It is rather foolish to think of humans domesticating the dogs. In fact, it would be more accurate to say they engaged in a pact with us. Now, in order to explain this, one must first dislodges the Judeo-Christian view-point of the world where mankind has domain over nature.
For eons, we have a self-centric view of the Universe which has been proven to be false: the Earth is at the center of the Universe; mankind is the only one capable of developing tools, languages and cultures; humans are the only sentient beings; and we are the only one who broke free of the shackles of evolution. Of course, none of this is true: Johannes Kepler debunked the geocentric view of the solar system; chimpanzees are also capable of fashioning tools; dolphins and whales have complex way of communicating in compositions of low-frequency sounds; elephants have been shown to recognize themselves in mirrors; and the war on viruses and micro-organisms is a constant reminder we are still at the mercy of nature. Let’s go one step further: the delusion of domestication is dependent on who view themselves as gaining the most benefits.
Dog and man have co-evolved together, however neither one of us actually see it this way. From our point of view: we dominated the wolf; employed them to share the load and search games; sculptured their flesh and bones; manipulated their behaviours in our favour; and they are objects of status-elevation. From the dog’s point of view, they domesticated us. The hounds see us as an asset in a hunt, delivering the killing blow to the boar or the bear. The team of huskies request us to hunt for them, to partition the shot moose or caribou, and load up the sled with our opposable thumbs to haul the meat back to their dens. The farm collie struck a bargain with the farmer for a bed’n’breakfast deal in exchange for manual labour. The Chin leads a lofty lifestyle sitting in the imperial palace as a figurehead, with servants swooning all over him; and he is protected from the elements by the sleeves of the kimonos of his escort in the outside world. From their point of view, we are the ones who have been domesticated by the dogs.
With the alliance forged between wolves and humans several millennia ago, a contract has been signed and the two of us has been bound ever since. Once in awhile, the contract is re-negotiated. In the last 200 years, dogs have agreed to an addendum allowing show breeders to sculpt their offspring to be reimbursed with a guaranteed sex life. In the last 50 years, a clause was written in, asking the dogs to become surrogates in absence of kinship among our own kind. No longer are dogs and humans comrades working toward a common goal, but rather as brothers or sisters; or daughters and sons. While they are not our blood relatives, the relationships have manifested as such.
Now, an alternative view to domestication is not entirely a new concept. It was recently touched on by journalist Michael Pollan in his lecture, “Plant’s-Eyed View”, at a TED conference in 2007; which is now subtitled in a multitude of languages. For those whose browser cannot load or view the video, the transcript is attached to the blog post here in a
.TXT format. Now, a lot of people have problems with Pollan for political reasons surrounding one of his earlier works. It’s understandable.
Here’s a little known secret: the concept is actually borrowed from a 1991 lecture series hosted by Richard Dawkins designed by the Royal Institution in London for children, “Growing Up in the Universe”; in particular, the fourth installation, “The Ultraviolet Garden”. A captioned version on YouTube can be found here in Engish. For those who do not have access to videos, once again, a
.TXT copy of the interactive transcript is already here. The episode itself is worth watching as there is a lovely narrative excerpt by Douglas Adams from one of his novels.
However Dawkins’s frame of thought stems from one of his books published in 1978 called The Selfish Gene, in which misconceptions were later clarified in his first documentary, “Nice Guys Finish First”, airred by BBC Horizon in 1987. One can find the full hour-long clip on YouTube here via WhyEvoutionisTrue channel. For those who don’t have access to YouTube, or wish to follow along via transcript here.
Actually, Dawkins wasn’t the first one to come up with this. H.G. Wells touched on it in The Time Machine in 1895 with the Eloi believing they enslaved the Morlocks in subterranean factories; and the Morlocks believing they domesticated the Eloi for the slaughter to fill their bellies. However for many decades, among naturalists, convention follows nature is red in teeth and claws. It wasn’t until within the last few decades evolutionary biologists began looking at things in a new light.
Now, most people have a problem with Richard Dawkins, not because of his books or his findings, but because of his aggressive anti-theist stance, ongoing since the mid-’90s, advocating for militant atheism. Fine, it is acceptable some find him offensive. However there are no shortage of mutualism and symbiotic relationships such as the clownfish and the sea anemones or the shark and the remora. In that respect, Dawkins’s abhorred political stance does not invalidate the truth of his lecture.
