The Evolution of Modern Dogs
How our canine companions were carefully crafted by quirky, bored aristocrats, the self-proclaimed "doggy people" from Victorian Britain—and why their story can help us understand social change.
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When you see a dog today, you’re unknowingly looking at a creature directly shaped by the tastes and preferences of a tiny, quirky group of eccentric aristocrats from Victorian-era Britain. These self-proclaimed “doggy people” created the modern dog. They’re quite literally the reason your dog (if you’re lucky enough to have one) is the way it is.
But the unusual story of these strange Victorians—and the way they swayed and solidified canine populations—also yields profound, unexpected insights into the arbitrary nature of human social change.
“Better than a dog anyhow”
In 1838, Charles Darwin—a lifelong dog lover—jotted down a note about the pros and cons of finding a wife. Under the column labeled Not Marry, he wrote:
“Freedom to go where one liked…Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle” as he fretted that marriage would lead to “less money for books” and “fatness & idleness.”
By contrast, under the column for Marry, Darwin listed the following:
“Constant companion, (& friend in old age)…Charms of music & female chit-chat…Better than a dog anyhow.”
Nonetheless, Darwin owed much to dogs, as he studied them, pondered their behavior, and honed his theories of evolution based on how they interacted with humans. Darwin’s father warned him that his obsession would lead him to amount to little, writing that “you care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”
It was fitting, perhaps, that his pivotal voyage took place upon a ship called The Beagle.
Darwin saw dogs as an indication of evolution’s handiwork, noting that greyhounds had been perfectly shaped—naturally tailored—for rapid bursts to run down and catch hare.
What Darwin didn’t realize, perhaps, is that dogs were undergoing an enormous transformation, with evolutionary implications, during his lifetime—and partly as a result of his work. There was a profound shift in the late 1800s, from viewing dogs purely as an animal defined by its function to one in which dogs were defined mostly by their form. This shift gave rise to the modern notion of “breed.”
Dogs were never the same again.
A brief history of dogs
The domestication of wolves probably happened—depending on which scientist you ask—somewhere between 15,000 and 23,000 years ago. Researchers aren’t certain how domestication happened, but the prevailing theory is that starving wolves during an Ice Age realized that they could survive off of human food scraps. Those who were more docile were able to get closer to human settlements, eat more food, and therefore pass on their genes more effectively to the next generation.
Humans, in turn, realized that having a wolf-like companion around was useful for hunting or guarding campsites. Over time, it’s plausible that this was the mechanism by which wolves morphed into man’s best friend. (There is also ongoing scientific debate over whether dog domestication happened just once, or twice).
However it happened, dogs became a central part of human history, even affecting the reigns of kings from Alexander the Great to Llywelyn the Great. But until the Victorian era (1837-1901), there was no conception of a dog breed. Instead, they were often referred to as races of dogs (a word that still is used to refer to breed in several languages). As Michael Worboys, Julie-Marie Strange, and Neil Pemberton note in their excellent book, The Invention of the Modern Dog:
“The names given to varieties derived from where they came from geographically, as with the Newfoundland, the St. Bernard, the spaniel (Spain), and the Skye terrier [the Isle of Skye]; or what they did, as with the foxhound, pointer, retriever, or sheep dog.”
Dogs, then, were defined by location or function, not form. The classifications were therefore rather broad. In 1576, John Caius1—an eminent royal physician and the second founder of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge—wrote the charmingly titled work Of Englishe Dogges, the diuersities, the names, the natures and the properties. In it, he claimed there were but five varieties of English dogges:
Those good at finding game
Gentle comforting companions
Farmers’ assistants with livestock
The “mongrels and rascal sort”
Now, to determine which variety your dogge fit within, Caius provided some helpful guidance. For example, here were indications that your dogge was of the “gentle comforting companion” variety (the spellings are from the original):
“These dogges are litle, pretty, proper, and fyne, and sought for to satisfie the delicatenesse of daintie dames, and wanton womens wills, instrumentes of folly for them to play and dally withall, to tryfle away the treasure of time, to withdraw their mindes from more commendable exercises, and to content their corruption concupiscences with vaine disport…These puppies the smaller they be, the more pleasure they prouoke…to beare in their bosoms, to keep company withal in their chambers, to succour with sleepe in bed, and nourishe with meate at bourde, to lay in their lappes, and licke their lippes as they ryde in their waggons…”
Today, there are 200 individual dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. How did we go from 5 groups to 200 in a comparative blink of human history?
