I became interested in dog breeds recently, not because I particularly like dogs (I don’t, and certainly I would never want to own one; I don’t like the idea of something that is totally dependent on you that you know for a fact you will never have a conversation with, it would be like having a child only without the basic futural aspect of child-rearing which is why I imagine people would do it, the fact that the child will hopefully one day grow up to become someone you can talk to and achieve things you can be proud of), but because they keep attacking me while I am out running (this is another reason why I don’t like dogs, although this time more on the level of practice rather than theory). I don’t quite know exactly what it was that initially led me to want to find out about dog breeding, maybe it was to work out which ones were more likely to attack me, or maybe it was just so I could better recognise my assailants, but either way, I became fascinated by how dog breeding is, effectively, a way of torturing these animals through their DNA across generations.
A few months before this, I started to notice how all the Old Masters seem to be very bad at painting dogs. I’d go round galleries and start giggling at how awkwardly rendered every dog looked (Tate Britain stands out as a gallery with a high concentration of badly painted dogs, you could release a book called Bad Dogs of the Tate Britain, I’d buy it). It wasn’t just that they had difficulty painting the fur or anything like this (although frequently this was the case): everything about the animals looked wrong. The proportions were all off, the limbs, the torsoes, the faces, the eyes. Dogs contorted into weird and unnatural positions, in the middle of blandly naturalistic scenes. And it wasn’t just the crappy Old Masters either. A lot of top guys really struggled to really do dogs (I’ve used the example of a Cranach below, unfortunately it’s kind of hard to source bad Old Masters representations of dogs online, the most obvious examples don’t tend to find their way to the top of Google Image Search).
But maybe, I’ve now realised, it isn’t ineptitude after all. Maybe it is just that back then, dogs simply looked very different. Dog Breeding really took off in the middle of the 19th century, when groups of enthusiasts, presumably under the influence of contemporary ideas about eugenics, decided to take it upon themselves to standardise the breeds. Dog breeds, of course, already existed, but they tended to result from particular uses that particular sorts of dogs have: this is where we get names like ‘terrier’ or ‘retriever’ from, or the idea of a ‘water dog’, they were bred to perform particular duties in the hunt; likewise sheepdogs were, obviously, bred to herd sheep, toy dogs were bred to sit in the laps of court ladies, and so on and so forth. As breeds became more standardised, we began to get this kind of dog-show aestheticisation and straightjacketing of particular physical characteristics, with individual breeds bred towards some imposed ideal of breed-perfection, thus leading to the majority of them becoming saddled with a thick catalogue of genetic illnesses: heart problems, hip dysplasia, and even something called ‘Cocker Spaniel Rage Syndrome’, in the throes of which your usually friendly cocker spaniel will suddenly flip out and start attacking everyone in their vicinity, before, with equal suddenness, calming down and seeming to forget all about the incident.
Perhaps though the effects of breed standardisation can be observed no better than in the figure of the Pug, an animal which just in existing as it does looks like it is constantly being tortured. Its squat legs, its heavy breathing, its weird folded-up face… the pug suffers from genetic deformations of the spine, from a suceptibility to serious brain illness, from hip dysplasia, from a propensity for its eyes to prolapse, from respiratory problems with cause it to exhibit something called ‘reverse sneezing’. The wrinkles in its face must be regularly cleaned by its owner, or the pug will experience a build-up of dirt and fungal infection. The pug, I am told, cannot breed without assistance (whatever it is that ‘assistance’ here entails). I am, really, unsure how anyone can own a pug, and indeed I think pug ownership would seriously make me question someone’s ethical character. How can you not look at this animal and want to put it out of its misery? Surely it would be the only humane thing to do.
And yet, this must be a relatively recent thing for the pug, to get into the current state it is in. William Hogarth owned a pug, and if we look at his painting of his pet we see… something that does not look all that much like a pug. We see a healthy dog, with lithe legs that seem almost long in proportion to its body. Its face is not especially wrinkly, its body is not especially squat, its eyes are not popping out of its skull and it does not seem to be having difficulty breathing. All of these characteristics, are the result of the standardisation of dog breeds, and in standardising the pug in particular, we have sedimented their torture, to use that line again from the start of this piece, in their very DNA.
John McDowell, following Gadamer, defines the difference between ‘human’ and ‘animal’ life in the following way: animals exist in a ‘mere environment’, which provides them with brutely causal, sensory stimulations presenting certain problems and opportunities that must be overcome or taken up. The animal is free neither in relation to the stimuli provided by this environment or its own instincts: it is bound by a set of biological imperatives that it has no control over. The human being, by contrast, is able to inhabit a ‘world’, in relation to which it is, importantly, free: what we experience is not, for McDowell, something we are bound by merely causally. We can roam over genuinely alternative possibilities regarding the world we find ourselves inhabiting. This means that we can have a transformative relationship with both our instincts and environment: an illustration of this is provided in McDowell’s fable of the rational wolves from ‘Two Sorts of Naturalism’ where, in the wolf-community that has acquired powers of reason, individual wolves can now take a critical stance towards statements like “wolves hunt in packs,” which previously would have been something they did simply as a matter of instinct and could not question.
What do the dog’s instincts tell it to do? More modern developments in dog breeding have of course (as above) compounded this, but the dog was in truth always a sort of human creation, an animal bred from wolves precisely to be a companion to human beings. A dog is an animal that is psychologically incapable of not bonding with its human masters, the very creatures that are responsible for what is in cases like the purebred pug its lamentable genetic state, the fact that it spends its whole life in pain. It is the saddest animal in many ways: its biological imperatives don’t just tell it to get food or fuck or flee from danger or anything like that, they bind it to its oppressor. Or perhaps it is not just dogs: perhaps this is something common to all domesticated animals.
The thing is though, that the human being is, in a sense, a domesticated animal too. There is a fact I heard once which I really like, that domesticated animals tend to resemble juvenile members of the species they have been domesticated from. And that human behaviour is, apparently, in certain key ways similar to that of young bonobos. From this, we must draw the conclusion that the human being is the only animal in history that has been successful in domesticating itself. But are we, like other domesticated animals such as the dog, then, also bound to our oppressors (to ourselves, or other members of our species)? It is all very well and good to define ‘human life’ as involving operations of reason freely roaming over alternative possibilities, but how free are we really? Recently I’ve been reading McDowell’s philosophy not as one that is trying to describe things as they are, but how they ought to be. If we really were human beings in his sense, then we would, yes, be in possession of a world that we could stand in a free relation to. But this human being has yet to exist: just look around you, just look at your own life and all the dumb crap you have to do just to survive, the idea that we are at this current stage in history able to be humans in McDowell’s sense is laughably optimistic.
The dog’s instincts and physical body bear the marks of the torture it has had inflicted upon it by its human masters in a way that we can discern. It is fair I think to draw an analogy here between dogs and human beings: as a special sort of domesticated animal, our behaviour and appearance would, looked on with the right critical eye, bear similar marks. The question is what we can do to transform them. With dogs for instance, perhaps we can uncontroversially aspire to curtail some of the more serious negative effects of selective breeding. But there would come a point, for instance if we decided to breed out their instinctive dependence on human beings, that they would no longer really be dogs. Perhaps similarly if we aspired to undo all the effects of historical and genetic torture on ourselves, there would come a point where we were no longer human beings. Of course a lot of people might be prepared to then make the leap and say that this would be a good thing. I am reminded however of Adorno’s line about the citizens of the wrong life being unable to recognise the right life: because we are creatures for whom the bad life, our sedimented history of torture, is in part constitutive of ourselves, the right life precisely could not exist for us. So could we even seriously say that we would want it in the first place?