Nevertheless, here is what Dawkins has to say about the bees to his audience of school children in “The Ultraviolet Garden” lecture:
Earlier this year, I was driving through the countryside with a little girl of 6 and she pointed out some flowers by the wayside. I asked her what she thought flowers were for. She gave a very thoughtful answer. Two things, she said: “To make the world pretty and to help the bees make honey for us.” I thought that was a very nice answer and I was sorry that I had to tell her that it wasn’t true. Her answer is not too different from the answer that most people throughout history would have given. The very first chapter of the Bible sets it out: “Man has dominion over all living things.” The animals and plants are there for our benefit. This attitude was unquestioned throughout the Middle Ages and it really persists to this day.One pious man in the Middle Ages thought that weeds were there to benefit us, because it’s so good for our spirit to have to go and pull them up. And another reverend gentleman thought that the louse was indispensable, because it provided a powerful incentive to cleanliness. There’s also been the suggestion that animals positively want to do their bit for the good of mankind and even want to be eaten by us.
We need to find an entirely new view of the world. We need to try to see things through the eyes of other creatures, instead of all the time through our own self-interested eyes. Flowers, the bees might say, are there to provide us with pollen and nectar. But even the bees haven’t quite got it right. They’re a lot more right than we would be, if we think that flowers are there for our benefit. The fact is that flowers, or at least the bright and showy ones, are there because, in a sense, bees have cultivated them, domesticated them. When I say bees, I include butterflies and other sorts of pollinators.
This is why I used the word “garden” in the title of this lecture. But why the ultraviolet garden? Well that’s a parable, like the parable of the Good Samaritan, or the sower. Ultraviolet light is a kind of light that we can’t see. It’s just like ordinary light except that it’s a different wavelength and we can’t see it. Bees can see it, they see it as a distinct color and bees cannot see red. So, flowers are bound to look very different through the eyes of bees. And in just the same way, the question ‘what are flowers good for?’ is a question that we have to look at through the eyes of bees.
Well as I say, we can’t see ultraviolet and it’s no use trying to capture what it would be that a bee would see if it looked at flowers. ll we can do is to play with a few tricks to get some flavor of what it might be like. Now, here is a row of tubes containing white substances, all different white substances. They all look alike, they all look white. But if we now expose them to ultraviolet light for a while, they glow different colors. Now, this is a bit of a cheat. We’re not actually seeing ultraviolet and none of those colors is actually ultraviolet: those are all visible colors that we can see. What we are doing though is using this as a kind of metaphor to show how what we see is changed in ultraviolet light. That isn’t what bees would see but it gives us an idea of how different things might look through the eyes of bees.
Actually, flowers probably look even more different because when bees see shape they see shape in a very different way from us. When a bee sees a complicated shape like this set of leaves here, or any of these flowers, it probably doesn’t see it as a shape like that. It probably sees this as something that we should call “flicker.” You see little light bulbs flickering in the flowers now and once again, that almost certainly isn’t quite what the bees see. But it’s likely to be a bit more like what the bees see than what we see when we see complicated shapes like that.
And in any case, we’re only using this strangeness as a parable for changing our point of view about who or what it is that flowers and all other living creatures are for the good of. So let’s now ask what bees are good for from the point of view of flowers? Well, flowers are sex organs, designed by natural selection to make male and female cells and bring them together. There are good genetic reasons that apply in most flowers, though not all, for making sure that they don’t mate with themselves. It would be all too easy for a flower to mate with itself: it’s got pollen and a stigma in the same physical flower, and they use bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators to transport the pollen from one flower to another. The usual way to do this is to bribe them with nectar. Here you see a hummingbird feeding from a flower with nectar. The bright colors are like Piccadilly Circus, it’s an advertisement telling the hummingbirds or bees to come and feed from here. Nectar is made specially for the purpose and it’s costly.
The pollination services offered by bees are truly massive. Somebody in Germany calculated that in Germany alone honeybees pollinated about 10 trillion flowers in the course of a single summer day. It’s also been calculated that about 30% of all human foods depend on bee pollination. If bees were wiped out, 30% of our food plants would be wiped out as well. The world of bees is totally dominated by flowers. I don’t just mean honeybees. There are lots and lots of species of bees, many of them are solitary, not living in hives. The larvae of bees are almost all fed on pollen.
So that’s what bees are doing, millions of times over, every day. They feed their larvae on it, their aviation fuel is nectar, and that’s entirely provided for them by flowers. They work hard for their nectar award. To make a 1 pound jar of honey, it’s been worked out the bees would have to visit about 10 million clover blossoms. So, flowers use bees and bees use flowers. Both sides in the partnership have been shaped by the other. Both sides, in a way, have been domesticated, cultivated, by the other. The ultraviolet garden is a two way garden. But just because flowers and bees have evolved towards partnership we mustn’t assume that creatures in general work in a friendly way for one another’s good. There are people who think that antelopes are there for the benefit of lions and lions are there for the benefit of antelopes, to keep their population down. And that’s just as much nonsense as the idea that oxen come willingly to the slaughter for the benefit of us.
