A Dog-Centric Approach To Our Global Challenges

‘Who we are with dogs is who we are as people.’ — Alexandra Horowitz

Gavin Lamb, PhD
Aug 27, 2020 · 10 min read

“[Dogs] have been by our sides for thousands of years before we dreamed of traveling into space — before not just rockets, but every technological step that produced them, from metalworking to motor making. Before we were living in cities — before any of the recognizable elements of contemporary civilization were in place — we were living alongside dogs”.

– Alexandra Horowtiz, in Our Dogs, Ourselves

The Space Dog

She was called Kudryavka, or ‘Little Curly,’ but after her enthusiastic performance in an interview for Radio Moscow, people began calling her “little barker” – Laika in Russian. She was almost three years old, a husky-spitz mix who had spent her first years roaming the streets of Moscow, living a half-wild life until she was abducted, along with several other family members, by a homo sapien in a white coat. She was confined to small cages in isolation and silence, sometimes for days at a time, to habituate her senses to the dark, stressful, and ultimately deadly one-way trip that lie ahead. She was released from the cages, at times, to provide her with some escape from the stress of the constant testing: a few days before her launch, biomedical scientist Vladimir Yazdovsky brought her home to play with his children for an evening, because, as he recalled years later, “I wanted to do something nice for the dog. She had only a very short time to live you see.”

Three days before launch, she was restrained in place with shackles built into a special spacesuit to prevent the medical sensors surgically embedded in her body from ripping out; the comfortable spacesuit she wore for the media was just for show — and to conceal the scars. She was petted soothingly by technicians and fed a ‘last supper’ shortly before lift-off: soup, a main course, and dessert. At 5:30 a.m, on November 3rd, 1957, she lifted off from a launchpad in Kazakhstan. She was thrust back in her suit with G-forces five times normal gravity levels. Reports of her movements, breathing, and heart rate received on the ground via telemetry during the launch showed she was absolutely petrified: her heart rate tripled and her breath rate quadrupled.

She was alive when she reached orbit. But within 6 hours, she was dead. She was supposed to die ‘a painless death’ from oxygen deprivation in less than 15 seconds after a couple of days, Soviet space scientists assured at the time. Instead, she suffered an hours-long death, the result of a combination of dehydration, stress, and heat exhaustion from uncontrolled rising temperatures in the cockpit due to a damaged heat-shield. Sputnik 2 became a frozen space-tomb for the first earthly being to enter Earth’s orbit. Now a lifeless dog-body, she orbited Earth for five more months before exploding in the atmosphere.

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

The Ancient Dog

Thousands of years before Laika was condemned to a one-way trip into space in the name of scientific progress, before Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and Newton built the first reflecting telescope, before Copernicus published his heliocentric theory of the Universe, before the bronze age, Stonehenge and the pyramids in Egypt, a mysterious circular tomb called Newgrange (Sí an Bhrú) was built on the east coast of Ireland.

During the summer a few years ago, I remember walking through the passageway leading into Newgrange dome on a small guided tour. Huddled in the dark chamber, our guide told us how the winter solstice sunlight penetrates a small opening called a ‘roof-box’ at the entrance to the tomb. Each year, she said, sunlight illuminates the whole passage over the course of a few late December days. A strange feeling of astonishment came over me realizing how deeply attuned to the seasons and skies these ancient farmers were.

Archaeologists came to the conclusion that Newgrange was more than just a tomb. It was an ancient temple, a subtle marvel of ancient astronomical construction. Artifacts, art, and bones of human dignitaries were found in the tomb. But archaeologists also found other bones buried throughout the chamber, bones belonging to an assortment of nonhuman beings — hares, sheep, cattle, bats, goats ––and in particular, one ancient dog. Archeologists called the ancient pup the Newgrange dog.

Dan Bradley, the archaeologist who found the Newgrange dog, or rather a fragment of the ancient canine’s petrous bone, knew he had a DNA-treasure trove (petrous bones – part of the temporal bone behind your ear – are exceptionally good at preserving DNA over millennia). This allowed scientists to begin piecing together the origin story of the first dogs.

