“To Charles Darwin, anthropomorphism came as naturally as breathing. And his close observation of dogs played a surprisingly central role in his work. The Galapagos finches have gotten most of the attention, but dogs were just as important to Darwin's scientific enterprise.”
That quotation comes from a new book, due out in November, by John Homans called What's a Dog For: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend. I stumbled upon a copy—the advance uncorrected proofs, actually—that sat on a table by a copying machine at the offices of Sports Illustrated. I did not steal it; according to the law of the SI office jungle, books placed in the common domain are like meat left out for wild animals. They are meant to be snatched up and devoured.
Most of the discarded books in the office aren't about science and natural history; they more often bear titles such as The Great Book of Penn State Sports Lists and Banana Bats and Ding-Dong Balls: A Century of Unique Baseball Inventions. Every now and then something different shows up, however, and What's A Dog For? certainly piqued my curiosity.
“In Darwin's domestic life, from childhood to old age, dogs were a constant irreplaceable presence,” Homans writes. “His sisters liked to tease him that he preferred dogs to people. He doted on them, sentimentalized them, treated them as family members. As a dreamy, distracted boy—just beginning to order his speculations about the natural world—dogs were always in the picture, creatures both of the human and the natural worlds. Dogs were companions on his first voyages...”
Perhaps I have no piqued your curiosity as well. You may have to wait for the book to come out in November, but I will read more from the uncorrected proofs. I already know what a dog's for from the human perspective—companionship, love, loyalty, play, etc.—and I know that in the broader picture no animal has to be "for" anything other than its own existence, but I'm eager to see how the author interprets the question.
Answer to the Last Puzzler The temperature on the surface of Venus is a cool 860 degrees Fahrenheit.
Today's Puzzler Which of these is NOT considered a possible origin of the name dogwood?
a) the Celtic word dag, meaning a pointed tool made of a hard wood, which dogwood is
b) the bathing of dogs in water in which dogwood bark had been boiled, as a treatment for mange
c) the use of the tree's wood in making docks (dock was slurred to dog) in the British Isles