Owning a dog means inviting a wolf into your parlor, Jon Franklin says. Bringing a dog inside a house to love and take care of was a development. It wasn’t always so. To people many years ago, this would have been a very strange custom. (Just like bringing a Christmas tree into the house wasn’t always normal.) But today dogs are not only everywhere but there are seemingly an infinite number of dog varieties: small dogs, big dogs, fierce dogs, herding dogs, friendly dogs.
So what happened? How did this partnership between the dog and the human begin and how did it evolve into what it is today? These are the questions Franklin tries to answer. As a science reporter for a newspaper, Franklin naturally gravitates toward the field of science to find his answers. He looks into archeology, into brain science and into history.
What spurred his inquiry in the first place was his wife, Lynn, who said if Franklin wanted to marry her—he proposes in a car in a trip through the mountains—then he must agree to get a dog, an animal to which Franklin up until this point is ambivalent toward at best. Reluctantly and only because of his desire to marry his beloved, he caves. So the puppy arrives, and the predictable happens. After all, who can resist the charms of a puppy? So he grows to love the dog—a black standard poodle— and the dog loves him from the very beginning, as only dogs can do. Franklin also begins a quest to discover the origin of the man/dog relationship, unlike anything else in the natural world.
But be forewarned that the book is more about evolution than it is about dogs, per say. A hefty chunk describes human evolution from blobs into apes into what we are today and how the dog fits into all that, aiding our own evolution. I didn’t expect this heavy-on-evolution bit when I first cracked the book open, and I’m disappointed with it. I do not believe I am a big primate, as Franklin ascertains all humans are. Nor do I believe I once, not long ago, was an ape. Though I admittedly love dogs, especially my own, very much, I never consider myself like them—an animal—and frankly find the idea horrifying. If we are all animals, no different from a dog or a cat or a horse, and are only on this earth by evolutionary chance, then what is there to live for? To satisfy basic needs? Why bother being moral? As someone who follows Jesus Christ, I believe what He said about the human race, that we are made in the image of God, designed to bring Him glory and created to be in communion with Him. For those who put their faith in Him, the destination one day is a place of total, everlasting communion with God, a place not of harps and clouds and cherubs but a place where our deepest desires here on earth are finally satisfied, a place where pain is no more and love fills every longing.
Franklin goes in maddening circles—and I believe frustration even comes through in parts of the book—as he grapples with the big questions of why humans exist in their present form. But the answers are all there, if only he looked in another place. Rooted only in the material universe, in what he can feel with his hands and hear with his ears and see with his eyes, the philosophical answers elude him like sand through a clenched fist.
Franklin even speculates into the origins of religion itself. In the evolutionary timeline of the human race, there came a point—according to Franklin’s theory—when humanity became aware of its own impending death. They became aware of their own mortality, that just as they were born that so too must they die. This made them feel terrible. At this point, the humans invented God. They came up with God and religion and stories and ceremonies, all in attempt to alleviate their troubling death problem. It made them feel infinitely better to play, essentially, make-believe. (Gahhh!)
Recent archeological findings prove wrong the long-running theory that religion came after the development of early civilization and the rise of cities. Quite to the contrary, studies show that people came together, organizing to build monuments to their gods. Towns then followed. Religion was not an after-thought but the driving force behind civilization. People always believed in God or gods. This is something innate within them. Innate in humans is the desire to worship, as present as the desire is to eat or sleep. We all worship something—some God, some money, some status-symbols—we often just don’t realize it. (This was pulled from a recent National Geographic article I read.) So, my response to Franklin is that religion isn’t made up; it’s not make-believe; it’s not something to make us feel better about death. A desire for God is an innate part of humanity. The Bible tells us so. Science—particularly archeology—only recently proved it.
Though I don’t agree with Franklin one iota philosophically, that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy parts of the book, particularly the parts about the dog, Charlie. He describes Charlie’s antics: singing—woofing—when his wife, Lynn plays the piano; making sure everyone gets the chance to pet him when he visits nursing homes; comforting Franklin when he’s feeling depressed; and showing him more about the world.
