Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution

By Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger
By Marc Bekoff, March 2014
Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution
By Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger

Dogs, dogs, and more dogs: Fact, fiction, or something in between?

In their book, Ray and Lorna Coppinger promise a startling new understanding of many matters pertaining to canines, including how the domestic dog became a separate species from the wolf. Coppinger is a behavioral ecologist, he and his wife have studied dogs for many years, and their book is filled with personal stories.

The Coppingers accept that dogs descended from wolves, but they assert that they now constitute two separate species. Herein lies their “startling new” hypothesis. Dogs were the first domesticated animal and many theories have been offered to explain why and how domestication may have happened. Most of these theories, as do the Coppinger’s, rely on using present conditions to make claims on past cultures. This can only be a highly speculative exercise. The Coppingers criticize the more commonly held view of the domestication of dogs that “people created dogs by artificial selection,” during which individuals were chosen for such traits as friendliness, tameness, and trainability and then mated with one another. They call this the “Pinocchio hypothesis.” They contend that “the offspring of tamed (and/or trained) wolves do not inherit this tameness,” but they offer scant empirical evidence to support such a claim. They also point to the lack of archaeological evidence that Mesolithic people had access to a large enough population of trained or tamed wolves to select for tame behavior, but they never state how many wolves would be “big enough.” 

Suffice it to say, we still know little that’s verifiable about the origins of dogs. But it’s not surprising that different authors balance facts and guesses differently and come up with a variety of plausible scenarios for the evolution of dogs. The Coppinger view is just another to add to the mix. This book will surely stimulate more discussion and, let’s hope, more detailed analyses of what we know and don’t know.

Other topics in this book include canine behavioral development, social behavior and communication, genetics, morphology and a discussion of why different breeds of dogs behave differently. Some of Coppinger’s assertions puzzle me, such as their claim that dogs who don’t live in packs don’t understand dominance relationships. A visit to any dog park or a glance at any textbook on animal behavior shows clearly that many different animals understand dominance relationships, even those who typically live alone. They also assert that “Intelligence is dependent on how many [brain] cells the dog has, and how those cells are wired together.” I know of no research that directly relates the slippery notion of intelligence to the number of cells packed into an individual’s cranium nor any that has studied in detail how nerve cells are wired together and what difference the “wiring patterns” make. Perhaps the authors mean cells in one specific region of the brain. Still, there have been no studies of which I’m aware in which individual differences in the number of cells (anywhere in the brain) have been related to individual differences in intelligence in domestic dogs or any other animal. They go on to write that, “Exactly what a dog can learn to do is genetic.” This assertion ignores the incredibly rich scientific literature on learned behavioral flexibility and diversity in dogs, and in many animals ranging from insects to the Great Apes.These claims demonstrate a lack of scientific rigor. But when the Coppingers claim that some aspects dog behavior provide a “window into the mind of the dog,” without citing Donald Griffin, the “father of cognitive ethology” who first put forth this idea, this omission borders on intellectual piracy.

Throughout the book there’s a disturbing lack of reference to numerous highly-regarded experts in this field (though they do cite my own work liberally). Instead the authors depend on people who have done little (or no) empirical work on dogs or wolves and whose work has not been published in peer-reviewed professional journals, the standard by which researchers are accredited. For example, if the authors had used Brian Hare and his colleague’s well-known and readily accessible work on studies of dog and wolf cognitive abilities, rather than the very preliminary research on which they depended, they’d never have claimed that, “Dogs as a rule are very poor at observational learning.” If such spurious claims prevail for subjects with which I’m not familiar then there’s a major problem in this book.

All in all, I found little in Dogs to be "startling" except for the lack of a clear indication where the line between facts and guesses lay. In a project of this magnitude, this troubles me. There are merits to the book. Advancing a new theory on the origin of dogs does spark examination and discussion, but on the whole Dogs left me unconvinced of the Coppinger's theory. The book is riddled with wholesale generalizations and relies too much on personal anecdotes and unsupported speculation to win my recommendation. Dog lovers and dogs themselves deserve better. Readers beware is the best advice I can offer.


Note: This review originally appeared in Bark in 2001. This book was published that year as well.

Marc Bekoff is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder.