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During the plane ride over from California to Taiwan, I plugged through one and a half dog books and even a dog movie, which I’m just getting around to blogging now.

"Small dog watching a cat on a table" -- Polly, Darwin's last dog

“Small dog watching a cat on a table” — Polly, Darwin’s last dog, rendered by Oscar Gustave Rejlander and featured in Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals

First is Emma Townshend, Darwin’s Dogs, subtitled “How Darwin’s pets helped form a world-changing theory of evolution” (London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2009). Supplementing the explanatory tomes, this compact book tells a peculiar biography of Darwin through his life-long love of dogs. Townshend writes with rare sensitivity about Darwin’s family background, placing his upbringing in scholarly as well as domestic context. We know very much about Darwin as a Great Man, a naturalist who belonged to, was castigated by, and was eventually recuperated by learned societies. However, he was not merely a product of his institutionalized education and the scientific community. He was also part of the landed gentry, for whom home was a place from which to think, and to work.

And, as Townshend reveals, his home life consisted of many dogs who were, indeed, part of the family. Dogs were the Other Species that Darwin knew most intimately, from childhood to death. He possessed the mind he had because of his daily interactions with dogs. It is a pity that photographic evidence remains of only two dogs in the Darwin household, one being the terrier Polly above, whose drawing was prepared from a photograph. She died a few days after her master, following her favorite perhaps because she was his. (Darwin’s wife, meanwhile, survived her husband by 14 years, as Clive Wynne wryly pointed out in one of his 2013 SPARCS presentations.)

We know of Polly because she was memorialized graphically in Darwin’s last book, in his liberal use of her behaviors as examples, and in the more personal stories documented and exchanged by family members. Recovering the traces of other dogs took a bit more work, and this is where Townshend’s research skills really show. Poring over his personal correspondence, Townshend takes seriously the tender exchanges between Darwin’s family members about their beloved pets. When he was away, “How are the dogs doing?” was a real question that demanded reflection, not small talk. His sisters conveyed news of the dogs as “a way of speaking intimately” to their absent brother (18), not so much as displaced metaphors, but emplaced affections. That is, their brother connected to his sisters because they all shared in their love for the family pets.

Luckily, Darwin did not have to travel that long, relative to the trajectory of his career. As a young boy, he was away for school, an experience that apparently had negligible impact on developing his intellect. His “dissipated” attention and supposedly errant “passion for dogs and hunting were completely to blame” (34) for his inability to focus on his medical studies. It is not that Darwin lacked focus; his interests drew him elsewhere, to forge the connections with the sportsmen and breeders who would, many years later, assist his research. After medical school, he was also abroad on the HMS Beagle for five years, from when he was 22 years old. During this globe-spanning, historical voyage, he collected enough notes and experiences to last the rest of his life… but only because he was able to return to the comforts of home and let it all stew for a good, long time.

I am fond of biographical accounts in which brilliance demands its own pace, and ideas are allowed to ripen under unhurried circumstances. Taking a queue from Charles Lyell’s conception of deep time, in which “the geological processes that shaped the earth’s surface were incredibly powerful, but terribly slow,” Townshend deadpans: “In a million years, a lot could happen” (59-60). Of course, Darwin didn’t take a million years, but he did allow himself time to sharpen his critical acumen. He read the same bestsellers that others were reading, yet extracted different conclusions to fit his own idiosyncratic questions. He was frequently willing to exceed the limitations of sanctioned knowledge, seeking expertise from “practical men,” especially breeders, when he needed and wanted to understand something new. He knew how to ferret out information, even if he didn’t always know what to do with it at the time. Through it all, he took copious notes in “secret” journals.

It was 1837, shortly after the conclusion of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, when he began compiling the notes that would become the Origin of Species in 1859 — 22 years later! He sketched his first outline of his theory in 1842. Along the way, he published much safer, less personally satisfying work on barnacles. That work earned him respect amongst the scientific community, but did not expose him as an iconoclast and heretic-in-the-making. Meanwhile, he continued to love his wife (a first cousin, by the way), produce children (lots of them — not all of whom survived), acquire dogs (bred by friends and family and sometimes with only casual pedigrees), and communicate with intelligent company who didn’t always agree, but who spurred his thinking.

One thing that Townshend was very careful to put into context: while Darwin understood that his work flew in opposition to the writings of Genesis, putting him severely at odds with more devout and conservative peers, he dd not intend his work as an anti-religious missive. His issue was not with the status of God, but the status of humankind as a “perfectly” pre-formed entity. He could not believe in preformation, and he wasn’t the only one. But he had his own systematized ideas to replace prevailing convictions: “God’s perfectly formed Creation has disappeared from this account; in Darwin’s vision, nature is simply one huge and incredibly skilled breeder” (79). Townshend reveals how Darwin thought with great complexity about many things, big and small, moving rather effortlessly from religion to dogs.

    “The feeling of religious devotion is a highly complex one, consisting of love, complete submission to an exalted and mysterious superior, a strong sense of dependence, fear, reverence, gratitude, hope for the future, and perhaps other elements. No being could experience so complex an emotion until advanced in his intellectual and moral faculties to at least a moderately high level. Nevertheless, we see some distant approach to this state of mind in the deep love of a dog for his master, associated with complete submission, some fear, and perhaps other feelings.” (Darwin, Descent of Man, quoted in Townshend, p. 113)

He at least considered the mutual compatibility of religion and evolutionary theory, since the changes he imagined were themselves subtle, incremental, practically imperceptible differences. Thus, the science was not entirely in perceptible evidence, but also in what was imaginable with the benefit of knowledge and insight.

This, too, is what’s wonderful about Townshend’s biography. She reads closely and draws upon her stash of rich historical archives, but she pushes the material beyond its face value. There are really great analytical moments in her biography, but the insight she shares here is not necessarily her understanding of scientific theory, but of human personality. The ability to read people, especially from material text, is a rare skill that cannot readily be trained and not everyone enjoys.

Finally, I’ll add that I was pleased with the overall book design. Interspersed throughout are numerous animal illustrations and engravings pulled from the archives and Darwin’s published books, including most of the best ones with dogs. A flipbook dog trotting through the corners of each page animates the concept of individual creatures in motion. Clever.

Even though Darwin didn’t have all the answers, we can still learn from his inquisitive pursuits. Meanwhile, so much of our modern language and figurative speech is indebted to him. Progress itself is so often posed in evolutionary, developmentalist terms, with rather clear hierarchies marking “higher” and “lower” stages. He altered the way we think of change itself, a fundamental basis of existence. And of course, we can’t even talk about the history of dogs and engage in contemporary debates on breeding them without drawing upon the vocabulary provided by his work. The least we can do is turn back and take a good, close look at how he spoke of dogs in his own time.