Monday, January 11, 2016

Wolves, Dogs, and Humans: Who Domesticated Who?

We, as humans, tend to assume that we are the standard against which all things must be compared.  When it comes to animal species, we judge levels of intelligence and emotional response according to the degree that human behaviors can be observed.  That point of view tends to support the notion that intelligence and emotional responses are uniquely human characteristics.  Carl Safina blows up that self-aggrandizing concept in his book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

Safina uses many anecdotal reports of animal behavior to support his belief that humans are surrounded by intelligent life—not out in our galaxy—but right here on earth.  He also delves deeply into the lives of elephants, wolves, and killer whales to demonstrate in detail how they live lives driven by many of the same considerations that drive ours.  He insists that we must begin to think of members of many other animal species not as an “it” but as a being possessing friends, family, emotional attachments, desires, and external constraints that must be dealt with—in other words a “who” similar to ourselves.

“’Who’ animals know who they are; they know who their family and friends are.  They make strategic alliances and cope with chronic rivalries.  They aspire to higher rank and wait for their chance to challenge the existing order.  Their status affects their offspring’s prospects.  Their life follows the arc of a career.  Personal relationships define them.  Sound familiar?  Of course.  ‘They’ includes us.  But a vivid, familiar life is not the domain of humans alone.”

Safina’s description of the lives of wolves is perhaps the most intriguing, because, as it turns out, wolves and humans have had a much closer relationship than we might realize.  An elaboration of that joint history will be the subject here.

Wolves had essentially vanished from the lower forty-eight states until it was decided to reintroduce them and provide them a safe haven in Yellowstone National Park.  It was believed necessary to reintroduce the predator to keep the elk population at a sustainable level.  Wolves were trapped in Canada and eventually set free in Yellowstone.  In the process many were fitted with tracking devices and observed from afar to learn how they fared in the new environment, and also to learn as much as possible about wolves’ lives.

Safina provides much of what was learned in the process, but he also dropped several intriguing background details.  Wolves have apparently decided which animals are food and tend to leave others alone.  Humans, for whatever reason, are apparently in the nonfood category.  In contrast, humans will gladly take advantage of their power over other animals and kill for the joy of killing rather than a need for food.

“It is deeply unexpected that even when other animals retain the advantage, they sometimes seem more able to consider us than we are of considering them.  For instance, people have come ‘face-to-face with wolves in the backcountry while out alone….Yet it appears that no human has ever been attacked by a wolf in the lower forty-eight U.S. states.  North American wolves virtually always flee humans immediately and don’t view humans as potential prey.  (In the 1940s, two Alaskans were bitten by rabid wolves.)  Free-living wolves are known to have killed only two people in North America, one in Saskatchewan in 2005, the other in Alaska in 2010….Surely, wolf packs often do detect vulnerable hikers.  And yet, the calculated shyness or forbearance of so well endowed a pack of predators is a bit puzzling.  One wonders what they are thinking.”

It could be that humanity’s relationship with wolves is longer and more complex than most of us have imagined.  Many of us now cohabit with members of the wolf species.  At one time those who worry about such things thought that dogs made up a separate species.  Subsequently they were forced to reconsider and conclude that dogs and wolves are members of the same species.  All our beloved dog pets are domesticated versions of the gray wolf.

One might wonder how a single species could evolve into so many dissimilar varieties.  One should recall that domestication involves inducing genetic changes by controlling the characteristics desired and thus altering the natural selection process.  A studyof silver foxes conducted in the 1950s illustrates how powerful selective breeding can be in crafting animal characteristics.  The foxes were divided into a control group that was allowed to breed naturally, while a separate group was bred to inhibit aggressiveness.  Within a few generations, the desired temperament was attained, but the selection process also produced distinct physical differences.

From Safina:

“But what really surprised the scientists—and everyone else—was that from generation to generation, the line of friendlier foxes started to look different.  Researchers were getting foxes with droopy ears; splotchy coats of differing textures; curling, wagging tails; shorter legs; smaller heads and smaller brains; and shorter faces with smaller teeth.  And in addition to having kinky hair, some had kinky ideas, showing out-of-season and non reproductive sexual behaviors (hold that thought).   As adults, the friendly foxes continued to behave like juveniles, by acting submissive, whining, and giving higher-pitched barks.  Foxes, in other words, more like dogs.”

