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With Canines at Our Sides

The relationships between man and animal is thought to have influenced the advancement of civilization
Shaler, Nathaniel Southgate, 1841-1906, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
The relationships between man and animal is thought to have influenced the advancement of civilization

Welcome to HPPR Book Bytes. I’m Bob Seay. This is the first of three commentaries I’ll be doing about “Running with Sherman: How a Rescue Donkey Inspired a Rag-tag Gang of Runners to Enter the Craziest Race in America” by Christopher McDougall. The title says it all, or at least as much as you can say in twenty words and still have room to mention the author’s previous best-selling book on the cover.

Good writing – and this is very good writing – makes us think about things we have never considered. Before I read this book, I had not given much thought to the historic relationship between humans and animals. For example, McDougal asks whether it was humans who trained wolves or if it was wolves who trained humans, first to follow wolf packs for scraps, then to hunt in packs, and eventually to work together with wolves instead of competing with them for food.

For my human-centric mind, this was a revelation. Of course, humans trained wolves to do our bidding! How could it be any other way? But when you think about the historical and evolutionary record, it seems more likely that the relationship between homo sapiens and wolves was crucial to our survival as a species. McDougal proposes that this human-wolf relationship, which Neanderthals apparently never developed, may be one of the reasons we survived as a species and Neanderthals did not. As McDougal writes on page 61, “With canines at our side, we became masters of the universe.”

From wolves, we domesticated and developed working relationships with other animals. We used animals for hunting. Those that could not hunt were used for food. We rode into battle on elephants, camels, and horses. Animals plowed our fields and carried our grain to market. For millennia, animals provided companionship, entertainment, and inspiration. We were relentless in our enslavement of other species. It is estimated that today, only 4% of all animal life on the planet remains undomesticated. These mutually beneficial or even symbiotic relationships existed for about 300,000 years.

As McDougal points out, all of that changed by the invention of the automobile and the electric light. Transportation by animal changed from necessity to novelty. Miners like the ones in Leadville, CO, where the race featured in Running with Sherman takes place, used mine trains and elevators to move coal and other minerals.

Collectively, we treated animals like we treat anything or anyone else we no longer need: We forgot about them.

But we haven’t forgotten completely. As McDougal notes, “Your brain may not remember, but your body will never forget that animals have guarded us since the Stone Age.” That’s why we find comfort in petting a dog or stroking a cat. We feel safe in the company of a friendly animal. Think dogs and cats, not lions and bears.

I like that about this book. McDougal has a story to tell, but he’s not in any particular rush to get through it. Running With Sherman is full of colorful sidetracks that enrich the narrative, from the wisdom of Amish families in Pennsylvania to what it’s like to run a marathon, this book is full of anecdotes that are interesting in their own right. They are even more interesting in the context of the story of Sherman.

The idea that human-animal connections mirror, inspire, and create relationships between humans is a major theme of Running with Sherman, from the bonds Sherman forms with the McDougal family and the people they meet to the bonds between the racers in Leadville. Is it possible that in losing our connection to animals, we have also lost at least some of ability to connect with other humans?

For HPPR, this is Bob Seay.

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