How did the wolf evolve into man’s best friend?

In a Salon interview, Mark Derr explains how our relationship with our pets can help explain all human history

Topics: Noble Beasts, Author Interviews, ,

How did the wolf evolve into man's best friend? (Credit: Russ Beinder via Shutterstock)

Would the dog exist if we hadn’t helped create it? That’s one of the thorny questions Mark Derr tackles in his new book, “How the Dog Became the Dog.”

Derr acknowledges that the story of the dog’s emergence (as distinct from its evolutionary forebear, the wolf) cannot be “neatly distilled.” Different estimates place the first appearance of dog-like creatures anywhere from 12,000 to 135,000 years ago. But Derr argues that the dog itself was an “evolutionary inevitability.” He suggests that dogs and humans  — similar animals who “simply took to traveling with each other” tens of thousands of years ago, “and never stopped” — have had a significant influence on each others’ development over the course of a long, co-evolutionary relationship.

At a time when overly sweet dog books crowd the new release shelves, Derr — whose other works include “Dog’s Best Friend: Annals of the Dog-Human Relationship” — presents an accessible and informative history that’s sympathetic and illuminating. Over the phone, Derr discussed the dog’s evolution, what the Dog Whisperer misunderstands, and why your pet always goes instinctively for your guest who doesn’t like animals. An edited transcript of our conversation is below.

It seems like people devoted to studying when the wolf became the dog are basically interested in answering the question, “What is a dog?” At the very least, that’s a question they need to address before they can get very far — and it’s a subject you address consistently throughout the book. So, what’s the most convincing answer?

It’s a good question. Certainly for trying to find out when the dog became a dog, or when the wolf became a dog, it is important to define a dog. I think for a long time, due to archaeological stuff, the one thing that seemed obvious was [the dog's] small size. But now it’s clear, from recent studies of big canids they’ve been finding in Belgium and other places in northern Europe, that smallness wasn’t it.



So what was the thing that set the dogwolf — I like that term — apart from the wild wolf, the wolf wolf? [A "dogwolf" is a wolf that is "genetically and behaviorally" dog-like, Derr explains in the book.] I think ultimately we’ll get to a sense of what that is. I don’t think we’re there right now. I don’t think it will be derived purely by studying genetics; I think we have to understand behavior and culture, too. And that’s difficult.

One thing that makes it very difficult is that when you look at studies involving early homonins, invariably things that we thought were unique to Homo sapiens – such as fire use or organization of space — maybe weren’t. So it’s hard to tell what even makes us unique from, say, Neanderthal or Homo erectus – other than a bigger brain and more robust body. And that we survived and they didn’t. (But they lived for a very long time, Homo erectus did.)

I think we’re going to have to use all the tools we have available to try and understand this. Archaeology alone won’t do it; genetics alone won’t do it. Certainly the changes in our view of animals will help us understand it, because we have to accommodate the fact that we’re dealing with animals that are making decisions.

The other thing that we have to try and figure out behaviorally for the dog and for the human is how fast these things happen. I mean, you can fracture a wolf pack in no time; you take out the breeding pair, and you’ve got no wolf society there anymore, right? So I think when you have these dogwolves crossing into human society, you’re dealing with change that’s occurring behaviorally, perhaps, pretty rapidly. Certainly biological time is much quicker than geological time.

I’d also like to ask about your sources. You mention a number of studies, and some interviews: Did you do a lot of new research for this book? Or were you able to rely on information you’d collected over the years, in the course of writing your other books about dogs?

I have done three books on dogs now, starting with “Dog’s Best Friend” in 1997 — and I’ve been following this stuff since around 1990, when I did a big cover story for The Atlantic Monthly called “The Politics of Dogs,” which was on the overbreeding of dogs for show and commerce. …

I’ve been following all this stuff since then, and for this book I made a conscious decision that I would just go back and review the scientific literature; I didn’t concern myself overly much with various other things. The whole business about neoteny [the supposed "retention of juvenile traits until adulthood" in dogs] I try to dispel once and for all, but otherwise, my goal was to try to look at these dates and places that have been proposed for the domestication of the wolf, and see if it’s possible to match them up to hominins — to naked bipeds — and see what was going on at the time.

The curious thing — or maybe it’s not curious — is that all the [proposed] dates and places [for the emergence of the dog] do put these wolves in a vicinity with people. And so through my own thought processes, I came up with several notions for this book. One is that the dog is an evolutionary inevitability — that wherever you have wolves and people, let us say, you’re going to end up with at least a dogwolf or dog-like wolf. And so in that sense, you’re never going to find a place for the dog to have occurred; … you have [the dog developing] wherever you have these wolves and humans.

