Eugenics and Dog Breeds

When the science of genetics (pioneered by Gregor Mendel, peas be upon him) was still developing, well-heeled folks wanted the fruits of science. Back then, thinking and science were popular. So was Darwinism. Artificial selection (selective breeding) and eugenics were becoming fashionable. Dogs paid the price.

Eugenics and selective breeding have some things in common. Dog breeds are paying the price for people improperly selecting traits.
Credit: RGBStock / Richard Dudley
There are similar principles in the social Darwinist eugenics movement and dog breeding. Both have arbitrary criteria where only certain individuals are allowed to reproduce, and both began when genetics was not very well understood.

When it came to dog breeds, traits of temperament and appearance were emphasized. Unfortunately, undesirable and unseen traits would often appear, making the animal less able to survive. Dogs like pugs and others with faces that look pushed in often have the breathing problem known as brachycephalic syndrome. To be direct, much of selective breeding is ultimately cruel. Creationists believe that something like a wolf was the original dog kind from which all these others are derived, having a variety of good genetic characteristics. Want to own a healthy pet? Get a mutt.
Many people love purebred dogs. The distinctive features of each breed and their predictable temperaments draw many people to pay a high price to own one. But how did we come to value such features, and is this desired ‘purity’ better for the health of the dog?
Domestic dogs have been around for thousands of years, and distinct ‘types’ of dogs go far back in history, when people began selectively breeding their dogs for desirable characteristics, mostly related to the type of work the dog was supposed to do—like hunting, guarding, or herding livestock. As dogs particularly suited to their jobs were bred, some types began to take on a distinctive appearance. Some of this was due to mutations (affecting coat colour, size, facial shape, etc.). By identifying useful traits and then allowing dogs that carried the trait to inbreed with closely-related dogs, the traits were emphasized. This was the origin of dog ‘breeds’.
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As the old saying goes, dogs are man’s best friend. Dogs perform many useful tasks—from hunting to security to helping people with disabilities. Most of us would agree that we’re just glad they’re part of the family! Where did dogs come from? How can we explain the tremendous variety of dog breeds?