Book Review: The First Domestication

How Wolves and Humans Coevolved
By Mark Derr, July 2018

In their new book, The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved, Raymond Pierotti and Brandy R. Fogg set out to explain how wolves and humans formed a unique partnership tens of thousands of years ago that has continued to this day. For Pierotti and Fogg, the “first domestication” involved a mutually beneficial, voluntary joining of forces of two different species that were similar in many ways, including the  ability to educate and learn from each other. Indeed, for the relationship  to succeed, it had to have been built on cooperation, not conflict or fear.

I put “first domestication” in quotes because although quite literally, it was first by thousands of years, Pierotti and Fogg observe, there was no single domestication event in a particular time and place. Rather, multiple populations of wolves, through their association with different human cultures, contributed to the rise of dogs. Interbreeding between dogs and wolves was so commonplace from the start that for thousands of years in some cultures, wolves and dogs were indistinguishable in appearance. (They still are because that intermingling continues among some groups, albeit at a lower fre- quency than in the past, and others deliberately perpetuate the wolf look in their dogs through selective breeding.) “Each cultural tradition,” Pierotti and Fogg write, “developed with specific images of the canids suited to share its particular way of life.” Thus, human choices helped shape dogs after wolves helped shape human culture.

Pierotti and Fogg rely heavily on accounts of indigenous people from around the world to overturn much of the received wisdom regarding the nature of wolves and our historic relationship to them that substitutes for fact in dis- cussions about the birth of dogs. While much of this book’s argu- ment might sound familiar to regular readers of my books and articles, as well as the work of Wolfgang Schleidt and Michael Shalter (who are explicitly recognized), Pierotti and Fogg have their own take on the wolf-to-dog question that warrants attention.

Fewer nuggets of received wisdom are harder to overturn than those relating to the nature of the wolves who became dogs, and the process by which that transformation occurred. Pierotti and Fogg attribute that to a lack of understanding of the nature of wolves, dogs, early modern humans or all three. They write: “We have found during our research, both in the field and in reviewing the literature, that most of the people who write about or study dogs know little or nothing about wolves, and the opposite scenario seems equally true as well.” Many of those writers and scholars take as fact the belief that between humans and wolves lies an undying enmity that will end only with the death of the last wild wolf.

Following an Anglo-European tradition—not the only one but the most prevalent—they view wolves, like wild nature, as “red in tooth and claw.” Wolves are bloodthirsty killers of livestock and even unsuspecting people. Pierotti and Fogg attribute this attitude to the Catholic Church, saying that around 1,000 years ago, it began to demonize the beasts of the forest, especially bears and wolves, who were celebrated and in some cases deified in much of Europe. The situation was more complicated and older than that and also involved demonization of the outlaws, the dispossessed peasantry who lived in the forest preserves of the gentry, poaching the laird’s stags. The Spaniards took that attitude and their dogs to the New World and let them maraud unfettered.

The blood is dripping from human mouths, not wolf teeth and claws. As Pierotti and Fogg observe, many indigenous cultures, including those of Medieval Europe before the Church moved to shut down heresies, celebrated wolves as teachers, if not creators, of humans and the world.

Currently, the most popular dog creation story among many students of evolution in the Englishspeaking world holds that humans and wolves were hostile competitors who got together only after some wolves began chowing down on the garbage they found in the dumps of Mesolithic villagers and transformed themselves through a form of self-selection into sniveling, attention-seeking dump divers nonthreatening enough for the villagers to embrace. To seal the deal, these wolves changed in appearance and character to the point that the villagers whose dumps they called home could readily distinguish them from their wild kin.

This “garbage dump model” of the self-domesticating wolf was propounded but not so named by the late Raymond Coppinger. Its portrait of the dog as a self-domesticating wolf who ingratiates itself into human affections by becoming perpetually juvenile in appearance and behavior—a first-class social parasite with floppy ears flapping, always playful, always subordinate, always seeking affection, always barking and whining and begging —has a number of disadvantages, the greatest being that it doesn’t match reality.

Despite that, Coppinger’s followers are legion and persistent, often resembling true believers as much as scientists. They rely on an argument by analogy based on Soviet geneticist Dmitry Belyaev’s domestication of a select population of silver foxes during the Cold War decades. He intensively selected for “tameness,” a behavioral trait associated with many domesticated species. After 20 generations, the foxes from those breedings were obsequious attention-seekers, showing white in their pelage and other physical and behavioral characteristics more often associated with juvenile than with adult foxes.