Dog Shows and “Doggy People”
Michael Worboys, Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester, has pioneered new research on the Victorian-era origins of modern dogs—and it all starts with the rise of dog shows.
Already, by the 1840s, English society was treating dogs more like modern pets than assistants. Queen Victoria lost her beloved dog, Dash, on Christmas Eve in 1840 and buried the dog with a grave, adorned by this inscription:
Here lies DASH, the favourite Spaniel of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, in his 10th year. His attachment was without selfishness, his playfulness without malice, his fidelity without deceit. READER, if you would be beloved and die regretted, profit by the example of DASH.
With this dog-friendly spirit in the era, Worboys explains that the first modern dog show took place in 1859—the same year that Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was first published. The dog show was a little noticed event, but it set in motion a trajectory that would forever alter the human-canine relationship.
As dog shows became more popular, the Victorians were struck by the unfortunate subjectivity of the contests. The same dog might win one dog show, only to finish last in another, because there were no agreed-upon standards, nor any well-defined breeds. The same “race” of dog could look wildly different, so long as it fulfilled the same function.
But the rise of dog shows coincided with a profound social obsession in Victorian Britain: to count, measure, quantify, and categorize everything. Dog shows grew in popularity at the same time that early statistical societies were formed, alongside nascent forms of social science.
Around this time, in Belgium, Adolphe Quételet, one of the early pioneers of modern social science, was developing quantitative theories of ideal human traits, inventing the Quetelet Index (which we now call Body Mass Index). Such obsessions of capturing, cataloguing, and objectifying the world even showed up in literature. In Hard Times, Charles Dickens presents Mr. Gradgrind, a harsh educational disciplinarian who only has tolerance for distilling reality down into facts and data: “Now what I want is, facts…Facts alone are wanted in life,” he insists.
In this spirit, the English surgeon and sportswriter John Henry Walsh published the first modern classification system for modern dog breeds, The Dogs of the British Islands. As Worboys writes in his book, Doggy People, this was “the first reference handbook of standards, illustrated with examples of the best in breed at recent shows.” Walsh identified several physical “points” at which dogs could be measured, classified, and categorized. This was the first time that dogs were being defined by how they looked, rather than what they did.
The surging Victorian impulse to measure coincided nicely with the financial and social interests of those putting on and competing in dog shows. If there were more breed categories, the shows could have more intrigue, more prize money for different dogs, more winners, and more unusual dogs. This dynamic at dog shows also happened to coincide with resurgent interests in selective breeding, accelerated by debates around the fresh theory of Darwinian evolution.
Money mattered, too. There was a plentiful supply of Victorian aristocrats who had both time and money to spare, who found themselves drawn to these new dog shows. They already were enamored by dogs, but these shows gave them a chance to assert their social status through formal competitions. To differentiate themselves, though, they didn’t just want to compete with any old dog; some decided to invent new kinds through deliberate breeding. As a result, as Worboys notes:
The extreme case of proliferation of breeds was among Terriers, the most popular dog in the late Victorian period. In The Dog in 1845, William Youatt described just two—what he called ‘the Terrier’ and the Scotch Terrier. The catalogue for Charles Cruft’s first terrier show, in 1886, featured fourteen breeds…By 1901, there were seventeen.
(Today, there are 31 kinds of terriers recognized by the American Kennel Club).
Dog breeds could even be created by one person. Jack Russell Terriers were created by, you guessed it, Jack Russell—a Victorian parson who bought a dog named “Trump” (I’m not making this up) from a milkman in Oxford. Every Jack Russell Terrier is descended from that dog. All Border Collies, including my beloved dog Zorro, are descended from a single exceptional sheepdog named “Old Hemp” who lived near the border of Scotland and England.
Similarly, existing breeds got wackier. Poodles, previously described as “scruffy working animals,” morphed into the form they take today. Not everyone was impressed. Worboys quotes Hugh Dalziel, who called these new creatures “the buffoon of the canine race, [created] merely to pander to a frivolous taste.”
Now, anytime humans categorize something, we fight about the categories. Dogs were no exception, and the debates over whether something counted as part of a breed or not led to disputes that spilled into the courts.
