What Makes Dogs Dogs

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Edward Hopper: Cape Cod Evening, 1939; from Hopper, the catalog of a recent exhibition at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid and the Grand Palais in Paris. Edited by Tomàs Llorens and Didier Ottinger, it has just been published by D.A.P. and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux–Grand Palais.

Not more than a few paragraphs into her winsome account of raising a golden retriever puppy named Scout, based on the column she wrote for the newspaper she runs, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson inadvertently answers the title question of John Homans’s What’s a Dog For? It’s the first time she has set eyes on her new dog, which has caused Abramson to reflect on her old dog, a grouchy West Highland terrier named Buddy: “I was madly in love and forgave Buddy all his sins,” she writes. “He also seemed to certify me as a nicer person.”

So there you have it. Dogs are for love, affection, and making us better humans.

Homans, the executive editor of New York magazine, knows this too. He is in the thrall of Stella, a young lab-mix mutt rescued from the pound, and before her was smitten with his wife’s dog, yet another grouchy West Highland terrier who happened to be named, oddly enough, Scout. But Homans also knows that “dog people” almost never stop to marvel at the strangeness of sharing life and home with a member of a different species. We are so habituated to dogs that we don’t even think to think about what it means or why it is or how it happened.

Stella, though, brings with her the kinds of questions on which journalists love to chew: Where did she come from—geographically, genetically, historically? Why does she look the way she does? How smart is she really? Does she have a conscience? Pursuing these and other mysteries, Homans bounds through the relatively new discipline of canine science, which aims to “shed light on what makes dogs dogs but also on what makes people people,” and the reader gets pulled along in the chase.

Dogs and humans began their familiar pas de deux about 15,000 years ago. The fossil record supports this, as does a study of the mitochondrial DNA of the hair of some 650 dogs undertaken by the Swedish scientist Peter Savolainen. Another DNA study, by the evolutionary biologist Robert Wayne, put dogs and people together 135,000 years ago, which would mean that dogs were present near the birth of what we consider to be modern humans, but there has been no archaeology to confirm it, so the later date is more commonly accepted. What’s not in dispute is the domestic dog’s ancestry. A dog’s mitochondrial DNA differs from a gray wolf’s by a mere 0.2 percent. (Coyotes, in contrast, have a 4 percent difference.) In Robert Wayne’s estimation, “dogs…

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