In 2016, the journalist Ed Yong reported on this new piece of the doggy-origin story. Thanks to the Newgrange dog, scientists had a genetic link to the past: geneticists Greger Larson and Laurent Frantzfull were able to compare nearly 700 modern dogs to the Newgrange dog, and what they found stunned them. As Ed Yong reported at the time,

“To their surprise, that tree had an obvious fork in its trunk — a deep divide between two doggie dynasties. One includes all the dogs from eastern Eurasia, such as Shar Peis and Tibetan mastiffs. The other includes all the western Eurasian breeds, and the Newgrange dog.”

To be clear, finding a ‘deep divide’ in doggy dynasties wasn’t what surprised Larson and Frantzfull. Indeed, this split made total sense in light of the dominant theory of dog origins at the time (circa 2016): all modern dogs were descended from a population of domesticated grey wolves somewhere in China, and then one branch of dogs broke off (alongside their human companions) and headed west into Eurasia.

What surprised them wasn’t whether a split happened, but when the split happened.

According to the new genetic evidence gained from the 4,800-year-old Newgrange dog, it was clear a split between eastern and western dogs happened sometime between 6,400–14,000 years ago. The problem is, there are dog fossils across western Europe to eastern Asia that are more ancient than that! 33,000-year-old ‘dog-like remains’ have been found in the Razboinichya Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia. And in the Goyet cave in Belgium, the 36,000-year-old fossil remains of the ‘Goyet hound’ was discovered. Because mitochondrial DNA from the Goyet hound doesn’t match modern dogs, geneticists suggest it may be an aborted domestication event. Indeed, there is emerging genetic evidence that grey wolves across the Northern Hemisphere (excluding North America) were being domesticated by hunter-gatherer cultures multiple times at least as far back 60,000 years ago, and perhaps even going back a hundred thousand years ago.

This is all to say that when a branch of those eastern dogs split off and headed west from China sometime between 6,400–14,000 years ago, there were dogs already waiting for them in Europe.

With this new genetic evidence, the big questions being asked about the origin story of dog domestication has transformed. As Ed Yong explains, “the big question is no longer when it happened, or where, but how many times.”

Photo by Thomas Bonometti on Unsplash

‘Humanity’s best friend’

Scientists use the hyphenated phrase ‘human-dog bond’ to describe our multi-millennia-old relationship with canis familiaris. But this simple hyphen glosses over our ancient connection with dogs. For much of human existence, we have participated in a kind of co-becoming with dogs. “Humans, dogs, their mutualistic interactions and their respective societies, evolved alongside one another, sharing lives, diets, microbiomes, parasites and pathogens,” a collective of dog experts write in a new study published in the journal Animals.

In recognizing our ancient biosocial entanglement with dogs, the authors make the case for a ‘dog-centric approach to our global challenges.’ “By paying attention to dogs,” they argue, “and by exploring and narrating these relationships across diverse geographies, temporalities and materialities, we are sensitised to the wider ethical and political obligations that these relations demand, thus creating worlds that are less harmful to dogs and their human partners.”

The interdisciplinary team composed of 19 of the world’s top experts on dogs from across the natural and social sciences, arts, and humanities, argue for a ‘dog-centric’ approach to address our interwoven social and ecological crises:

“a comprehensive assessment of the long-term relationship between humans and dogs can yield insights, and offer ways in which modern global challenges can be tackled.”

We, humans are too self-centered, both in the ecological problems we create, and in the solutions to those problems we come up with. We’ve even named a new geological epoch after ourselves! A little humility can’t hurt, but unfortunately, our main strategies for addressing our global challenges, the authors of the new study suggest, have been overly anthropocentric:

“anthropocentric wherein humans are conceptualised either at the centre of the natural world, or as separate from it. As such, research agendas have prioritised narrowly focused scientific investigations, despite the fact that many global challenges are fundamentally cultural and possess deep histories.”

