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The Weimaraner and the Wolf

Cremisi's picture


In comparison to the overall age of the entire world, the individual human life occupies so little of Earth’s time. The human race in its entirety is a mere hiccup in the span of its life and death. More time has passed in the world than the human can even begin to understand; the human version of a “long while” is but infancy to an evergreen tree; the entire victorian epoch may seem like a single day to an old boulder covered in lichen. Thinking about such a long amount of time is immobilizing to the thinker. So difficult is it to comprehend, Darwin’s debate, that everything arose from a something or one thing, actually seems plausible. When it comes to an amount of time that becomes a bit more comprehendible, roughly, 10,000 years (just imagine Julius Caesar's time until now times two) it suddenly becomes  more difficult to believe in a great change in  species. Homo sapiens, besides obvious height and size differences, generally look the same. Even cats, whose breeding habits exhibit much more variance than many of today’s domestic animals, tend to have similar shape and size in their bodies. Dogs, on the other hand, propose a very curious dilemma. How can all dog breeds, who look very different than each other from height to face to fur possibly have come into a such diverse being? If one is to look at the rat terrier--its bulging eyes, silken yet haggard hair, chicken-bone like legs, and a delicate, soft maw (behind which lies two rows of pearly infantile teeth)is the last thing one would think about while imagining the lineage of a majestic Canis lupus, the wolf, standing on the edge of a cliff, howling, with a dead fox at its feet. The process of evolution is not a static, one-speed assembly line with a timer for all organisms. Dogs, through a mixture of natural selection and domestic selection and lots of breeding and adjusting were able to, as a species, jump start the process of change in a rapid way.

Darwin’s well-known experiments with pigeons attempts to recognize that all pigeons--whether they be rock, passenger, carrier, etc. are (though it is contrary to what one would think) all related and share only one common ancestor. This is not to say, however, that it is entirely Darwin’s “natural selection”. All throughout this particular section of his writing, Darwin stresses the “malleability” of species when they are subject to the hands of breeders. That through their selection of which animal to breed, small accumulations of change build up more and more over time until an explosion of a different breed appears. He goes on to say however, that it is an entirely unconscious effort. A breeder has no idea that he or she is making a new variation or sub-species. He or she simply picks out a specific animal for a small reason--perhaps slightly longer tail feathers, and traits that exist alongside those longer tail feathers build up and up over the years until it transforms the organism entirely. 

“...[breeders] refuse to sum up in their minds slight differences accumulated during successive generations (Darwin, 111)

 It is this utter obliviousness or lack of an “educated eye” which, in Darwin’s opinion, attributes to the fact that we are baffled by the large variation seen in animals like dogs or pigeons. These organisms were always constantly changing little by little--but we took no notice. 

“I think these views further explain what has sometimes been noticed--namely that we know nothing about the origin or history of any of our domestic breeds--but, a breed, like a dialect of language, can barely be said to have a definite origin.” (Darwin, 119) Through Darwin’s theory, we could account for the wide variety of shapes, sizes and looks in dogs as follows: dogs have always been changing, and humans select dogs to fit certain human needs better (nimble dogs for herding, dogs with great sense of scent for hunting, etc.) However, we are oblivious to the change, and the small accumulations build up more and more until we find that we have a new species. 

In almost a direct response to Darwin, Jay Gould, author of “Eight Little Piggies” seems to completely discredit any insight or theory made by Darwin regarding the divergence of dog breeds. Gould argues that unlike Darwin’s concept of breeders having a “magician’s wand” (that is, they have the ability to shape species any way they want after successive generations) there is only so much people have an influence in when it comes to changing an animal. Gould’s argument pushes that it is not so much the efforts of humans, but rather “personalities” of dogs, that were available on a giant spectrum that were chosen to be the most prevalent in domestic dogs. 

“The great variation among dog breeds is not uniform among all parts, but concentrated in those features that supply raw material in growth and evolutionary history--dog breeds form along permitted paths of available variation...comparative diversity among domesticated species depends more upon available variation in the growth of wild ancestors than in the extent of human affairs” (Gould, 389)

Gould focuses intently on the skeletons of different sized dogs. He stresses that though they may look different when they are alive, their skeletons are all very similar in structure. They exhibit a continuous trajectory of development. Gould claims that adult dog skeletons of a smaller breed look nearly identical to the skeleton of a puppy in a larger breed. In addition to this, the trajectory of development and growth in different breeds seems to hang together. Gould then implies that it is not so much that we are dealing with different dog breeds, but rather normal dogs, and midget dogs that are all on the same pathway of growth. Some dogs however, just stop at certain areas. Later in his article, Gould briefly sides with Darwin to say that humans may have some influence over the breeding of dogs. Humans were have said to have domesticated wolves when they were puppies because puppies express friendliness, have big soft eyes, and lack the viciousness learned later in their adulthood. When humans began to domesticate dogs, the innocent persona found in wolves was the personality in dogs that was somehow stunted and frozen to make it an unending cycle of a dog’s life. A peculiar phenomena that Gould mentions is paedomorphosis (child-shaped), a natural evolutionary process that, for reasons unknown, produces a retention of a child-like state. The round faces, short snouts, fuzzy fur and playful demeanor that humans found appealing in wolf puppies had been transferred behaviorally and physically to adult dogs. 

Another theory on the large span of dogs is by Charles Vila, who, after extensive research with MtDNA and dogs, came up with the possibility that there were originally four dog groups around the world: the dingo, the New Guinea singing dog, the collie, and  the retriever. Though it is unclear whether it was occasional or rampant, these dogs bred with wolves and created what Vila believes are the numerous types of breeds we see today. That is, not all dogs came from a direct descent from wolves, but that four types of dogs emerged, and then they bred with wolves, changed, and produced different types of dogs. 

The one thing certain about time is that we cannot, at least for now, go back in it and observe what has happened on earth. When it comes to dogs and their diversity, it is still an unanswered question. Darwin proposed that the breeds’ divergence arose from the “magic wand” of breeders that, unbeknownst to them, obliviously selected new traits to compile and flourish into a new sub-species. Gould, on the other hand, gives very little credit to Darwin’s theory when it comes to the role of the breeder. Gould instead asserts that all dogs’ development lies on a trajectory of growth and some dogs start and stop on different places than other dogs do. Vila then brings in the idea that perhaps not all dogs came directly from the wolf, but four different main families of dogs which would indicate that dogs are even more varied than we would have thought. In all though, they seem to work hand in hand. The four different dog breeds gave rise to many different dogs. When humans found the puppies of these dogs, they found their traits--such as playfulness, soft, big heads and round eyes rather amicable and they sought to somehow preserve and retain this juvenile behavior and physical appearance  seen in so many dogs today. Then, while trying to sort dogs by behavior and a desire for differing sizes, the breeder, without thinking of creating a potential beast of burden, finds a dog to be pleasing to him or her, and, at the same time, useful for different reasons. 


Works Cited 

Darwin, Charles, and Joseph Carroll. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2003. Print. 

"Gould, Stephen Jay." Info:Main Page - New World Encyclopedia. Web. 13 Feb. 2011. <>. 



Paul Grobstein's picture

domestication and natural selection

Some interesting issues here, not unrelated to our discussion of natural selection.  Is it the intrinsic variability in dogs that is responsible for the kind of variation we see in dog breeds or is it the preferences of breeders?  Is the preferences of breeders conscious or unconscious?  Perhaps a bit of all of the above, in domestication and natural selection?