Why is this interesting? - The Dog Edition

On dogs, DNA, and culture creation

W. David Marx (WDM) is a pal and the Tokyo-based author of one of my favorite books: Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style. It is, on its surface, a dissection of how Ivy League style took Tokyo by storm and shows how certain obsessive tastemakers, with an eye for both style and detail, shaped modern Japanese culture. It also serves as a thoughtful study in on the hidden currents behind how trends happen. (CJN)

W. David Marx here. The Internet puts it very succinctly: “All dogs are good boys.” Dogs have been with us for a few-dozen millennia, and they’ve managed to stay useful no matter the stage of civilization: barking at intruders, fighting bears, retrieving sticks, winning likes for their owners on Instagram.

In this great era of scientific progress, we’ve of course dug into the canine DNA to explain why “doggos” are such great “frens.” But whatever evolutionary biology can teach us about why dogs like us, we also need to ask: Why do we like them? The truth is that our attitudes towards dogs have changed drastically over the last two hundred years, as documented in Michael Worboys, Julie-Marie Strange, and Neil Pemberton’s fascinating 2018 academic history of dog breeds, The Invention of the Modern Dog: Breed and Blood in Victorian Britain.

In the United Kingdom at the beginning of the 19th century, a “good” dog was an effective companion in hunting, the kind who would run off and retrieve dead animals and not recoil from the sound of a shotgun blast. In other words, good dogs were functional.

Then started high-class “dog shows,” which required standardized criteria for judging one dog to be superior to others. Here began the formal concept of “dog breed,” but more importantly, “conformation” — how closely an individual dog conforms to the right shape, size, and details of each breed. There used to be loose categories of dogs, such as “retrievers” and “setters,” but as the 19th century progressed, these became capital-letter breeds almost like commercial brands: Golden Retrievers, Irish Setters, etc. This process also required saying goodbye to aberrant varieties of dogs that didn’t meet the new human-invented standards; the Newfoundland once came in white-and-black, but these started to disappear once the dog authorities decided that all good Newfies should only be jet black.

After this point, “good” dogs were those that adhered to the breed standards, with the really good ones descending from the noble heredity of famed dog show winners. By the 1860s, the dog community would divide the species Canis lupus familiaris into two types: the righteous, well-bred “dog” and the wretched “dawg.” (And no surprise, these also mapped to socioeconomic lines, with the word “dawg” reflecting a working-class Cockney pronunciation.) “A dog,” explained an editorial in The Field, “is a genuine Newfoundland, a retriever, a foxhound, pointer, a setter, a terrier, a spaniel, or a mastiff; a ‘dawg’ may be any of these or none of these, for he may be a monstrosity or a mongrel.”

This also led to the flawed assumption that “pure” breeding created better dog performance in sporting. England’s obsession with conformation caused a major inbreeding problem, crippling dogs with a host of genetic issues.

Why is this interesting?

In showing that modern dog breeds are "both material and cultural inventions,” the authors offer a clear example of how social and cultural processes change the ways humans find value in things. Dogs became explicit status markers, cherished for their aesthetic properties, “heritage,” and alignment to authoritative standards rather than ability to fetch dead fowl from the bushes or simply being happy and healthy.

Readers of this newsletter are surely aware that most cultural value is created in social interactions rather than in the innate properties of things (see Exhibit A: “fashion”), but the 19th century creation of dog breeds in Britain also demonstrates that these cultural processes become so hidden over time that we just accept the valuations as a natural part of life. So, of course, a purebred Bernese Mountain Dog, with its beautiful black, brown, and white coat, is more “valuable” than a good-natured, spritely mutt, despite the fact that Berners have a long list of health issues and only live 7-10 years. (Although they’re really good at pulling carts.)

The Invention of the Modern Dog provides specific insights into how social structures changed humans’ attitudes towards dogs, but also, illustrates the degree to which history is such an effective tool for deconstructing almost everything to find the social structures hidden as “natural” parts of life. (WDM)

Chart of the Day:

Goldendoodles are a dog breed that dates from 1969 and whose official name only first appeared in 1992. The chart shows that 2011 was the year that Goldendoodles really took off in the U.S. These new breeds are often called “designer dogs,” which is funny now that we know our current conception of breeds is only about two hundred years old. But the novelty and “designer” element are maybe why we shouldn’t be surprised that Goldendoodles achieved notoriety as “the Kardashians of the New York dog park scene.” (WDM)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & David (WDM)