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The Purpose of Dogs

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October 16, 2011 Tags: History of Life
The Purpose of Dogs

Today's entry was written by Mark Sprinkle. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

A recurring topic in the discussion about whether an evolutionary account of biological origins is compatible with Christian faith is the question of teleology; that is, does the history of life on earth demonstrate (or even hint at) directionality, or purpose? This general issue takes many forms and opens up many avenues for exploration and argument, including what we mean by “randomness” and “chance” when discussing genetic change and natural selection, as well as observations about the way nature seems to repeatedly produce similar structures or body plans by different routes (convergence). Indeed, while some philosophers of science assert that it is inappropriate to speak of “purpose,” “design” or even “function” with reference to the natural world at all, except in very careful and limited circumstances, it remains the common practice of both materialist and believing writers to speak of everything from cellular microstructures to complex animal behaviors as having purpose, most often in terms of solving a problem and allowing the creature to thrive in its environment.

Despite all the other possible avenues to explore in thinking about natural teleology, I’d like to follow up on the discussion begun last week around John Leax’s poem “the clever trout,” in which I expanded on the poet’s suggestion that creation gives worship by being itself as it was created to be. Is that sort of “simply being” really just responding to survival threats and opportunities? Is the trout just finding food, the popple just resisting wind, and the jay just avoiding predators, though they be sustained by the Spirit? A couple of recent opportunities to examine the relationship between people and dogs (and my own dog, in fact) have served as reminders that purpose is much more than problem-solving while elucidating another aspect of mankind’s particular call to know and engage with the rest of God’s creation—that of cultivation, and even partnership.

The remarkable cooperative relationship between humans and canines was the subject of the most recent edition of the venerable science television show NOVA, which examined an expanding scientific interest in the study both of the natural history of the domesticated dog and of the physiological capabilities that have made it so successful in the company of people. The show discussed new research detailing dogs’ ability to scan human faces for emotional cues, for instance, and studies showing that humans can understand different barks and vocalizations which developed as a way to communicate with people rather than with other dogs.

As one would guess from the title, “Dogs Decoded” places a slight emphasis on the information gleaned from genetic analysis of dogs with regards both to their evolutionary history and potential current usefulness in the understanding of human diseases, but of most interest here are a few claims about the importance of dog domestication for the development of human culture. One speaker—University of Durham archaeologist Greger Larsen—goes so far as to claim that civilization would have been impossible were it not for canine help in the early herding stage, while Larsen’s colleague Peter Rowley-Conwy agreed and suggested that the relationship began as a mutually beneficial hunting partnership, both species being more efficient in bringing down large game in cooperative hunts with the other, thereby gaining a reproductive advantage. As a counter-theme, though, the program spent even more time discussing the way the process of domestication—a kind of “un-natural selection”—has “infantilized” modern dogs, selecting for physical traits that we regard as “cute,” even while equipping them with genetically-based skills of communicating with humans.

While dramatic (sometimes contradictory) claims are the standard fare of popular science television, what was remarkable about the program was the gulf between the suggested origins of domestication (in cooperative hunting) and the apparent “results” of the process—animals described almost exclusively as pets, companions, and even surrogate children. Surprisingly little mention was made of the long history and continued role of “working dogs” who retain specific traits and abilities from their “natural” state and exercise them regularly in cooperation with humans, or what emotional content such relationships might entail. While the term co-evolution was used for dogs and humans emerging into modern history together, the discussion of intentionality and purpose (in both humans and dogs) in the process of domestication was all but unexplored—a little disappointing considering to program’s focus on the abilities of dogs and people to understand each other’s emotions and intentions.

Into that “working dog” gap comes my own recent experiences with Griffin, our 16-month old Springer Spaniel, pictured above when just over a year old, on alert for geese in the grass along the James River. While Griffin is every bit as domesticated as the dogs discussed in the NOVA program and likes almost nothing better than to sleep on the sofa with any or all members of his family, what he does like better is hearkening back to his primordial canine job of hunting. In his case, hunting means locating, flushing (or “springing”) and then retrieving downed birds or other prey in partnership with his handler and other shooters. Like other hunting breeds, Spaniels are trained how to stay the proper distance from their human companions to keep birds in gun range, but also in order to receive instructions via voice or whistle, gesture, and eye contact.

These specific behaviors and the physical attributes bred to make them more efficient in practice mean that Griffin is as much a cultural artifact as a product of nature, though as “Dogs Decoded” made clear (and generations of sporting dog breeders and trainers agree), culture and training must have a basis in genetics. The critical point here is that nature and nurture have combined to produce something beautiful and remarkable: not just the dog himself, not even the elegant way he fulfills his half of our partnership by finding birds and putting them to wing, but the palpable sense of joy he communicates when he is doing what he was literally “made to do.” To begin circling around again to the idea that “purpose” is more than just solving a problem, Springers may have been bred initially to help in hunting birds hiding in the underbrush, but the end result of generations of guided evolution of the breed is not a product or even a practice, but a relationship.

Though only dogs seem to have had the right combination of traits to achieve the level of communication and emotional attachment to humans that dog owners everywhere take for granted, the kind of careful observation, understanding, and imagination our human forebears paid these once-wild creatures need not be limited to them alone. Indeed, the continuation of the meditation on human identity and the imago Dei begun with Leax’s poem last week is that laying aside our desires for glory ought to lead to a more grace-filled exercise of our dominion, a sense that we can and should seek the shalom of the creation first by seeking to understand it and appreciate it as it truly is.

