Dog breeds. What are they good for? Part 1.
Recently someone asked me about dog breeds. Specifically, how and why the various breeds were created in the first place? and why do we still have them now? Here are my thoughts:
The concept of a breed of animal or plant is relatively new, only taking hold about a 150 years ago at a time when people were moving away from the idea that everything was controlled by the all-knowing sky wizard and towards the notion that through science (or at least science-y sounding systems) man could control nature and mold it to his tastes. The "sport" of pure breeding dogs came about when social, political, and scientific forces such as Darwinism (and its twisted off-shoot Eugenics) and the Victorian mania for classifying everything from insects to elements all sort of lined up.
Soon, all kinds of "pure" dog breeds were created synthetically by mixing general types of dogs or, in some cases, by distilling naturally occurring land races that had been around for centuries. Studbooks were opened for them, then slammed shut as soon as enough fathers were bred to their daughters and mothers to their sons. Next, the breed's back stories were written and greatly embellished or even pulled out of thin air.
And for a while it worked! Breeds flourished and seemed to pop up everywhere. They were declared independent and separate from the others over the flimsiest of excuses...a different shade of coat colour, a few centimeters of size, being on the wrong side (or right side depending on where you were) of some political border or river or mountain range. In fact, the divisions between breeds are the most artificial aspect of the entire system. They exist only in the overheated imaginations of breed supporters. Skin all the pointing breeds out for example, ignore a few inches of height and some aspects of head shape and they are all pretty much interchangeable.
But here we are in 2011, and we know all about the dangers of closed studbooks and the risks of shallow gene pools and breeds kept so "pure" that all the members are nearly clones of each other...and suffering terrible disease as a result. So why do will still have "pure" breeds and why do we spend so much time, energy and money keeping the artificial divisions between them intact?
Because their very existence depends on people being people...sentimental, superstitious, silly, not nearly as bright as we think we are... people.
Dogs exist to please us and somehow we find pleasure in having so many different breeds. Somehow, knowing that on many levels it makes zero sense to keep breeds "pure", we recoil from the thought of "polluting" our breed with the unclean blood of another. Dog breeds still exist because we've all bought into an outdated, disproved Victorian fantasy about pureness of blood, royal families, breed improvement and social climbing. Basically, our forefathers brewed a batch of kool-aid and we are still eagerly sipping on it.
Yet some people have managed to see past the smoke and mirrors. But they are not running pointing dogs. They are running "mutts" in the Iditarod. And their dogs would run circles around ours.
Continue reading in Part 2: Should we maintain the "pure" breeds or just mix them all up?