Pierotti and Fogg dismantle Coppinger’s major pronouncements about the nature of dogs and wolves. The dump-diver theory of self-domestication and Belyaev’s experiment with silver foxes as a model for wolf domestication are also dismissed, primarily on the grounds that dogs arose in the camps of hunters and gatherers, thousands of years before the dawn of the Mesolithic.

Mutual assistance and cooperation were the basis of the relationship of humans and dogs from the beginning and, thus, wolves did not have to change their appearance or natures in order to work together with humans, nor were they under pressure from humans to change, unlike Belyaev’s foxes. Pierotti and Fogg write: “[D]uring early stages of human-wolf relations, humans were quite happy with original nondomestic wolf phenotypes and did not want overgrown puppies as companions.” Pierotti and Fogg build the case for a natural, abiding affinity between humans and wolves, including the ones who took up residence among them. They attribute the first friendships to young female wolves and humans, and to children. Because it is common in wolf packs that only the alpha or top-ranking female breeds in a given year, “sometime in the last 100,000 years,” they postulate, a young, pregnant female, driven from her pack by her mother, the alpha female, took up residence in a cave overlooking a valley that since her last visit, a pack of bipeds had occupied. She excavated her den and watched the furless bipeds out of curiosity as much as any other motivation. A young woman watched the wolf and one day, took her a chunk of the hunters’ kill.

Initially, the wolf was wary, but hunger soon won out, and from that act of friendship grew a cooperative partnership spanning thousands of generations of wolves and humans. They were simpatico, friends from first meeting, or nearly so. They were similar in ways great and small, from family structure to the habit of sharing the labor and rewards of hunting and raising the young of the pack, for when she taught her pups to hunt, she also educated the human hunters who were already imitating wolf ways of hunting.

They had, for example, already learned how to locate a pack on the hunt by watching ravens who followed wolves. Humans could help wolves in the difficult endgame because, with their bows and spear throwers, they could kill more successfully and with less chance of injury than could wolves, who excelled at running down and baying up prey until the humans arrived. They learned that if they rewarded the wolves sufficiently— that is, if they shared the spoils with this other species—their alliance might continue, with the boldest, most social among the wolves born of the exiled mother who hung around and even established packs nearby. Pierotti and Fogg observe that this scenario could have been repeated in many different valleys as the newly arrived humans followed prey.

Cooperative hunting involving individuals of different species is rare but not uncommon, according to Pierotti and Fogg, nor does it require any of the participants to subordinate themselves to the other. Rather, it often seems to involve flushing prey from hiding and driving it into a trap—or the jaws of the other—and the use of a separate language or set of signals. Pierotti and Fogg use examples of interspecies hunting to place the collaboration of wolves and humans in context.

A major contribution of Pierotti and Fogg lies in their examination of the ways indigenous people around the world have related to dogs and wolves. Although contrary to their claim, they are not the first to make use of that material, they do provide an expansive survey that ranges from Europe through Siberia and Central Asia to Japan and North America, with a side trip to Australia for a close look at how Aboriginal people incorporated dingoes into their lives and Dream Time.

They discuss cultures that did not distinguish between wolves and dogs. “The consistent pattern within all of these Indigenous stories,” they write, “is that the relationship between wolf and human was based upon respect and cooperation, especially in hunting, implying a complex and interesting alliance with the organisms that we refer to today as dogs.”

Pierotti and Fogg devote considerable space to a review of the current state of wolves and wolf-dog hybrids, focusing on how many people, even among experts, are hard-pressed to distinguish between wolves, wolf hybrids and dog breeds that look like wolves. They refute claims that wolves are more aggressive than dogs toward people. Examining the argument that centuries of persecution have made wild wolves distrustful of humans, Pierotti and Fogg show that even if that is true, some wolves continue to take pity on the naked biped and bless those who would receive it with their friendship. That doesn’t mean everyone should go seek a sociable wolf or wolf hybrid, but it does suggest we recognize that they are all around us.

The review first appeared on  Mark Derr’s blog, Dog’s Best Friend, on psychologytoday.com. And for an interview with Pierotti and Fogg, see Marc Bekoff’s blog, Animal Emotions, on the same site.

Mark Derr is the author of A Dog's History of America, Dog's Best Friend, The Frontiersman: The Real Life and Many Legends of Davy Crockett, Some Kind of Paradise and How The Dog Became the Dog and numerous articles on science, environment and transportation. He blogs for Psychology Today.

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