Franklin also describes the crazy world of dog shows and of, as he calls them, “doggy” people. The funniest chapter was the one describing a dog show in which Charlie must do certain obedience commands, one of which is “lay down.” All the dogs must lay down for a certain number of minutes. Charlie gets so agitated and cannot take it any longer so he leaps onto his paws and begins zooming around the circle as fast as he can in gleeful and total joy, must to the embarrassment of his owner, Lynn, but Franklin just chuckled inwardly and cheers the spirited dog on.
He explains how dogs developed from one kind—a wolf—into the many varieties we have today and how dogs became status symbols. Poodles were originally intended to retrieve the kill in the water for hunters. Developed by the Germans, they were hardy, quick and extremely smart—second only to border collies—dogs. It was the French who took to the dogs and clipped them with poofs and tied ribbons in their hair. Unfortunately it’s the French legacy that remains. Some dogs have been mutated so badly by human breeders that they literally cannot function right. English bull dogs, for example, have such big heads that they cannot come through the birth canal and must be delivered through Cesarean section. It’s sad, really.
The evolutionary parts are intermingled with the actual descriptions of Franklin’s life with Charlie. I cheated, dear reader. I could only take so much of Franklin puzzling over how the primate brain developed from an ape into what it is today before exasperation set in: “We’re not animals!” So I found myself flipping through these pages fast to get to the narration on Charlie, which I loved, especially so since I also have a black standard poodle, and they act similarly.
(Beware, spoiler alert!) Charlie gets cancer and, at the end of the book, dies. Lynn wants another puppy, yet Franklin wants to wait, to mourn. But Lynn’s good sense wins him over as it always does. It will bring him out of his funk, she says. They go to look at a new batch of puppies. Franklin, feeling melancholy, goes outside to sit and think by himself. He hears the door swing open and the mother of the puppies, Jade, comes walking outside:
“Jade took a step toward me and nuzzled me with her nose. She sensed the pain and was trying to help. I’d seen Charlie act that way when he was working as a therapy dog. I petted Jade, ran my fingers through her wool, and after a few moments she moved up and sat down beside me at the top of my steps, leaning into my body. There was a time, long ago, before Charlie, I would have assumed that she wanted my attention. But no, that wasn’t it at all. She wanted to change my attention, manipulate it away from the pain. Without thinking, I threw my arm around her. She licked my hand (Page 250).”
Dog owners cannot read that passage and not be touched by it. We all, in one way or another, have felt the comfort only a dog can give. His conclusion? Dogs evolved because people needed them, and dogs needed people, too; each fulfills something the other lacks. Though I felt the book was primarily one about the dog’s evolution which is invariably tied to humanity’s own, it also celebrates the special bond between humans and their canine friends, a bond that brings joy. And sometimes saves lives. The new puppy, named Sam, alerts Franklin and Lynn in the middle of the night, grabbing Lynn’s sleeve and tugging at it. The house was on fire. If it weren’t for Sam, for that wolf that was brought into the parlor, Franklin wouldn’t have lived to write the story.
Three books down, 49 to go!
Pages to read: 200.
Date to be finished: Saturday, Jan. 28
Why this book? I don’t have a good reason other than I like reading about the lives of journalists who lived and worked back the glory days of newspapers. “Charles Champlin is best known as a columnist and film critic for the Los Angeles Times. His career as a journalist, however, has spanned decades, first as a writer for Life and later as a London-based correspondent for Time magazine,” the book jacket reads. Like a little kid picking out books at the library, I also judged this book by its cover: a photograph of Champlin at a desk, fingers punching a typewriter, with a flurry of pages all around and a pencil down to its stub, with a cigarette jauntily hanging from his lips. I couldn’t help but imagine the old newsrooms, in a haze of smoke, with editors barking and typewriters clacking and copy boys running back and forth. So, if only for nostalgia’s sake, I am all set and excited to dip into this next book.
Stay tuned for next week’s post.