To borrow from the language of the contemporary church, it is often said that the goal of ministry should not be to figure out what we can “do for the Lord,” but to discern what the Lord is already doing through the Spirit and join into that effort. Sometimes that means taking the time to recognize patterns, potential, possibility rather than just needs to be filled, problems to be fixed. God’s work, after all, is not just a problem-solving practice (despite the centrality of Jesus’ own saving and restoring work), but one of beauty and synthesis, of bringing things together in new ways for greater relationship in scale and complexity, for His ultimate glory in the New Jerusalem. If the defining experience in that day will be worship and joy throughout the creation, perhaps we can learn to recognize—even in the eyes of our canine companions—what makes for joy and worship in the creation now, as well.

Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.

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paul.bruggink1 - #65557

October 17th 2011

While I appreciate the points you make in your blog, particularly in your last paragraph, whats with “only dogs seem to have had the right combination of traits to achieve the level of communication and emotional attachment to humans . . ..”

You apparently haven’t talked to very many cat owners in your research. Not only can cats also relate to their human owners, but that also perform the very useful function of controlling the local rodent population. You just have to make sure they don’t have one in their mouth when you let them back in the house. I will grant that the relationship with humans is somewhat different that that of dogs, as in “People have dogs; cats have staff.”

beaglelady - #65562

October 17th 2011


It’s true that we can form emotional attachments with other species besides dogs, such  as cats, birds, and horses.  We love them and they love us back, and they contribute to our well-being.  But to fully appreciate the special place of dogs, you’d have to watch the video he links to (“Dogs Decoded”) and see how dogs can respond to pointing and read our facial expression. Fascinating stuff!  (Wish my dogs would watch it.)

And the author does point out, speaking of dogs, that “the kind of careful observation, understanding, and imagination our
human forebears paid these once-wild creatures need not be limited to
them alone.” 

Argon - #65567

October 17th 2011

We could probably attach to many simians too. But we know where that ends up in Planet of the Apes.

George Taylor [human]: Doctor, I’d like to kiss you goodbye. 
Dr. Zira [chimpanzee]: All right, but you’re so damned ugly. 
beaglelady - #65569

October 17th 2011


Roger A. Sawtelle - #65559

October 17th 2011

In evolution the environment creates niches and potential niches and gives organisms the ability to fill them.

In life God creates niches or special purposes for all people and gives them the spiritual and other abilities to fulfill them.



Larry Barber - #65568

October 17th 2011

Dogs are proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

sy - #65570

October 17th 2011


What I got from your piece was the sense of a possible analogy, which you might or might not agree with. Human beings created the modern dog, complete with a dog sort of empathy (dare I say “worship?) toward his human master. Is this analogous to the creation of man by God, a new creature with a soul, capable and desirous of worhip of his Maker? From a primordial wolf, man created dog, a clearly transcendent form of canine. From the primordial primate, God created Man, a transcendent form of hominid. Just  a thought.

Argon - #65579

October 18th 2011

One might also say that dogs helped create the modern man. After all, what is ‘dog’, spelled backwards?

beaglelady - #65571

October 17th 2011

I am reminded of a little prayer I heard:

Oh Lord, help me to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am

PNG - #65617

October 20th 2011

Most of the dogs I have known seem to think that their main purpose was to take walks. The walk is a sort of constrained hunt. My current canine friend (my brother’s family dog) is domesticated to the point that she seems to prefer being on the leash unless there is actually a squirrel or rabbit in sight to chase. After the chase (so far unsuccessful) she usually comes back and “asks” for the leash again. The working dogs that I have seen, sheep-herders in Ireland, seem to live for the work, again a modified hunt, but they didn’t have much interest in greeting people. They lived in the barn and weren’t really regarded as pets. Whether that is a matter of nature or nurture might be interesting to investigate.

lewi3346 - #65652

October 21st 2011

While cats can perform useful tasks, rodent control, they do so independently. My experience hunting with my dog is one of a partnership built on a common goal, understood roles, and solid trust. The dog and I communicate frequently to locate the birds we are hunting, get into position for the flush, and to retrieve downed birds. 

I think this degree of cooperative partnership and mutual trust is difficult to understand unless experienced. 
beaglelady - #65729

October 25th 2011

What kind of bird dog do you have?

Doug Deats - #65858

October 29th 2011

FONT face=Calibri>After fifty some years as a dog trainer I come at this from a very different direction.  Let me be up front and say that I approach all of my conclusions assuming creation with evolution within the species.  Most articles and programs I see come at it from the point of evolution.  Let me cut to the chase here and say that dogs read our minds to the point we communicate with them that way.  We on the other hand lost that capability at the tower of Babble.  If you have more than one dog you know they don’t talk to each other as we know it but they communicate somehow.  We assume they communicate at a lower level than we do but what if it is just a different level. 

FONT face=Calibri>            As with most Biblical accounts Genesis 11 is an abbreviated account leaving room to speculate on the whys and how’s of what was a civilization altering event.  What if man’s language was nonverbal and the spoken word is a manmade creation caused by our need to communicate at a different level.  What if before that we could communicate with the animals as well?

FONT face=Calibri>            I don’t have room in this format to go into this in depth but for the last twenty years I have used this theory in dog training and I am a much better dog trainer for it.

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