Pit_Bull_with_baby_1892#2The dog world is obsessed with breeds and genetics. There’s a general assumption that most modern breeds have some or other ancient and ‘pure’ genetic lineage, and that any dilution of this line will inevitably prove to be deleterious both physically and behaviourally. There’s also a widespread notion that behaviour is directly genetically determined, and this even extends into some science writing and reporting. Of course it’s all either completely erroneous, or a gross over-simplification of a very complex dynamic. Yet it remains stubbornly unmovable.

The form of many dog breeds has changed dramatically even in my lifetime. Which begs the question: why do we assume some narrow genetic lineage over centuries when shape and form (morphology) is so plastic even under the very rigid control that defines modern professional dog breeding? This photo of an English Bulldog dated 1892 shows a dog that is nominally of the same breed as the modern incarnation – the breed currently subjected to so much handwringing and concern due to its physical incapacitation. Is anyone seriously suggesting that these two morphological types (dog in photo and modern English Bulldog) possess an identical genotype? And if it were so, what would that say about the relationship between genotype and form?


The origin of the modern breed

The reality is far more immediate: In mid-nineteenth Century England, a mere 40 or so working ‘breeds’ (defined by function not heredity) were catalogued prior to the onset of the Victorian Dog Fancy. In the first half of the 1800’s, the coincidence of various events changed the way dogs would be perceived and kept forevermore; how they were bred, and who did so and why.

In England in 1824 the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed, and in 1835 bull and bear baiting was banned, at the same time as the formation of the first dog shows1 The gift of a Pekingese (later named Looty – oh, the irony!) by Lieutenant Dunne to Queen Victoria following the second opium war of 1860, (after the sacking of Peking and the looting of the Imperial Summer Palace), lent a royal endorsement that caused a dramatic increase in the keeping and showing of pet dogs by the middle classes and the gentry. And this just at a time when the working class were becoming less prolific dog owners due to the earlier legislative restrictions.

Now we have over 400 breeds recognized around the world, and most of the dog owning public aren’t aware that the vast majority of these modern dog breeds were actually the product of this very recent episode of middle-class recreational whimsy in the optimistic mid-19th Century, or came about even later than that. The Victorians reveled in experimentation with novelty in dog forms: in shape, size and appearance, and often the more unusual or even outlandish, the better. Until then dogs had been classified according to function, but during this period the emphasis moved to appearance; both criteria still vested in the observable phenotype (defining dogs through genotype – isolating gene pools and restricting breeding – came much later).


The rise of biological determinism

But in the latter part of that century, the emergence of a darker social and political mood saw the emergence of a movement that would gratuitously misapply the seminal works of both Mendel and Darwin, and employ these recent discoveries about heritability and evolution for ideological purposes – purposefully or not, they formed a pseudo-scientific justification for the catastrophe that was colonialism. That, and a powerful tool with which to shore up the increasingly besieged European nobility.

At the time, the dark side of eugenics was not immediately apparent to many of its adherents. At stages, it attracted a wide variety of supporters that included such social progressives as George Bernard Shaw, Margaret Sanger, H G Wells, Marie Stopes, and John Maynard Keynes. It was also supported by political heavyweights such as Winston Churchill and Theodore Rooseveld. Only with the rise and fall of Nazism, with their reworking of eugenics into a notion of ‘racial hygiene’, was the truly pernicious implications of the philosophy fully appreciated.

..suddenly morphological differences were no longer simply a matter of fashion or caprice, but rather had become an issue of ‘better’ or ‘worse’; ‘entitled’ or ‘undeserving’ instead

But back then, by the end of the 1800’s, the middle-class obsession with novelty and experimentation had rapidly given way to these ideas rooted in Social Darwinism, where suddenly morphological differences were no longer simply a matter of fashion or caprice, but rather had become an issue of ‘better’ or ‘worse’; ‘entitled’ or ‘undeserving’ instead. Suddenly lineage had become an overriding and defining principle, and a swathe of problems attributed no longer to social conditions but instead to inherited ‘unfitness’.