Recent work, from the past 20 years, has overturned the notion that animals are simply stimulus response machines. We know that dogs aren’t, for sure — and we know that wolves aren’t, for sure. And so then I start trying to consider what happens when you put two, let us say, sentient animals together — and how they interact. That’s where all this came from. So I made a conscious decision to base the material that I had on the available scientific papers, and to rely on myself for the rest of it.

It’s clear that many theories about early dogwolves are difficult to prove one way or another — largely because of a lack of concrete evidence. (Even DNA evidence does not always clarify matters.) Do you think the picture will become any clearer as research techniques become more sophisticated?

DNA sometimes seems to muddy things up, doesn’t it? There’s a lot of stuff with the DNA that I think will become clearer. I’m not expert in that, but I talk a lot to [Robert K.] Wayne, who is kind of the leading person in this field, and to other people.

Regarding the DNA evidence, let me say two things. My first dog book came out in 1997, and right after that, Bob Wayne and his group published a date for the origin of the dog that was at the far end — 135,000 years ago. The archaeologists had a hissy fit. A lot of other so-called experts also had hissy fits, and said this couldn’t possibly be true. The curious thing about that date is that despite all kinds of other evidence … Bob himself has never backed off from that 135,000 year date. I saw him just in February, at a symposium where I was talking on this subject, and I asked him point-blank if he’d ever backed off that date; he said no. He hasn’t put it forward with great regularity, because it’s it’s a little out there — but what it shows is that basically as soon as Homo sapiens, anatomically modern humans, began to encounter wolves, you probably have this dogwolf appearing.

That’s one curiosity. The other thing is, a lot of the early DNA work was based on mitochondrial DNA, and it’s based on a lot of assumptions which are not necessarily true. There’s work coming out now that shows that the way that the mitochondrial clock is [interpreted] may not be accurate. … That’s why I say basically the dog was kind of invented on the fly. Wolves and people met on the trail, and they just have been walking ever since, is the way I put it.

You present the idea of “interspecies co-evolution” between humans and dogs. How is this sort of co-evolution different from other symbiotic relationships in nature — the oxpecker and the rhino, for instance? Is the human/dog relationship you describe different primarily because it takes place over such an extended period of time?

Well, of course it’s really long-term. There’s this whole notion that the dog comes from this sniveling, garbage-eating, whiny creature that had once been a wolf and somehow then, when it became a dog, went back to being a kind of bold creature; it doesn’t make much sense to me, and it never did. And then Steve Budiansky a few years ago claimed that dogs were basically just parasites. So symbiosis [is a complicated term].

“Mutualism” is probably better — I prefer that term to “symbiosis,” at least initially.

One thing that surprised me was your argument that in order to live among humans, dogs have to suppress or delay their instinct for fear. I would have thought it was some sort of natural aggression, rather than fear, that they’d be holding back.

I believe it’s fear. [Of course,] other people disagree. …

For one thing, we haven’t selected against aggression in dogs. Some dogs are highly aggressive — far more aggressive than any wolf you’ll meet. Fighting dogs, for one thing; and we also raise dogs to be aggressive in other cases — we haven’t tried to discourage that in the bulk of time. And so what’s more important, it seems to me, is fear: there’s this period in the development of humans, we know, probably — and it’s certainly true for dogs. There are several major periods before the dog is a year old, when if you don’t address the fear, or the fear is not dealt with, then it can become problematic.

It’s likely that this book will appeal more to dog-owners or dog-lovers than to people who don’t often interact with dogs. But do you think questions of the nature of dogs’ ongoing relations with humans, over the course of our evolutionary  history, should be interesting to people who don’t have an express interest in dogs? If the co-evolution theory holds water, presumably insight into human-dog relations would be helpful to a greater understanding of human history?

Increasingly now, as we become more and more urbanized, dogs are a connection between us and a natural world — a different world. And a different way of seeing the world. Which many of us don’t avail ourselves of, by the way. I once gave a talk to a group of Beagle Brigade handlers — you know, the little beagles in the airport? — and I asked how many of them had actually gotten down on the floor during the arrival of one of those big jumbo jets and tried to see the world the way their dog saw it. People can’t smell as well as dogs can, but they can at least try to see the world the way they do. My one dog who died of a brain tumor used to sit at a window on the stairwell and stare out the window. I couldn’t tell precisely what he was staring at, but I sat there and looked out there too, just to try and figure out — to get some idea of how this other animal sees the world. I think at its best, that’s what the human-dog relationship allows us to do: expand our understanding.

I know that dogs also serve a great value in helping break down the isolation that people sometimes feel, either toward other people or to other animals. Dogs are tremendous ambassadors, as you probably know — your dog doubtless has an innate capacity to find the person who’s visiting you who is least likely to want to have anything to do with the dog…

Yes — where does that instinct come from?

