Dogs and humans were made for each other: Simply put, dogs are the closest many of us ever come to another intelligence.
There are many different views on how dogs became dogs (please also see Lee Dugatkin's "Want to Build a Dog From A Fox? Here's How To Do It"). I just read Mark Derr's excellent essay called "RIP Self-Taming Dump-Divers" and the timing for an interview with him was just perfect. I asked Mr. Derr a few questions that serve to fill in some of his thinking on how and why dogs became the domesticated beings they are and he rapidly responded to these queries. (please also see "How the Dog Became the Dog" for more details).
In his recent essay Mr. Derr writes:
"In my view, the dog isn’t a lesser wolf, juvenilized, made safe for the home; rather, it is a different kind of wolf, one born on the trail and shaped by natural and artificial selection that have emphasized certain aspects of dogdom. Sociability more than any other characteristic, including tameness—the two are not the same—has long seemed to me the key to the transformation of dogs from wolves. An elongated socialization period and delayed onset of fear of the new allowed dog puppies to form lasting bonds with another species. I have proposed in How the Dog Became the Dog that those bonds could have been forged between wolves of all ages who were inclined out of curiosity or their innate sociability to hang around people—and we know adult wolves can form strong social bonds with a variety of people and can be more sociable and gregarious than many dogs ..."
I wanted to follow up on some of these ideas and our brief interview went as follows.
How did you get interested in questions about the domestication of dogs?
I’ve had at least one dog my entire 67 years on this planet. In many ways we have organized our lives around them—living near places we could walk them, getting up before dawn to exercise them in violation of leash laws…You know the drill. [I do.] They have always been in my life and so when I wrote about them, beginning with the Atlantic Monthly cover story, “The Politics of Dogs,” (March 1990), it was obvious that their origin was part of the story, actually a big part.
How does your interest build on previous books you've written?
Simply put, dogs are the closest many of us ever come to another intelligence. They mediate between our artificial world and the natural world. That relationship is one of my chief interests. It shapes much of what I write. Purebred dogs and the disaster we have made of them remind me always that we f___ with nature at our peril.
What are the most tenable explanations for how wolves became dogs, or as you aptly put it, how dogs became dogs?
I often give a little talk called “From Trailhead to Tailgate: The Long Strange Journey of Dogs and Humans.” In a real sense, I think dogs have been with us from the time our distant ancestors first met on the trail of the Pleistocene megafauna they were hunting. Dogs and humans were made for each other. That was the title of a symposium sponsored by the UCLA Center for Society and Genetics in February 2011. I spoke there. We had independently arrived at titles that were identical, except theirs had a question mark while mine did not.
Specifically, wolf packs and bands of hunters and gatherers are similar in terms of being organized to raise, nurture, and educate their young. They hunt cooperatively. They are curious and socially gregarious, watchful, and capable of forging bonds of friendship throughout their lives by mastering the fear of the stranger. I’ve long felt that sociability was the key to becoming dogs—sociability and a delayed onset of fear.
Why do you think there's so much confusion about this topic?
I’m not sure there is confusion so much as there is, even among many experts, a stubborn insistence on a model in which they find comfort, for example, dump-diving wolves self tame in order to become non-threatening to people producing the garbage. As proof, we offer you foxes a Soviet geneticist selectively bred for “tameness,” to look and act like dogs. That proof by analogy is simple and clean until you start thinking about it critically and then it begins to unravel.
There are two major conceptual errors. The first holds incorrectly that between humans and wolves is an undying enmity. That means one or both had to change their nature for them to get together. According to the self-domestication theory, the primary shape shifters were the wolves who turned themselves into perpetually juvenilized attention seekers, and that brings me to the second major conceptual error underpinning the standard model, namely that the big brained creature in the dynamic is turned into a passive idiot who is taken in by a wagging tail and loose tongue.
Some people also argue that Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev’s domestication of silver foxes through intensive selective breeding solely for a characteristic he called “tameness” replicates the domestication of dogs and other animals. As I explain in "RIP Self-Taming Dump-Divers," there is a problem centering on when dogs began to appear and the fact that Paleolithic hunters left little for the different scavengers who patrolled the edges of their camps.
What are some of your current and future projects?
Another difficult question. Much of my time and energy in recent years have gone to managing Parkinson’s disease. I periodically think of enlisting a big dog to assist me in that, but haven’t decided yet if I have the energy for that. I have no current writing project, but I have a longstanding fascination with the large carnivores—where they evolved and how and why they spread to different parts of the world, and the various ways people and they live together. There's been some good work on those questions recently, so I’m not sure yet what I could contribute. But it's a fascinating area to ponder.
Thanks a lot, Mark, for sharing these insights with readers. I, too, find the sociability hypothesis to be very compelling and simple. Your most recent essay and others nicely lay out what we know about how dogs became dogs and I hope they will enjoy a wide readership.
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at marcbekoff.com.