How canine companionship inspired evolutionary observations.
A local Shrewsbury newspaper obituary for Charles Darwin in April 1882 noted that "Darwin, like [geologist Sir Roderick] Murchison, was a keen fox-hunter in his youth, and that it was in the field that his great habits of observation were first awakened."
In fact, Darwin was a dog lover his whole life and enjoyed the company of dogs both at home and, up to his early adult years, in field sports. Though the role of dogs in Darwin's work has hardly been explored, his work, like much of life in early Victorian England, was dramatically affected by his canine experience.
Darwin grew up with dogs in a time when they were essential to daily English country life. Dogs controlled vermin, herded livestock, protected homes and estates and guided hunters to their prey, all the while serving as the best of companions.
Over the years, the Darwins owned terriers (Nina, Spark, Pincher, Sheila, Polly), a retriever (Bob), a Pomeranian (Snow) and even larger hunting dogs like Darwin's college Pointer and, later in life, a Scottish Deerhound (Bran).
Dogs not only introduced Darwin to the systematic study of nature as a young boy through his favorite sport, shooting pheasant and grouse--"I do not believe that any one could have shown more zeal for the most holy cause than I did for shooting birds," he wrote in his autobiography--but so distracted him from his studies at Edinburgh that his father prophetically moved him to Cambridge University with the intent of making a clergyman of him.
Instead of making him a better theology student, Cambridge and its rich hunting life led Darwin to buy both a horse for fox hunting, and a new Pointer (Dash) to pursue the local pheasant.
Darwin's interaction with dogs was not without scientific impact. Over these formative years, Darwin observed and questioned not only the behavior of dogs, and by analogy other animals, but studied their role in nature, their breeding and the relationships between all of these issues.
These years in the hunting field immersed Darwin in the wonders of nature and gave him a unique point of view as both a scientist and a participating predator. These qualities effectively allowed Darwin to take best advantage of the opportunities presented to him on the voyage of the Beagle, and afforded him an early sense that a selective process was the engine behind species development.
In Darwin's journals and notebooks, many of the foundations of natural selection rest on canine analogies. Darwin's 1842 monograph, which set out the principles of On The Origin of Species, uses as his first example of adaptation and selection the model of the greyhound, a dog whose every fiber is adapted to running down hare. Though the greyhound was an example of careful selection by domestic breeders, Darwin imagined the dog as natural and thus offered one of his most profound metaphors: a dog that straddled the natural and domestic worlds, at once appearing intelligent and emotional like man, but physically ever the feral predator.
Thus, the dog provided Darwin with another important link in the evolutionary chain. Whereas creationists argued that man's soul, his emotional complexity, placed him beyond the forces of evolution, dogs seemed to bodily contradict the notion, for dogs shared man's emotions and yet had surely evolved before their perfection by domestic breeders.
"It would indeed be wonderful, if, [the] mind of [an] animal was not closely allied to that of men, when the five senses were the same," Darwin wrote, expressing hope that shared biological traits pointed to even stronger evolutionary ties between man and his best friend.
In his later years, Darwin shared his home at Down with Polly, a sharp-witted terrier he had "stolen" from his daughter when she moved to her marital home. (Purloining the affections of others' dogs was a lifelong habit of Darwin's.) Darwin and Polly enjoyed the usual dog-master games, with Darwin teaching her to catch biscuits off her nose and conversing with her as she barked through the veranda window at "the naughty people," as Darwin jokingly referred to them.
Yet the powerful character of the dog sparked in Darwin ever-developing scientific ideas: Polly became both a central talking point as well as the model for illustrations in his last book, 1872's Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.
(David Allan Feller, Forbes.com)