a dog “is for sport” – are anachronistic. Where game is abundant, dogs are useful in driving it and can feast on the surplus at no effective cost to their human partners. The evidence of Mesolithic burials at Skateholm, where dogs lie with signs of honour similar to those accorded to human hunters, demonstrates the context in which symbiosis happened and the value dogs attracted.
3 The critical genetic mutation that originally differentiated dogs from other canids conferred “ability to eat in the presence of people”.
Plausible: but equally critical was early dogs’ ability to perceive the advantages of partnership with a hunting species that was uniquely profligate with waste. In general, I think the Coppingers underestimate the rational and discriminatory powers of non-human species.
4 The relatively small number of dogs in breeds selectively produced by human contrivance are of marginal significance. Inbreeding depression dooms them.
Doubtful: the Coppingers ignore the way random mutations compensate for diminished variation in breeding and produce our pooches’ delightful individual quirks.
5 Cant about man’s best friend obscures the facts that dogs “are loyal to a smell” and that interactions benefit humans more.
Maybe: but what about love? The affective, effective interdependence is genuine.
6 “Mutts”, or what the Coppingers also call dump dogs or village dogs, are not best classified as strays or hybrids but as representatives of the first evolved dogs. They are not aberrations to be suppressed. The solution to the “dog population problem” is to control not the numbers of dogs but the numbers of people.
Exaggerated: where canine infection-reservoirs grow excessively, the fault lies with obscene levels of human over-consumption, and the accumulating waste that expands the dogs’ niche.
The question arises: are humans a discrete moral community, or should we embrace other species as some ethicists insist? If dogs originally chose and continue to choose humankind as partner, are we obliged to accept them? Is our responsibility for them greater than for creatures that have remained properly aloof from stewardship as slipshod or treacherous as ours? Cave canem? Or cave hominem?
Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history, University of Notre Dame, in the US.
What is a Dog?
By Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger
University of Chicago Press, 272pp, £21.00
ISBN 9780226127941 and 6359007 (e-book)
Published 30 May 2016