The Role of Dogs in Darwin’s Scientific Career


A review of The Hunter’s Gaze: Charles Darwin and the Role of Dogs and Sport in Nineteenth Century Natural History, by David Allan Feller.

In The Hunter’s Gaze: Charles Darwin and the Role of Dogs and Sport in Nineteenth Century Natural History, David Feller analyzes the role of dogs in the formation of Darwin’s scientific career and the formulation of his theories. Feller argues that Darwin acquired all that he needed from the dogs with which he shared his life, from his earliest years in the dog-and-gun culture of the Shropshire gentry, through his supposedly wasted years at university, all the way to the study at Down House and the production of the works that made his name. In summary, Feller sees dogs as an essential part of the entire evolutionary program. There was a ‘continuity of thought about dogs and hunting’ (p.1) in his life and work that makes this a signal instance of what Feller calls ‘the hunter’s gaze’ — a social and scientific orientation that characterizes not just Darwin’s career, but also those of generations of English naturalists and natural scientists. Feller wants to recover and recognize this set of cultural practices as essential to the ways in which science happened in the nineteenth century, and to recognize too the ways in which companion animals were part and parcel of this scientific practice. He does so in compelling detail and argument, with an impressive command of the literature in several fields.

How does Feller justify the assertion that the questions that dogs raised were the central ones for Darwin’s intellectual career? Chapter 1 places Darwin in the Shropshire hunting and fowling community, in which he grew up, confirming field sport as offering the key opportunity for a budding naturalist to acquire his observational and reasoning skills. Chapter 2, on Darwin’s supposedly feckless years at Edinburgh and Cambridge further suggests that it was the acquisition of confidence and mobility during his hunting career, in addition to these specific skills, that was vital to his emergence as a practicing scientist before the Beagle set sail. The ‘hunter’s gaze’, Feller’s overarching conception, is explored and elaborated in Chapter 3, where he proposes the ‘hunter’s-eye view of nature’ (p.13) as privileging direct, active and engaged observation of the natural world. Naturalists like Darwin immersed themselves in nature as predators: indeed, in a larger sense, ‘man had to insert himself into nature, and in a most natural way, i.e., as a predator, but one with whose self-reflection provided him the wisdom of moderation’ (p. 79). This hunter’s gaze, furthermore, is unthinkable without the animals that accompanied Darwin in the field and in the pursuit of game.

This argument concerning the ‘experience of sharing space with animals’ (p.8) is explored with reference to the greyhound (Chapter 4), the finest example of adaptation in Darwin’s work, and the pointer (Chapter 5), this time in terms of non-physical adaptation — here, reasoning and partnership with human beings, inherited instincts and mentation, are the focus. As Feller puts it, this meant the distinction between an animal deployed because of its physical advantages, and employed because of its ability to work with human beings (p. 151). A third and final canine focus is on the terrier class, and in particularly on Darwin’s favorite, Polly, the ‘Ur-Hund’ imagined by Huxley’s wit; in Chapter 7 Feller is concerned with the question of expression, emotion, communication and adaptive breeding, showing how dogs allowed Darwin to theorize the development of human expression and the evolution of language.

This dissertation sets out its stall admirably, aiming to contribute to the history of science, and science studies, as well as to our understanding of Darwin’s intellectual genealogy. Feller raises some extremely interesting questions about the use of dogs as instruments of scientific enquiry, and of the preeminence of the field rather than the laboratory for this natural history (p. 92). Agreeing with the likes of Elizabeth Green Musselman’s Nervous Conditions: Science and the Body Politic in Early Industrial Britain (New York: State University of New York Press, 2006), Feller argues that ‘the field became a sort of laboratory for the natural historian’ (p. 96). In terms of the social history of animals and nature, Feller engages profitably with the likes of Harriet Ritvo, Erica Fudge, John MacKenzie, and Keith Thomas — the latter two being sharply criticized for seeing hunting as antithetical to science. Feller also distinguishes his thesis from Emma Townshend’s recent book (Darwin’s Dogs: How Darwin’s Pets Helped Form a World-Changing Theory of Evolution. London: Frances Lincoln, 2009). Townshend’s emphasis on domesticity and the everyday role of animals in the Darwin home is ably counterpointed by Feller’s attention to the culture of field sports and the world of the English gentry to which it was so central. Having said this, Feller rightly recognizes (as does Townshend) that dogs were ‘effective literary tools employed by Darwin to express aspects of his theories that were not necessarily accessible by strictly scientific means’ (p. 107), and in responding to the ‘rhetorical challenge’ of the study of evolution (p. 111), he confirms the role of the homely dog (particularly in Chapter 7) in making evolution not only more understandable, but also perhaps more palatable, especially in the development from The Origin of Species to the Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

This dissertation is an exciting contribution to our understanding of nineteenth-century science. Its emphasis on specific cultural factors in the process of discovery, the propagation and persuasiveness of ideas, is very valuable, quite beyond its interest to scholars of Darwin. Feller’s emphasis on the importance of scientists sharing space with animals, not just using them to understand the world, but collaborating with them in that understanding, is equally novel and important. In considering how Darwin worked not only with ‘the dog’ as a species, in all its variety, but also with dogs as individuals, Feller shows how a different kind of history of science might be imagined and written. This is an excellent thesis, and highly recommended.

Philip Howell
Department of Geography
University of Cambridge

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2010. 225 pp. Primary Advisor: James A. Secord.

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