Photo by Jay Short on Unsplash

A dog-centric approach to our global challenges

When we talk about the origin story of dogs, we’re also talking about our own origin story: where we’ve been, but also where we’re going. From caves to space.

Through our interactions together over thousands of years, both of us — dogs and humans — became something different, something other than we would have become if we had never found one another. And because these human-dog interactions didn’t occur in a vacuum, but embedded within diverse historical and cultural circumstances. This cultural and historical context means that around the world, “Dogs are viewed variously as deities, family members, workers, ‘street dogs’, anathema or food-stuffs.” These diverse dog-human relationships have had complex ripple effects – sometimes healthy, and sometimes damaging – for the well-being of the dogs, humans, and landscapes in which these relationships have unfolded.

To give a full picture, we need to recognize that our diverse cultural relationships with dogs have led to some not-so-healthy ecological consequences in the shared landscapes we’ve inhabited. Free-roaming dogs in places like Australia and New Zealand, for example, have led to a rapid decline in many threatened species, and sometimes their extinction. Yet dogs also possess superpowers that extend our human abilities to save the planet. To give just one example, dogs have been crucial to the success of many conservation efforts. Because of their incredible sense of smell, dogs have successfully been enlisted to locate endangered species so people can do the work to save them, from the North Atlantic right whale to the lowland gorilla.

Culture and history. These two dimensions profoundly shape our global challenges, but they tend to be the first to get washed away by technoscientific, top-down solutions embraced by the dominant international development approach to saving the planet. It is common to hear calls from government leaders, scientists, and businesses for ‘humanity’ to act on our environmental problems. In these calls for action, human beings are often imagined as a homogenous global force that is both the cause and the solution to our growing ecological crisis.

But the fact that we live in a deeply fragmented and unequal world make these calls for ‘humanity’ to act — for our species to somehow unite and face the global challenges of ecological degradation and social inequality we ourselves have caused — incoherent at best.

As the environmental law professor Jedidiah Purdy puts it, “to face the Anthropocene [and all the global challenges it presents us with], humans would need a way of facing one another. We would need, first, to be a we.” He suggests that the ‘we’ we would need to become –– a ‘we’ with the power to act — can only emerge through democratic institutions where our collective actions might actually be translated into international networks of cooperation. Without these institutions, “the ‘humanity’ that the scientists appeal to floats insubstantially above actual political choices,” he writes.

But a dog-centric approach to our global challenges shakes this up a bit. It takes up this challenge to build a networked and empowered ‘we’ in new directions; it’s an approach that suggests the ‘we’ we so often call upon to act is barking up the wrong tree. A dog-centric approach suggests, paradoxically, that to first become the kind of ‘we’ that can act at the scale and complexity necessary to address our global environmental and societal crises, we would first need to burst our anthropocentric bubble by looking outside ourselves.

In other words, we would need to recognize how our interdependence with the nonhuman living world is what makes us human in the first place. As the authors imply, the ‘we’ we need to become to adequately address the monumental challenges we face in the world must be a ‘multispecies’ we.

Alexandra Horowitz, a co-author of the study and one of the world’s leading dog cognition scientists, puts it this way:

“Who we are with dogs is who we are as people. Every cruelty, embrace, neglect, indulgence, shows us the measure of ourselves when no one is watching. Who would we become as a species if we try to see them anew, for their sake? We’d be an animal I would be glad to know.”

Wild Ones

Inspiring, creative and educational ideas in environmental writing and communication

Gavin Lamb, PhD

Written by

I’m a researcher and writer in ecolinguistics and environmental communication. Get my weekly digest of nature writing ideas/tools: https://wildones.substack.com

Wild Ones

Wild Ones

Inspiring, creative and educational ideas in environmental writing and communication

Gavin Lamb, PhD

Written by

I’m a researcher and writer in ecolinguistics and environmental communication. Get my weekly digest of nature writing ideas/tools: https://wildones.substack.com

Wild Ones

Wild Ones

Inspiring, creative and educational ideas in environmental writing and communication

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