In 1898, for example, a rich financier named Harry Panmure Gordon sued a baker and a powerloom tuner for allegedly selling him a collie that wasn’t a real collie, on account of its ears being “pricked” (standing straight up) rather than “dropped” (partly floppy). The Great Collie Ear Trial ensued (again, I’m not making this up). The courts sided with the baker and the powerloom tuner. (If the verdict had gone the other way, my Border Collie, Zorro, may not exist—as his ears are pricked, which continues to be deemed suitable for the breed).
The creation of stratified breeds—defined by appearance rather than function or behavior—has created one of the most unusual species on the planet. While the precise definition of a species is contested, many evolutionary biologists point to the ability to successfully produce offspring as a core feature of a species. Dogs, of the species Canis lupus familiaris, can do so. Even if logistically difficult, the tiniest Chihuahua can, in theory, procreate with the largest Great Dane.
That, I suspect, represents the largest gap between phenotype (the traits we can see in a species) and genotype (the underlying genetic makeup of an organism) of any animal anywhere in the world. After all, there are birds that look almost identical but can’t produce offspring because they’re from different species, indicated by an almost imperceptible difference in striping or color or plumage.
And yet, these two animals pictured below are—believe it or not—exactly the same species:
Why does this all matter? Well, the origin story of the modern dog is not just mere trivia, a set of astonishing and strange facts. Rather, the evolution of the modern dog provides a useful window into engines of social change—and an illustration of three profound ideas about how and why our world shifts in arbitrary and accidental ways.
Arbitrary Selection, or The Great Republican Hat Trial
Everything that replicates itself is subject to the forces of selection, from products to people. That which is more desirable or more effective at surviving is able to replicate itself into a future generation. Those traits are selected for, which makes them continue into the future. With products, replication becomes more likely when there are features that we like (iPhones continue generation after generation for this reason). With people, replication becomes more likely for those with traits that help us live long enough to procreate and to find a suitable partner to produce children.
But because we are conscious, self-reflective beings, the forces of selection we apply to our social world are not random. They are often arbitrary, according to fads or fleeting tastes. (A case in point is the success of the “Pet Rock” which was replicated an astonishing number of times for what it was).
Dogs are a longer lasting illustration of this concept. Humans, throughout history, have selected for certain traits in dog breeding, which facilitated some forms of behavioral specialization that made them more useful to humanity.
But Victorian-era “doggy people” put a form of arbitrary selection into overdrive, creating a sharp divergence in physical characteristics within the same species in just a few decades. This concept of arbitrary selection isn’t just useful for understanding dogs; it’s quite literally one of the core drivers of social change—even in politics.
When you look at the current crop of Republican members of Congress, for example, they have been arbitrarily selected by the MAGA base, chosen because they fulfil a certain slate of subjective, fad-based criteria in terms of the hats they wear, the people they praise, and what they believe (or, more accurately, what they say they believe). Those who don’t conform to that standard are culled from the pool of Republican members of Congress through primaries, elections, or resignations. It’s a form of arbitrary selection.
Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Matt Gaetz make more sense when you realize that arbitrary selection was put on steroids during the Trump presidency, with litmus tests for being a “real Republican” rather than a RINO (Republican in Name Only) tied to personal fealty to Trump (the candidate, not the Jack Russell Terrier).
Republican primaries these days are but human versions of The Great Collie Ear Trial (perhaps the Great Republican Hat Trial?). Are they really a Republican?
All of human society is subjected to selection—and it’s often up to us what we arbitrarily choose to amplify and replicate in our social systems. Dogs provide us an extreme window into how quickly our social dynamics can change the world.
Attractors, or Why Categories Make Our World
In dynamic systems science and complex systems theory, there is the concept of an attractor, which is formally defined as a point or equilibrium that a given system tends to move toward over time.
In human systems, speed limits are one such form of an attractor, because once it is set, humans tend to drive their cars near that arbitrary established speed. It doesn’t mean that every car will conform to the attractor, but rather that the existence of the attractor structures our social interactions in more ordered and predictable ways. Similarly, in our political systems, our political parties serve as attractors. If there are two main parties acting as political attractors, society mostly splits in half; if there are eight, we splinter ourselves differently.
Modern dogs, again, illustrate this phenomenon nicely. In the past, all of the attractors that humans had established in dog breeding were based on their ability to accomplish certain tasks. Over time, dogs did diversify into groups, but those were quite wide and flexible. It didn’t matter what a “retriever” looked like so long as it could retrieve when told to do so.
