Becoming Dogs

Wolves, not foxes, gave rise to dogs.

Posted Mar 30, 2017

In 1959, Dmitri Belyaev, a geneticist in the Soviet Union, took over the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Siberia, and set about to conduct a grand experiment designed to prove that by selectively breeding only for a single behavior he called tameness, he could create a domestic fox.  These foxes were to be dog cut-outs who would prove that dogs were selected to be flop-eared, attention-seekers. Belyaev (who died in 1985) and his assistant and successor as leader of the project, Lyudmila Trut, succeeded in creating their “dog” from a carefully selected population of fur-farm silver foxes, a variety of red fox, and convincing many respectable researchers that they had solved the mystery of domestication, for dogs and humans and all past and future domesticates. Now, nearly sixty years into the project, Trut has joined with Lee Alan Dugatkin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Louisville, to write a glowing account of the farm fox experiment, How To Tame a Fox (And Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution. This book is a fine example of hagiography, an uncritical account of the man, his “vision,” and the domestic foxes he and his followers created.

What is not to like about this story about a visionary scientist surviving and ultimately prevailing through the dark days of Stalin and his scientific Rasputin, Trofim Lysenko, to solve the mystery of domestication? Belyaev set up protocols for selecting and breeding only foxes showing “tameness” –sometimes more accurately called a reduced flight response—when a human handler opened their cage and offered them food. Without going into a full critique of the experiment, suffice it to say that while Belyaev, Trut, and their colleagues apparently succeeded in producing a line of domestic foxes, based on their apparent preference for humans to all other company—indeed, from the descriptions the tamest among them seem to bond most strongly to one person—their —experiment, contrary to the claims in this book and a number of magazine articles, does not explain the whys and wherefores of the transformation of wolves to dogs. 

Foxes were around at the time of the earliest dogs.  Too, they seem to adapt fairly readily to living among people—but perhaps not to life in a cage—and are fairly easily tamed.  But foxes did not give rise to dogs. They are neither as social nor as versatile as wolves—nor are they as big, strong and fast.   Unlike wolves, they are not by nature pack dwellers.

Despite that, the farm fox experiment is regularly cited in the popular scientific press as a model for the way that wolves became dogs. In that telling, wolves seeking nourishment from the middens of Mesolithic villages into which people giving up their wandering hunting and gathering ways had begun to settle and, self-taming, threw themselves upon humans in friendship and devotion and became accepted as village garbage scrounges before people realized they had other talents. 

Mark Derr
Source: Mark Derr

That, in short, was the narrative until it became clear to nearly everyone who looks at the evidence that dogs diverged from gray wolves in the Late Pleistocene when people were still hunters and gatherers. To deal with this data, the narrative was revised such that the self-taming wolves arose from a group  following hard on the trail of hunters and gatherers and eating their droppings.  Greger Larson, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford and co-director of an international effort to solve the mysteries of dogs’ origins, presents this amended narrative in this Podcast.

The self-taming wolf to dog theory is popular, I think, because it is simple, easy to explain, and adaptable up to a point—that is it can be adjusted to fit changing facts.  It also squares with the belief of many people that between wolves and humans has always been an undying enmity.  Wolves want to kill people, they say, and thus the only way early humans could have taken them in would be if they changed their nature to fill a niche humans did not even know they had created.  They had to make themselves subservient—or at least submissive to humans.  To make that argument is, of course, to grant wolves the volition and foresight they would deny Paleolithic hunters and gatherers.  It also reflects profound misapprehension of the nature of wolves and wolf packs—of wolf society and culture, which in many ways resembled that of bands of hunters and gatherers.

The argument also rests on the supposition that there was enough food waste in the camp of hunters and gatherers around the time of the Last Glacier Maximum to feed scavenging wolves.  But by most accounts, early humans wasted very little from the animals they killed, processing bones for marrow, hides, tendons, and the like, so that grown wolves would be hard-pressed to find enough to eat in what was left, much less be able to feed pups.Moreover, Belyaev’s experiment is about intensive selective breeding by a tiny number of humans of a limited number of foxes for a specific behavior the humans called ‘tameness.”  These foxes were caged, and strict protocols dictated who among them would breed with whom and how they would be handled, although those protocols seem occasionally to have been violated or altered—especially on the rare occasions when a kit showed up with a particularly desired trait—floppy ears, for example—or a visiting journalist appeared.  The point is that these foxes were ‘domesticated’ in precisely the way wolves were not—that is, by humans who had in mind what a domesticated fox looked and behaved like and set out to create it. 

The litany of problems and questions that arise when using fur-farm-foxes to support a theory for how wild wolves became dogs grows longer the more one examines the case.  We know, for example, that dogs and wolves interbred freely for centuries, even millennia following the emergence of dogs; they still do in some places where the boundaries between wild and domestic remain relatively porous. I wonder what would happen to the puppy-like behavior of the tame foxes were they crossed back to wild foxes? (Discussions of why the farm foxes do not make a good model for wolves can be found in Pat Shipman, The Invaders, John Bradshaw, Dog Sense; Mark Derr, How the Dog Became the Dog; and Darcy F. Morey and Rujana Jeger, “From Wolf to Dog: Late Pleistocene ecological dynamics, altered trophic strategies, and shifting human perspectives,” Historical Biology, December 20, 2016.)

Morey, one of the world’s top canid archaeologists, and Rujana Jeger, his collaborator and a long time student of dog domestication, proposed an interesting theory in their recent paper.  They argue that gray wolves were mesocarnivores coming into the Late Pleistocene, and that far from being enemies of early modern humans, they were predisposed to having a sociable relationship with them. Their conclusion is worth quoting in full:

The direct ancestors of today’s dogs, the companion wolves of people, emerged from wild wolves during the ecological uncertainties of Late Pleistocene times. Behavioral and social similarities between wild wolves and people served to encourage and then sustain the development of this distinctive symbiotic relationship. Given the dynamics of Late Pleistocene times, including numerous extinctions, wild wolves and people’s wolves (dogs) then embarked on different routes to attaining ecological apex standing. Wild wolves became the familiar apex predators of recent times, whereas dogs, initially casting  their lot with people and joining them as predators, ultimately transitioned with them as apex consumers. In casting their lot with people, dogs eventually spread throughout most of the world, experiencing life in much the same terms as do people. Thus, where people live under deplorable conditions, so usually do dogs. Likewise, where people live under more comfortable circumstances, so often do their dogs. Those are of course opposite ends of a spectrum of continuous variation, and many dogs live in between those end points. At any rate, under the most comfortable of those circumstances, some dogs function much like human family members, attaining what some people might agree constitutes a special kind of standing. There, they may function as virtual apex family members.

There are other views of how wolves came to be dogs, as I have discussed before and will again, but for now, I will close with the following observation. The timing for the cleavage of wild from domestic lands and of people and their domestic animals from wolves and other denizens of the wild varies from region to region and is tied to the adoption of agriculture, which requires, among other adaptations, the capacity for protecting and storing seeds and livestock.  It also involves taking and holding land from Nature and other humans it helps to demonize and hate.

But the real demonization of the wolf in Europe, at least, occurred with the establishment of hunting preserves—forests—for the sport of nobles. Wolves were competing hunters slaughtered for killing stags the royals were hunting and they were demonized as part of a drive to keep peasants from poaching royal game by making the forests and its predators into demons who would as soon rip out your heart as look at you. 

Correction: An earlier version of this posting misidentified Greger Larson's speciality.  He is an evolutionary biologist. I apologize for the error.