It is germane to note that the term “survival of the fittest”, first coined by sociologist Herbert Spencer in his book “Principles of Biology” and included only in Darwin’s 5th edition of “Origin of the Species”, was intended by the latter as a metaphor for “better adapted for immediate, local environment” rather than the more common interpretation of “in the best physical shape” -  stronger, faster, more able. Crediting Spencer with the term “survival of the fittest” in his introduction to the fifth edition, Darwin explained that it more succinctly avoided possible anthropomorphic assumptions that may have been invoked by his previously chosen phrase, “natural selection” (selection suggesting some conscious choice)2

But by the early 20th Century, Social Darwinism and its most problematic offspring – the Eugenics Movement, (named by Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton) – had appropriated Darwin’s theory of “natural selection” and re-engineered the concept of “survival of the fittest” to imply the ‘dog eats dog’ / ‘cream rises to the top’ interpretations of the phrase that have since come to dominate the general public’s understanding. In this day and age we frequently underestimate how influential this strand of faulty thinking actually was in its heyday, and how much it has seeped into the popular imagination, especially as regards how evolution and heritability are understood.


Genetic purity and the dog world

And it has had a profound impact on the dog world (as well as the bloodstock industry), where many of eugenics’ core principles, despite being entirely discredited in the human domain, have remained intact in one form or another. Despite decades of research affirming the complex interplay between genes, nutrition, experience and environment in producing the final outcomes, the distinction between genetic difference and allelic variation and the unambiguous debunking of genetic determinism, the simplistic idea that temperament and behaviour – even in an organism as complex as the domestic dog – can still be determined and manufactured simply through diligent controlling of genetic input, remains untrammelled. In a world still struggling with the ruinous legacy of colonial conquest, racial discrimination and inequality, this popular oversimplification of evolution, genetics and development must continue to be a serious impediment to progress.


Back to Pit Bulls

What does all of this have to do with Pit Bulls? Recapping this history is important as the debate about Pit Bulls remains coloured by it: both the arguments in support of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), and those opposing it. And this includes much of the breed advocacy. There are obdurate assumption of linearity and heredity, of the belief about genetics predetermining behaviour, and a conviction that problems can be solved by eliminating and/or external controlling genetic proliferation.

In my previous Pit Bull posting I mentioned some of the more obvious, practical impediments to solving the problem of dog attacks via legislation: that the Pit Bull is not an identifiable ‘breed’ as we understand the term in modern dog husbandry (i.e. belonging to a clearly circumscribed and registered genetic pool to which breeding must be restricted – a form of pre-zygotic selection). It isn’t, and hasn’t been historically (with very few breed registries around the world even recognizing the ‘breed’). It is a dog ‘type’, still most often described by its simple, informal, phenotypical descriptor: Pit Bull, and far less often by the many attempted formalizations such as American Pit Bull Terrier, or American Staffordshire Bull Terrier etc. Of course there have been regular attempts to formalize and regularise this dog type – and all that has led to is yet more variations on the same theme.

The historical English Bulldog was a functionally labeled dog ‘type’, hugely popular amongst the bawdy classes in England during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Both then and since, there have been a glut of derivations and breed/type hybridizations, some later assumed into the ambit of breed recognition, and others not. The Bulldog itself is probably a descendent of Mollosoid ancestors, which have themselves spawned a veritable kaleidoscope of breeds, types and derivations since. Any legislation targeting any one or more of these ‘types’ specifically will just inspire the emergence of other derivations. The Dangerous Dogs Act in the UK is a perfect example of the folly of this approach.


Purpose defines form

The constant assertion that this ‘breed’ is innately aggressive implies an inherited trait. This is untenable, and misunderstands the evolution of behaviour and more specifically of aggression. Aggression is not a unitary ‘thing’, or a biological trait. It is a description of a variety of responses to various stimuli, is most often perfectly adaptive and necessary for species and individual survival. But that doesn’t mean for one minute it can’t be problematic as well. But in evolutionary terms, selective forces predetermine structure, not the other way around: “Behaviour is the functional component of evolutionary change. How well an animal runs is the selective force, not its legs.3

And where artificial selection is the predominant determinant, all dog breeds are hybrid saltations (sudden and large-scale changes from one generation to the next) of ancestral types, and crossbreeding does not create averages of the two parents, but quickly establishes a new and unique phenotype which can be maintained as a new breed4.

The history of dog keeping is all about mixing and matching, changing characteristics we don’t like and reinforcing those we do. This is the way we shaped the modern Staffordshire Bull Terrier, another Bull/Terrier variant originally selected for baiting/fighting but now with almost no association with human-directed aggression. If we want to change the Pit Bull Terrier, or even eliminate the tendency of Staffies to constantly fight with other dogs, then we should change the phenotypes by selecting against these tendencies.

If we want to change the Pit Bull Terrier, or even eliminate the tendency of Staffies to constantly fight with other dogs, then we should change the phenotypes by selecting against these tendencies.

Of course this endeavour will be made a great deal easier if dog people stopped being so precious about this spurious notion of the inherent superiority of ‘purebreeds’, engaged in some breed hybridization themselves to eliminate much of the horrible congenital diseases and genetic abnormalities that afflict so many breeds today due to systematic inbreeding, and concentrate on selecting for the kinds of behaviour and temperament that best suits their intended function for all dogs they breed. That’s the actual history of dogs in human care.

Furthermore, the question that’s being constantly overlooked in the discussion favouring BSL, seems to me to be the most obvious one. If we are to categorize these dogs functionally as ‘weapons dogs’, surely the issue of why people wish to keep dogs as weapons needs interrogation? This is a sociological problem, not one of animal management. Because if weapons dogs is what people want, they will be able to easily retread just about any Mollosian variation for this purpose in just a few generations. If we can change the content of the narrative, then perhaps we can finally end the incessant squabbling and work towards solving the problems that everyone, ultimately, wants to solve. In my opinion, the important issues are being totally obfuscated by belligerence on all sides right now.

Next post:

In my next posting I will specifically address the comment posted on my first Pit Bulls posting about the role of the Humane Movement and breed advocacy.


  1. Kesling, J. (2011). Diversity and Breed Distinction of Canis familiaris, http://responsibledog.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/diversity-and-breed-distinction-of-canis-familiaris/
  2. Darwin, Charles (1869), On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (5th ed.), London: John Murray.
  3. Coppinger, R & Coppinger, L, (1996). Biologic Bases of Behavior of Domestic Dog Breeds, V. L. Voith and P. L. Borchelt, Eds., Readings in Companion Animal Behavior, Veterinary Learning Systems, Trenton, NJ. pp 9-18.
  4. ibid

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  • Eric

    Very interesting article. It is worth noting that the domestic dog shows a wide range of genetic variability, which consequently leads to great ‘plasticity’ in form. This, I think, makes it impossible to ‘fix’ the form of a breed – over time, it will change (as evidenced by the photograph of the bulldog).

    Regarding your articles on dog attacks – I think that your analysis of the social and economic roots of these attacks is particularly helpful and gets us out of the ‘bad owner vs bad breed’ paradigm. It is also worth noting that in African communities, dogs have a particular cultural significance and are seen to be associated with the ancestors. I think that any intervention aimed at improving conditions for dogs must be based upon a thorough understanding of the cultural and social milieu in which they move. I am also not convinced that there is a dog over-population problem. This seems to be a subjective assumption which reflects the prejudices of mainly white South Africans. I have noticed in urbanised African communities that the dogs that circulate within a certain area are recognized by local people to the extent that some of them have names, although no-one claims ownership of them. This might offer an entry point in supporting local people in the management of these dog populations.