We began by asking, what flowers were for? We considered various answers and eventually concluded that flowers are for the same thing as everything else in the living kingdoms: for spreading “copy me” programs about, written in DNA language. Flowers are for spreading around instructions for making flowers. Bees are for spreading around instructions for making bees. Elephants for spreading instructions for making elephants. And birds for making more birds.
And macaw’s colored feathers are for spreading copies of instructions for making more colored feathers. And that works, because the colored feathers are an advertisement that attracts macaws of the opposite sex. So genes that make colored feathers tend to get passed on to future generations because they are an effective advertisement to get mates who like those colored feathers. And you could say the same about wings. Wings, too, are tools for spreading genetic instructions for making wings into future generations of birds. They work by saving the lives of birds that have good wings and so they are good at flying, good at catching food, good at avoiding being eaten. So genes that make good wings get passed on and that’s why most birds have wings that work. [...]
Plants don’t have wings. Plants can’t fly. But from the plant’s point of view, it doesn’t need wings since it can borrow the bees and butterflies and hummingbirds’ wings. But now let’s shift our perspective and look at it from the point of view of the plant DNA. From the point of view of the plant DNA the bees’ wings might as well be plant wings.The bees’ wings are organs of flight that carry the plant’s genes about. Just as a macaw’s wings are organs of flight that carry macaw’s genes about. And we can say the same about the colors.
Flowers use bright colors in very much the same way as macaws use their bright colors. Both kinds of color are advertisements, both are used to attract winged-gene vehicles. In one case those winged-gene vehicles are female macaws, in the other case they are bees. But in both cases the result of the attraction is that genes are carried about. The macaws mate, so the genes that made that the male have attractive feathers are carried off in the female’s body. The bee gets dusted with pollen from a flower. So the genes that made the flower attractive to the bee are carried off on the body of the bee into the future, into future generations. So if you look at them in the right way, bees’ wings can really be called plant wings.
Now, that really is a different way of looking at things, isn’t it? A strange, and unfamiliar way. Yet it is a way that makes perfect sense when you think about it. A way of looking, which matches the strange otherworldliness of the ultraviolet garden.
In the context of the bees and flowers, one ceases to see domestication as artificial selection, but as rather various examples of self-feeding co-evolution. Suddenly, one begins to see canines in a very different light. Those who retain the belief we choose which dogs to mate are only deceiving themselves.
This was the system which worked for hunters and shepherds over the ages. As our society shifts from the back-breaking work of the fields to pushing papers around, the contract between dogs and men must be brought back to the negotiating table.
In the new draft two centuries ago, several groups of dogs forefeited their liberty for promise of safety. In the virtue of selfishness of propagating their genes, several breeds have gone to the extremes; and the English Bulldog has been very selfish indeed at the expense of their own health. The Bulldog sold the ability to cool themselves to capitalize on the tendency of humans equating anything with a squished-face as infantile. The appeal to flat face is so successful, no longer are the Bulldogs required to birth naturally as they can only exist through Caesarean sections; and once civilization crumbles, the bulldog is extinct. The dependence on technology will either be pivotal to their existence or their very undoing. In fact, the fate of Bulldog is so intertwined with technology, we believe they are worth propping up on a pedestal. Truly, the Bulldogs are the master of manipulating the middle-class.
However there is still hope in all of this. Lineages of moderate dogs will outlast the corrupted: the dogs who sacrifice themselves to the whims of the elites will run into a wall and will pay for their mistakes of not reading the fine lines; and those who found the right allies will prosper for many generations to come. However it is clear very few see the dog world in this manner as we, in our arrogance, only consider things from our point of view.
Chris McGrath. 2009. Champion Dogs Compete At Westminster Dog Show Zimbio. http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/VO0oly_xjGV/Champion+Dogs+Compete+Westminster+Dog+Show/8NtZoUHDuZl/Scott+Sommer (accessed September 16, 2011). [Featured Image: Chris McGrath]
Growing Up in the Universe. YouTube. Directed by Stuart McDonald. 1991. Oxford, UK: Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, 2007. [Stills: Richard Dawkins Foundation]
Maamme Kirja 1876. Finland: Zacharias Topelius. [Illustration: Zacharias Topelius]
Marvin Pierce. 2010. Working Dogs Pierce’s Cow Dogs. http://www.piercesstockdogs.com/stories/ (accessed September 16, 2011) [Thumbnail: Marvin Pierce]
The Time Machine. DVD. Directed by George Pal. 1960. Culer City, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, 2000. [Photo: Metro Goldwyn-Mayer Studios]