Mark derr, long-time Bark contributor and historian of the dog, recently released a new book, How the Dog Became the Dog, in which he examines canine evolution. Derr covers a lot of ground in this work — 135,000 years, to be precise! We talked with him about the dawn of dog, and how our evolutionary pathway coincided with theirs.
Claudia Kawczynska: Canines going from fierce predator to “loyal companion” is quite a leap. Can you sketch how and why this might have happened?
So, wolves and humans had an affinity, and sociable wolves would often breed near human societies. As they began to do that, populations were established, though not everywhere and not in great numbers. One group of socialized wolves would die out and others would appear in other places at other times. There is evidence that destroying the structure of a wolf pack destroys the culture for the young, leaving them without guidance. Imagine that this happened over many, many generations, resulting in a more socialized “dogwolf” — or dog-like wolf. In that sense, you’re never going to find a single place for the [first domesticated] dog to have appeared. Rather, you have [the dog developing] wherever you have wolves and humans.
CK: What was in it for the wolves who paired up with us?
CK: Was this consciously directed?
CK: Like getting better food to feed those offspring.
CK: Did this relationship affect our own evolution?
CK: You note that with genetic data pushing back the dawn of dog to perhaps 135,000 years ago, the idea of neoteny has been turned on its head. How so?
Now, the latest research shows that a small number of genes have a big effect on everything from overall size and leg length to numerous other factors. I’ve been saying that for years. I didn’t know precisely what the mechanism was, but it wasn’t paedomorphism. There are other explanations, as it turns out. Not only that, but many of the features some consider neotenic are simply creations of modern breeders, who strove to make dogs more cuddly and humanlike by selecting for rounded skulls and large, forward-facing eyes.
To reiterate an important point, which I’ve made in numerous articles in The Bark and in my books, there is no evidence that dogs originated from selftamed, submissive, neotenic wolves. That theory — which is based on dogs originating during the Mesolithic Age, when people lived in settlements with garbage dumps — is not right. Dogs evolved much earlier than that and were in the camps with the hunters and gatherers.
CK: Back when we were both hunting the same species — together or separately — is it possible that wolves were hunting us too?
Take an example from Lewis and Clark, who describe great herds of bison out there on the plains, and the Indians who hunted them with their dogs. The wolf is described by Lewis as the “shepherd” of the bison. The way wolves hunt really isn’t that much different than the way herding dogs gather animals.
People like Barry Lopez have done work on the business of wolves and human cultures, and why wolves are so distrusted by humans. The answer, I suspect, is that once dogs and agriculture were firmly established, a divorce occurred between humans and wolves (and other wildlife), because those animals were seen as threatening our livelihoods. At some point, the wolf became a competitor — an enemy, even — not because it was hunting us, but because it was taking our livestock. The mediating force is the dog.
More recently, the conservation movement established a sharp divide between the wild and the built, a divide that really shouldn’t exist, but does. At that point, the wolf became one thing and the dog became another, and they are in opposition rather than what they are, which is very closely related. I don’t think that the wolf has ever been an enemy of humans, but I could be wrong.
CK: Pat Shipman, archaeologist and author of The Animal Connection, pointed out that it was unlikely that wolf packs tracked nomadic hunters in order to live off their spoils (among other things) because those wolves would have had to cross the territory of other wolves, which would have been highly dangerous for them. So it was more likely that the dogwolf and the human were partners in the hunt. What’s your take on that?
CK: Besides our shared characteristics, what else do we have in common with dogs?
Illustration Amadeo Bachar