Dogs prove Darwin right in survival of the cutest

Evolution is not some theory about chimpanzees. It happens in real time, before our eyes, with our help. And we're responsible for the results.

Here are two questions that may amuse you this morning:

  1. Who's proving Darwin right?
  2. Who's a good boy?

The answer to both is, your dog.

This is an experiment that has been running 150 years, since the beginning of the "purebred" dog craze, about the same time Darwin's Origin of the Species was published.

Abby Drake of Holy Cross and Chris Klingenberg of the University of Manchester, in England, compared the skull shapes of domestic dogs with those of other carnivores.

They found as much variability in dogs' heads as in the whole order, which goes back 60 million years. And the diversity among companion dogs -- dogs bred as pets -- showed more variability than in all other breeds put together.

Many of these skull shapes are entirely new, Klingenberg noted. Artificial selection has put doggie evolution into hyperdrive.

Take for example this little fellow. My kids found him on the street in early 1997. He was so cute, who could resist him?

I tried. As you can see for two weeks he stayed outside, on the back steps. (You may be able to make out the leash.) But cuteness won out, and Browny has had a long, happy life. He is nearly 14, arthritic, takes pills for his joints and pills for the pain.

In evolutionary terms his dad has been a big success. I still see dogs around whom I'm certain are Browny's cousins. They're cross-bred mutts with a distinct strain of shepherd. I call them Kirkwood dogs, after the neighborhood where we live.

This is happening fairly randomly, but most dog evolution is highly planned. Breeders, like those showing off at the Westminster dog show next month, are hooking up dogs for looks, amiability, and a minimum of traits familiar in their wild cousins.

Or consider what I found when I visited China last year. There were a host of dogs, all spoiled rotten, miniature versions of popular working breeds. I called them bonzai dogs.

The result is that many of today's dogs would be unimaginable in Darwin's time. Evolution can happen unconsciously, in reaction to changing climate and conditions, or consciously, through human intervention.

Evolution is not some theory about chimpanzees. It happens in real time, before our eyes, with our help. And we're responsible for the results.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com