BOOK REVIEW: Emma Townshend’s ‘Darwin’s Dogs’

Darwin's Dogs by Emma Townshend

Darwin's Dogs by Emma Townshend

Darwin’s Dogs: How Darwin’s pets helped form a world-changing theory of evolution. By Emma Townshend. London: Francis Lincoln Limited, 2009. 144 pp. Preface, illustrations, index, acknowledgements. $14.95 (paper).

In the Darwin anniversary year, more books were published about him than probably in all the years of my life preceding 2009. More biographies, and more treatments of his work. Some books seemed to jump on the Darwin wave by connecting a topic to Darwin because, that year, it just might sell. Surely there is Darwin fatigue in publishing. In a review of new additions of Darwin’s work that appeared in 2009, historian of science Jim Endersby asked whether there can be too much of a good thing, referring to the myriad of scholarly work on Darwin, sometimes called the Darwin Industry (1). It is a reasonable question, as one can easily think that since so much has been written about a historical figure, what can possibly be written about Darwin that is new? Or what refreshing approach can be taken in looking at his life and work?

While many books seem to reiterate the standard Darwin story, what I enjoy are those that consider an unexplored or neglected topic. Such is Darwin’s Dogs, a short exposition as to the influence that the many dogs in Darwin’s life, and the group of animals dogs in general, had on Darwin’s thinking. This short book – less than 150 pages – is very readable, and provides a concise overview of Darwin and his ideas while offering a fresh perspective on the story – that “Darwin’s dogs brought evolutionary theory right to the hearth rug of the Victorian home” (9), meaning that using dogs in his writings brought something familiar to his readers.

Essentially, Darwin’s proximity to various dogs – “some of the most important characters in the story of his thinking” (9) – throughout his life taught him several things:

1. That humanity should not feel insulted by its relationship to animal ancestors,

2. That animals have emotions, morals, self-consciousness, and language, too (that human distinctiveness is a myth),

3. About variation, inheritance, and artificial selection through the practice of dog breeding (Darwin’s reliance on “practical men”),

4. The proper treatment of animals (Darwin was an antivivisectionist),

5. The similarities in behavior between dogs and humans (The Descent of Man says a lot about dogs, Townshend notes).

While the book is fun and enjoyable, and made me think differently, I feel that the way the book is presented is a bit misleading. In the Preface, Townshend invites the reader “to a rather different account of the life of Darwin, this one told from the canine point of view” (11). The description on the back of the book states “from a uniquely canine perspective.” These statements reiterate one of the purposes of Darwin’s Dogs: the consideration of other actors, even non-humans, in the history of science. I immediately thought of Bruno Latour’s microbes in The Pasteurization of France, Michael Pollan’s plants in The Botany of Desire, and the various organisms in Endersby’s A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology (one reviewer wrote “Science is a collaborative process and by looking at the roles played by unwilling collaborators, from guinea pigs to zebrafish, Endersby provides a new perspective on the history of genetics” [2]). All these works suggest that non-human actors have agency, agendas of their own. It is not simply humans that drive history.

So, reading “from the canine point of view” and “from a uniquely canine perspective,” I expected an approach (especially since Endersby is acknowledged in the book) that was lacking in Darwin’s Dogs. The book remains a story about Darwin, from his perspective in how he used dogs in his thinking. It is not told through the eyes, minds, or lives of dogs. Their actions – how they fit into the story as useful – is dependent on what Darwin is doing. Darwin’s Dogs is indeed “a rather different account of the life of Darwin,” but it is not from the “point of view” of dogs.

Furthermore, given this book is written by someone in the history of science, I was disappointed in the lack of citations (no footnotes, no endnotes) except those for the quotes that open each of the five chapters, and the lack of a bibliography or sources section. Throughout the book Townshend utilizes direct quotes from Darwin’s letters, notebooks, and publications. Yet no citations for any of them. Why? Maybe because the publisher did not want it. If I were the author of a book about history, and a publisher said they did not want citations and sources, I would find another publisher. For someone like me, familiar with Darwin’s work, I know where to find the sources (Townshend thanks the Darwin Correspondence Project and John van Wyhe/Darwin Online for “their invaluable help and resources,” [144] but no URLs are given). For a reader unfamiliar with how to track down the sources, not having those materials provided misses the opportunity to explore further than the text of the book.

Those problems aside, Darwin’s Dogs is a surprisingly rewarding little book that would be a good introduction to Darwin’s ideas. If you like dogs, all the better. The many anecdotes are informative, while the book is seeded with canine artwork. Townshend has a website for the book, Darwin’s Dogs, where you can see a little animation included within the book’s pages:


1. Jim Endersby, “Origins: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin, 1822–1859 (Anniversary edition), edited by F. Burkhardt, and other works by Charles Darwin” [essay review], History of Science 47 (Dec. 2009): 475-84.

2. Nick Rennison, Sunday Times (from the publisher’s webpage for the book).

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