The Purpose of Dogs

| By Mark Sprinkle

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.


About the Author

Mark Sprinkle

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. You can learn more about Mark's work as a writer and artist at hiswebsite.


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