Then, in the Victorian-era, bored aristocrats blew up the number of attractors in dog breeding. But the attractors didn’t just grow in number; they also grew in strength. In other words, through rigid classification based on appearance, the attractor was no longer a loose aggregation of behavioral traits. Dogs that were close to a breed standard didn’t cut it, because you either were a purebred version of that breed, or you weren’t. As a result, the strength of the attractor of newly-formed breeds intensified the degree of arbitrary selection. These were based purely on characteristics that a tiny subset of Victorians deemed to be valuable, or worthwhile, or pleasant, or quirky.
Our world doesn’t come with categories; we impose them on it. Objectively, there is no such thing as a “weed.” It’s just a term we use to describe plants with certain characteristics we deem undesirable. But when something becomes classified as a weed, we often kill it, so yet again, human-created categories define our world.
Dogs teach us this concept beautifully, showing how socially engineered categorization can even rapidly reshape an entire species.
Lock-in, or Why There Aren’t A Billion Musical Instruments
The origin story of modern dogs teaches us one final lesson about social change. Some fluctuations in our world are fleeting, while others stick. When it comes to modern dog breeds, they can mostly all be traced to a short period in Victorian England. Why is that? Why aren’t modern dog breeds just a hodge-podge of lots of different periods in lots of different places?
Behold, the arbitrary power of lock-in. Because the classification system of breeds (the attractors) were enforced through a rigorous system of verification and standardization, they stuck around rather than fluctuating and dying out.
This was accomplished not just through dog shows, but also through the creation of The Kennel Club, which was founded in 1873 to try to standardize the parameters of competition at dog shows. But it also had the subsidiary effect of fixing breed standards in place, largely where they remain today. Across the Atlantic, the American Kennel Club emerged shortly thereafter, in 1884, and the rest is dog history.
We mostly ignore this phenomenon of lock-in even though it has shaped every aspect of our modern world. Consider language, for example. The English language was largely in flux for centuries until the advent of the printing press, which produced a newfound need for standardization of the written language. English, as a language, continued to change, but at a much slower rate—it was locked-in during that period.
More extraordinarily, Modern Standard Arabic was locked-in by the Qur’an, which was said to be the direct word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Because the language of God was believed to be pristine, Modern Standard Arabic has changed very little from 632, when the revelation of the Qur’an was said to be complete. (When I studied Arabic, I could read texts from the 7th century as though they were written today, something impossible for an English speaker to do with ancient languages that later morphed into our modern language).
Then, there are musical instruments. You’ve probably never heard of most instruments produced in the history of humanity because only an arbitrary subset of them have been locked-in—and survived. Why do we have cellos and not something a bit different? Because of lock-in, and the fact that what became defined as a cello was standardized, and composers began to write music for specific instruments, further locking-in their place in society. You don’t buy something that is “guitar-like”; you buy a guitar. An imposter just won’t cut it, because the force of lock-in remains strong.
Yet again, dogs provide a classic example of lock-in—as what it means to be a Golden Retriever or French Bulldog remains fixed in place.
Thank You, Victorian-Era Doggy People
It is a strange fact that the population of dogs and dog breeds that we enjoy today largely emerged as a hobby for bored aristocrats in a tiny sliver of English history—during a period in which classification, measurement, and standardization became a national obsession.
Modern dogs, then, provide us not just with companionship and love, but also a profound lesson about the nature of history: that the world we inhabit is but one possible world, a precarious emergence from the choices of countless people we will never know and never meet from the distant past. The lingering threads of their decisions are what we weave into our own lives.
In a quite literal sense, then, without Old Hemp, the Great Collie Ear Trial, or the standardization of what it means to be a Border Collie by a few long-dead individuals in the nascent Kennel Club, I wouldn’t get to type these words while throwing the frisbee to this magnificent beast, for which I say: thank you, doggy people, I salute you!
Thank you for reading The Garden of Forking Paths. If you enjoy my writing and research and want to support me, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription. Every bit helps. Alternatively, you might want to support me while giving yourself a gift by pre-ordering my new book, Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters, which comes out in early 2024. Pre-orders are crucial for authors, so please do consider buying a copy.
Despite the spelling, it’s pronounced “keys.” Don’t ask me why. Britain is weird.