The Greatest Show on Earth

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals


‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent.  It is the one most adaptable to change’ Charles Darwin – 1809 -1892

I begin my last contribution of the year with a slightly condensed quotation from one of the most influential (and well written) books ever published:

‘A man who intends keeping pointers naturally tries to get as good dogs as he can, and afterwards breeds from his owna best dogs, but he has no wish or expectation of permanently altering the breed. Nevertheless I cannot doubt that this process, continued during centuries, would improve and modify any breed, in the same way as … by this very same process, only carried on more methodically, [farmers] did greatly modify, even during their own lifetimes, the forms and qualities of their cattle…   There is reason to believe that King Charles’s spaniel has been unconsciously modified to a large extent since the time of that monarch. Some highly competent authorities are convinced that the setter is directly derived from the spaniel, and has probably been slowly altered from it. It is known that the English pointer has been greatly changed within the last century, and in this case the change has, it is believed, been chiefly effected by crosses with the fox-hound; but what concerns us is, that the change has been effected unconsciously and gradually, and yet so effectually, that, though the old Spanish pointer certainly came from Spain I am informed .. any native dog in Spain like our pointer …has not been seen.’

I have been reading marvellous book by the writer of The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, which sent me, back to the author of the above quote, Charles Darwin, It comes from On the Origin of Species.  If you read it incidentally, please use the first edition.  You can get it in paperback and there is a marvellous facsimile publication that costs just twenty-eight pounds.  (Don’t bother with an original first edition unless you have won the lottery: it will set you back between £35,000 and £50,000!)  The reason for focusing on the first edition is that Darwin came under so much pressure from the Church and some colleagues during his lifetime, that he made a number of changes to the original.  However, research since that first edition was written has shown that he was right in almost every respect and he had no need to change or amend his position.

Anyway, back to ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ by Richard Dawkins, the latest in a long line of books about evolution that describes the background, process and the development of the living world in a way that is both readable, enjoyable and understandable.  Dawkins reminds us that Darwin began his journey with domesticated animals and as you can see from the quote above often uses dogs as examples of the way in which we can alter both the physical appearance and the mental set of animals by selecting for the characteristics that we want to retain and against those characteristics we wish to lose.  Darwin was very fond of pigeons, so pigeons are also highlighted in the early chapters and this reminds me of the wonderful lectures of Wendy Boorer who often referred to the breeding of fancy pigeons.  They look wonderful but the way in which their beaks have been developed means that they are unable to help their chicks hatch and the eggs have to be cracked by the breeder. This is perhaps a less drastic process than Caesarean section but nevertheless makes the same point that selective breeding is not always in the best interests of the animal!

I am sorry to keep straying from the subject but there are so many fascinating insights in this book that it is very difficult to keep to the point.  Darwin developed his ideas about evolution, now excepted as scientific fact by all those prepared to examine the evidence, on the group of islands, the Galapagos, off the coast of South America.  You will know that what he noticed was the extraordinarily similarities between different species between one island and another along with specific changes in their physical form which indicated that they had adapted themselves to different environments.  Dawkins compares breeds of dogs with such islands and, of course, evolution is an inevitable consequence of any sort of ‘island’.  Such an island might be an oasis surrounded by desert or a lake surrounded by land: anything that confines a species to a specific stable environment can be considered an ‘island’ in this sense.

Under normal circumstances evolution is extraordinarily slow but this is not always the case.  For instance, a forest of trees in the Midlands in the 60s was home to a species of black moth which fed and rested on the barks of the trees.  The genetic make-up of the moths was such that occasionally, white moths were born which, of course, were quickly picked off by birds because they were easily visible.  Naturally they did not survive to breed.  However, the reason the barks of the trees were so dark was because a local factory was spilling out soot filled smoke and when, under the first Clean Air Act, the factory had to close it was not very long before the bark of the trees became a normal and much lighter colour.  Within eighteen months naturalists realised that almost all the black moths had disappeared and had been replaced by the now successful white ones.

Dawkins compares our pedigree dog breeds to man-made ‘virtual islands’ where we as breeders artificially created barriers between one breed and another.  It is a fascinating concept because he opines that the development of each breed becomes increasingly difficult as the gene pool becomes more homogenous and suggests that the most effective way of improving the quality of breeds is by the judicious and carefully monitored introduction of DNA from another species.  We have seen this concept already being taken on board by the Kennel Club in the case of Dalmatians – although it would be true to say that few enthusiasts view the prospect with anything other than apprehension.

His discussions about what happens to species that have been domesticated and then left to their own devices is fascinating and he continually refers to well designed research throughout the book.  The experiments he describes are brilliantly conceived and explained.  As many of you will know, I have considerable doubts about some of the research thata is carried out by some groups of animal behaviourists on canine psychology and the cognitive abilities and reactions of dogs. When you compare these often badly designed experiments and their haphazard findings with the elegant and conclusive work that Richard Dawkins describes, it is not surprising that I and some of my colleagues in the ‘real’ world of dog training feel such despair, anger and frustration.

Dawkins sets out clear principles for what he calls ‘deliberate’ and ‘unconscious’ breeding strategies and refers to sound research and many specific examples throughout this wonderful book so in my view, it should be read by all of us seeking to improve the health, welfare and quality of pedigree dogs.  What I found particularly refreshing was the fact that what he writes is factual and sensible.  He is never judgemental and takes no emotional ‘side’.  He is pragmatic and thoughtful – and offers solutions rather than impractical exhortation.

Please get a copy: there is much to amuse as well as to educate.  For instance, why is it that while the confirmation of adult pedigree dogs can be so very different , why do they all look so very similar when they are born?  Richard Dawkins provides the answer. I hope you are intrigued enough to buy the book and to read it.

A very happy New Year to you all.

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