The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

November 14, 2010

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: Ode to Our Familiar Canines

My first dog was Spot.  (This is what happens when you allow 5 year olds to name pets.)  He was a black-and-white mutt with some discernible spaniel, who would have been more accurately named “Patches.”  He had been abandoned in our little town and had mange.  But what 5 year old couldn’t look past the hairlessness and disease of a wandering puppy to see the loving companion beneath?  After the due trips to the vet, Spot recovered his hair and became that imagined, if not perfect, companion.

NOVA had a great show on dogs just the other week:  I learned several things I hadn’t really grasped before.  Dogs are not just related to wolves–dogs are the same species as wolves.  Their DNA varies by just 0.2% and they can interbreed.  I hadn’t realized that the furry friends I currently share my home with are actually tame wolves–and not just a domesticated wolf-cousin. 

What a difference 0.2% can make.  The NOVA program highlighted an experiment where the scientists tested whether the tameness was caused by nature or nurture.  Nature, hands down.  So clearly nature that at just 4 months old, the lovingly human-raised Canis lupus non-familiaris had to be returned to their wolf pack for everyone’s sake.  The 4-month-old wolf puppies were, in a word, vicious.  Not like Spot at all.

Based on the famous Siberian silver fox experiment, it would appear that the key distinction between our familiar wolves and the wild sort is selection against the trait of aggression.  Although not discussed in this NOVA program, some scientists are now positing that our beloved dogs may have first stepped toward domestication themselves.  (See Nature’s “Dogs That Changed the World, Part I”:*)  The theory goes something like this: the naturally tamer wolves were able to tolerate closer proximity to humans and gathered around our garbage dumps, separating themselves from their more fearful and, thus, more aggressive litter-mates.  From the courage of a few dogs and piles of human waste was born one of the most unique and mutually fulfilling inter-species relationships.**

NOVA also explained that science is confirming what dog owners have already known–humans and dogs can relate to each other on a deep emotional level.  Dogs can understand our expressions and gestures and we can understand their barks.  Indeed, it appears that dogs’ various barks have developed for the very purpose of communicating with us, as wild wolves have a more limited repertoire.

When the NOVA narrator intones toward the end that “our understanding of how dogs evolved to a whole new level [is] getting us closer to what exactly it means to be tame,” I cannot help but think he is alluding to how our own tameness came to be.

Dogs and humans are both social, formerly wild terrestrial omnivores.  It is not surprising that when we look into each other’s eyes we see some deep recognition across the gulf of the species barrier.  It is this recognition that, I believe, we cherish the most.  To my mind, it softens the edges of the existential aloneness we can feel “out on this stony planet that we farm.”***


Note on title: The scientific name for dogs is Canis lupus familiaris.

*Dogs are such a popular topic that Nature has had several programs on them. Check them out at,

** I say “one of the most” in deference to our splendid relationship with cats.  Our historic relationship with the horse also merits recognition.

***From Adrienne Rich’s “Stepping Backward”:

. . .We are a small and lonely human race
Showing no sign of mastering solitude
Out on this stony planet that we farm. . .

A copy of the complete poem is available at, but I urge you to purchase some of Ms. Rich’s poetry.  A wonderful collection, which includes “Stepping Backward,” is The Fact of a Doorframe.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson



  1. […] Spiritual Life of an Atheist: Ode to Our Familiar Canines ( […]

    Pingback by Great Geo-Stuff: Canine Companions « It's Not About The Numbers — November 25, 2010 @ 11:46 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for the link. Certainly dogs have provided us with more than just companionship for these many millenia. I had not known about their usefulness for helping find wilderness caches before.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 1, 2010 @ 7:31 am | Reply

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