Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Counterfactual Canines: How Would History Have Been Different Without Dogs?

Not being a dog owner, I may not fully appreciate the insights contained in Stanley Coren’s book, The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events (2002), but I was pleased to see that it frequently employs counterfactuals in its narrative.



Coren notably begins his first chapter by musing counterfactually:

“How many times has the fate of a man, or even a nation, hung from the collar of a dog?  Had it not been for dogs, the last imperial house of China might not have fallen; Columbus’s first attempts at colonization the Americas not have been so successful; some of Wagner’s operas might never have been written; the American Revolution might not have been fought; the freeing of the American slaves might have been delayed for decades; the way that we educate deaf children might be different; and great and well-loved books like Ivanhoe might never have been written.”

After whetting readers’ appetites with this evocative list of “what if” scenarios, he develops them in brief in the book’s core chapters before consolidating his findings in his final chapter, which is notably entitled “The Counter-Factual History of Dogs.”

Most of the examples fall under the category of “a single dog can save the life of an individual and thus alter history.”  Alexander the Great’s life was saved by his dog, Peritas, who saved him from a rampaging Persian elephant at the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE.  Had he been killed, Coren argues, the world would have been denied Hellenism and, ultimately, Christianity.  Similarly, Lewis and Clark’s dog, Seaman, saved them from certain death from a stampeding buffalo on the western frontier.  Had the dog not distracted the beast, the opening of the United States might not have taken place.  Napoleon Bonaparte’s life was also saved by a dog, a Newfoundland named Boatswain, who rescued him from drowning after his escape from Elba.  Had this not happened, he would not have been able to launch his attack that culminated in the battle of Waterloo. 

Other examples fall into a more idiosyncratic category, one in which random actions by dogs may well have shaped the course of historical events.  To list just one example, Coren argues that the English Reformation might not have happened had Henry VIII’s emissary, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s dog not willfully bitten the foot of Pope Clement VII, thereby angering the Pontiff, who proceeded to reject the English King’s appeal to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon.

Coren may be barking up the wrong tree in seeking to attribute so much influence to the actions of dogs in shaping historical events.  Most of his examples admittedly fall into the “Cleopatra’s Nose” school of thought, according to which the alteration of even small factors can bring about major historical changes.  As a result, they sometimes strain the boundaries of plausibility.  Needless to say, the rise of Christianity and England’s turn to Protestantism would probably have happened even without the intervention of certain canines.  But Curon’s claims are useful insofar as they prompt us to distinguish between the hierarchy of causal forces that are responsible for historical events. 

From now on, we should not hesitate to wonder “woof if?”

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