Curiously, over time, human heads and brains have also grown smaller.  Could natural selection be operating on us as our changing environment has selected different characteristics as being more important for successful breeding than others?  Could we have become domesticated ourselves?

Safina suggests that our relationship with dogs caused a bit of co-evolution. First consider that the time at which evidence suggests dogs began to appear as variances from the main wolf line varies from between 12,000 years ago and 130,000 years ago.  That is plenty of time for natural selection to do its thing.

Some once thought dogs arose from wolf pups captured and raised as pets or for some other purpose.  However, people who have tried such things discovered that it was a difficult task, one not likely to be undertaken by humans struggling for their own survival.  The conventional wisdom is now that humans and wolves, at some point in time, began to form mutually advantageous partnerships.  Safina explains:

“….as best we know now, the origin of dogs instead goes like this: wolves hung around human camps and caves, scrounging cast-off bones and the remains of butchered carcasses.  The less-skittish wolves came closer and got more.  Wolves with fuller bellies raised more pups, more of which were born carrying those successful genes for less skittishness.  Those slightly changed pups grew up around humans, prompting more and friendlier interactions.”

“These wolves’ tendency to alert at the approach of strangers and predators would have been valuable.  The humans would have encouraged such guards to hang around by providing more scraps.  The extra scraps would have boosted the survival of more people-friendly wolf pups.”

Safina suggests that what we know as dogs began to appear by 15,000 years ago.  Therefore, this mutually beneficial relationship between dogs and humans has been going on for a very long time.  Safina also prefers to think of the process described above as dogs self-domesticating themselves.  In addition, while the dogs evolved as this relationship deepened, humans would have been affected as well.

“Humans became dog-reliant, perhaps even dog-dependent.  Dogs were trackers and hunting partners, dogs were alarm systems and well-armed guards; dogs defended and played with human children.  Dogs cleaned up.  Dogs were hot-water bottles.  Humans provided dogs with food, and dogs served as security personnel and guides.  And helped secure food as well.”

“Once we had them, they had us; we could not do without them.”

One can only guess at how this human-dog dependency affected the evolution of humans, but an effect there must have been.

If one takes the longer time scale estimates for dog emergence, then there is a much longer time period for coexistence.  The first human-wolf interactions might have been between Neanderthals and wolves.  Wolfgang M. Schleidt and Michael D. Shalter ponder over what such a long period of co-evolution might imply in Co-evolution of Humans andCanids.  They begin with this startling observation.

“The closest approximation to human morality we can find in nature is that of the gray wolf, Canis lupus.  This is especially odd in view of the bad reputation wolves have in our folklore.”

“Wolves’ ability to cooperate in a variety of situations, not only in well coordinated drives in the context of attacking prey, carrying items too heavy for any one individual, provisioning not only their own young but also other pack members, baby sitting, etc., is rivaled only by that of human societies.”

Is this a cosmic coincidence, or did one species learn from the other?  These authors suggest that wolf behavior was determined long before the sociality of humans evolved; therefore, it is more likely that it was the humans who learned from the wolves.

 “In addition, similar forms of cooperation are observed in two other closely related canids, the African Cape hunting dog and the Asian dhole. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that canid sociality and cooperativeness are old traits in terms of evolution, predating human sociality and cooperativeness by millions of years.”

That reasoning leads to the issuance of the “lupification” hypothesis of “human behavior, habits, and even ethics.”

“This shift in our attitude toward wolves opens a new vista as to the origin of dogs. Instead of perpetuating our traditional attitude that our ‘domesticated animals’ are intentional creations of human ingenuity, we propose that initial contacts between wolves and humans were truly mutual, and that various subsequent changes in both wolves and humans must be considered as a process of co-evolution. The impact of wolves’ ethics on our own may well equal or even exceed that of our effect on wolves’ changes in their becoming dogs in terms of their general appearance or specific behavioral traits.”


It would be surprising if the methods and capability of wolves went unrecognized and weren’t, to some extent, copied.

“Wolves ability to hunt as packs, to share risk fairly among pack members, and to cooperate, unsurpassed by any of the big cats, moved them to the top of the food pyramid on the Eurasian plains.”

Show some respect to your canine pet.  He/she was once the most efficient predator on the planet.  And if he/she does goofy things and has trouble obeying your commands, remember there may have been a time when his/her predecessors shook their heads in amazement at the clumsiness and the futility of human activities.

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