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?
Mark Derr: The premise I start with is that, in many ways, dogs are an evolutionary inevitability. As soon as humans and wolves encountered one another on the game trails, they struck up a relationship, and they’ve been at it ever since. People and dogs have very similar social structures, and there was a level of sociability between some wolves and some people that allowed those particular individuals to come together.
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?
MD: Several things. Wolves hanging around humans probably ate better than “wild” wolves. They also gained sexual freedom, which is a positive thing. Raising puppies takes a lot of time and energy, but with humans around, the burden of raising the young was greatly diminished.
CK: Was this consciously directed?
MD: No, not on the part of the wolf or the human, who didn’t think about it as a benefit either. The operational presupposition is that animals don’t do things that are bad for them. So if you look at it, let’s face it … if someone comes along to help raise your offspring, you are suddenly free to do all kinds of stuff.
CK: Like getting better food to feed those offspring.
MD: I think that was a major benefit for the dogwolf. Besides, they received protection from us.
CK: Did this relationship affect our own evolution?
MD: There is no question that early humans benefited from dogs at a very fundamental level. Evidence shows that humans who hunt with dogs do much better than those who don’t, for example. So, theoretically, the quality of their food would be better. The dog also provided transport, greatly extending our reach, and protection. Having that barking wolf or dogwolf or dog alert us to strangers, who may not have had our best interests at heart, was a positive thing — it helped us stay alive to reproduce. There is also no question that dogs helped us hunt, and then control and guard, ungulates that had been domesticated by humans. Dogs have been invaluable to humans, and continue to be.
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?
MD: Though dogs reach sexual maturity earlier than wolves, growth or development of other organs and limbs is delayed, which is called paedomorphism. Slowing the rate of development is said to lead to neoteny, the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood.
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.