Well, how many times does your dog win that person over?

Every time.

It’s seduction, isn’t it? It’s an uncanny ability. What purpose does it serve from an evolutionary standpoint? I don’t know. It sure as hell breaks down a lot of isolation that people feel, and it gives them an experience that they wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise. Does the dog consciously do that? I don’t know how anybody would convince me that dogs aren’t aware of what they’re doing. Dogs are very aware in many cases of what they’re doing. But why they’re doing it? I don’t know.

I sometimes think dogs understand us better than we understand them. But the remarkable thing is that [dogs and humans] do understand each other to such a degree. We can understand a dog’s bark, and what his or her body language means, probably better in some cases than we can understand the behavior of other people.

If we could return for a moment to my earlier question, about what insights an understanding of our “co-evolutionary” relationship with dogs offers us more generally: Is it true that we can learn a lot about human development by studying the history of our encounters with dogs? You discuss things we have in common, like certain pack behaviors. Can you talk a little about how the concept might be useful for better understanding humans?

Well, first, there’s been a huge misunderstanding of pack behavior — so let’s just make sure we’re in agreement on that one. The Cesar Millan “you are pack leader” or “you have failed to be pack leader” routine is based on this notion of what a wolf pack is that grew out of studies of captive packs, which were made up of unrelated animals thrown together in these wolf parks. And people studying them saw that the males — unaltered males, unrelated males — fought for status. And they developed this notion of the “alpha wolf” — the biggest, meanest wolf — leading the pack. (It happened to fit, as an aside, with our views of what corporate America should be like. But let’s forget that for a minute.)

But when the researchers — David Mech is the most prominent wolf researcher — finally went and looked hard at wild packs, guess what they discovered? It wasn’t based on fighting at all; it was based on mutual cooperation. Why? Because the pack was an extended family. Ma and pa were the alphas by definition, because they were the breeding pair. Then you had the juveniles, the two- or three-year-olds moving out, and the puppies. And they worked cooperatively. And in fact, the alpha male often deferred to other animals in the pack. Why? Because not fighting is more important to social cohesion than fighting, if you follow me. Chimps, on the other hand, are known to be a rather violent sort, and wage war in various ways; they’re not as socially minded in that respect as wolves.

The early unit that humans had was the extended family — small family groups traveling around. And so I think there’s a kind of mix there that allows for this movement of wolf into human society, much more easily than other animals might do it. I mean, if in fact the wolf gained its dominance through fighting, then you’d be hard-pressed to see how humans and wolves would have gotten together to produce the dog; it’s more likely they would have gotten together to produce bloodshed.

And can we go further, to say that humans adopted certain behaviors from dogwolves — as dogwolves adopted human habits — over the long term?

Well, that’s a little harder to prove.

But possibly?

Possibly. I mean, logically, yes — but can you prove it?

To my mind, much of this is a thought process. Let’s look at what the animals would be doing; let’s look at what the people would be doing. Now, of course, we can’t project ourselves back tens of thousands of years very easily. But culture is really a conservative thing. I don’t mean “conservative” in the political sense; I mean, it conserves. And preserves, and has continuity. That’s why we use dogs today much the way people thousands and thousands and thousands of years ago — probably back to the dogwolf — used animals. You know, as companions; less as beasts of burden now than anything else, but we tend to use them for racing, much to the dislike of certain animal groups (I’m talking about sled-dog racing, not greyhound racing); and for hunting (even detection dogs really are just hunters). We use them for basically all the [same purposes our ancestors used them for], and maybe sometimes more.

I think the relationship that works between dogs and people has remained much the same, too. And this I believe is important and overlooked: many times dogs are abused, and they’ve been treated horribly — often in societies in which people are treated horribly, too, it must be said. So we have to weigh these things relatively. But invariably you’ll find that there are some people who just seem to get it with dogs. They can get inside the mind of their dog. There’s a woman trainer here who can seem to teach a dog to do anything she wants. She just understands them. And she never is cruel to her dogs; they learn, in other words. We know from more than a century of learning theory that if you want to teach an organism something, you are positive — you reward it. You don’t beat on it; you don’t flagellate it. And so my thought is — and there’s some evidence for this (not a whole ton of evidence, because there’s not always a ton of evidence for anything relating to dogs) — that throughout this relationship, the people who really succeed best are people who have that kind of ability with regard to the dog. And the dogs have that kind of ability to really understand people. They just relate to each other, in a really fundamental sense. You were asking earlier about what keeps the relationship going — this keeps the relationship going. The ones that break down, where you have a violent dog that bites and maims your child or the child next door, that is the opposite end of that spectrum. And God knows dogs occupy the full thing, just as people do.

Emma Mustich is a Salon contributor. Follow her on Twitter: @emustich.

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