The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved

Q&A with authors Ray Pierotti and Brandy Fogg
By Marc Bekoff, December 2017

Wolves became dogs via cooperation and reciprocity rather than through competition with humans.

"I wrote this book to remind people that the wolves we often demonize and persecute through wildlife management policies aren’t that different from the dogs we have in our homes and should be treated with a higher level of respect." (Brandy Fogg)

I recently had the pleasure of reading Ray Pierotti and Brandy Fogg's new book called The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved. In their landmark book, the authors begin by clearly outlining the material they want to cover and how they will go about doing it. They write, “In our efforts to produce a significant new contribution to a crowded field, we looked to a source that has been largely ignored in investigations of the evolution of humans and their ecological relationships with other species: the solid information contained within accounts from Indigenous peoples around the world.” And the authors, who bring expertise in the wide-ranging fields they cover in their interdisciplinary analyses, do just this with remarkable skill and clear and easy to read prose.

They correctly point out that almost every other book that has been published about the domestication of wolves and their relationship to humans has been written mainly from a Western reductionist tradition that emphasizes competition and rivalry between nonhumans and humans, rather than cooperation and compatibility, and this view presents only a small part of the story. They stress the importance of cooperation in many nonhuman and humans societies (P. 49) and their concentration on “examining consilience between the sciences and the humanities” (P. 8) not only is refreshing, but also what is needed to figure out how wolves became dogs. One very important point they bring up that is often ignored is that there really is no “the dog,” and that it’s very difficult to define the word “dog.” (P. 47). They correctly write, “contemporary domestic dogs are a grab-bag assemblage …” (P. 204)

I was impressed with the scope of The First Domestication and asked the authors if they could take the time to answer a few questions. They said "yes" and I'm grateful they could. Ray Pierotti's answers are in regular font and Brandy Fogg's are in italics. A response by both authors also is in regular font.

Why did you write The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved?

Pierotti: This actually goes back to my childhood, when I was told traditional Indigenous stories about how humans depended upon wolves in times of hardship and that humans and wolves were close companions who worked together. As my education progressed, I came to realize that my beloved stories did not reflect the prevailing way of thinking in Biology, which I was planning to make my career. When I was hired as a tenure-track faculty member, part of my appointment was to work with Haskell Indian College, which was located in the same small city. Working with native faculty and students brought me back to the stories that had formed my initial interest in biology and I began thinking about how to make these supposedly different ways of thinking into an appropriate reconciliation.

I began addressing these topics in publications with Daniel Wildcat in the late 1990s. I published my first major work on this topic with my 2011 book Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. At the same time, I was working with my excellent graduate student Brandy Fogg, who shared my interest in canids and was interested in doing her MA on this topic. During her research, it became apparent that we had the makings of a book.

Brandy and I have both been inspired by the work that you and Jane Goodall have been doing to show the complexity of nonhuman minds. You two (and others) showed us what was possible.

Fogg: The bond humans have with dogs is unlike any other animal. We refer to them as man’s best friend but most people are unaware of how this relationship originated. I wanted to explore the history behind this. As I set out to discover the roots of this relationship I realized there was a wealth of knowledge on the subject available through the stories of Indigenous peoples that had largely been left out of the domestication discussion. The relationship between humans and wolves is ancient and there is a vast amount of knowledge that has been lost through poor translations and the exclusion of the perspectives of Indigenous peoples. The stories that I used as a graduate student made it clear that this relationship began as a mutually beneficial arrangement and not the domineering one humans tend to think of when discussing domestication of other species. I wrote this book to remind people that the wolves we often demonize and persecute through wildlife management policies aren’t that different from the dogs we have in our homes and should be treated with a higher level of respect.

"Indigenous people and their knowledge and traditions should be taken seriously and recognized as valid ways to think about nature and biological questions."

What are your major messages?

To us, there are two major messages:

1) Indigenous people and their knowledge and traditions should be taken seriously and recognized as valid ways to think about nature and biological questions.

2) Wolves have been the closest companions of humans and we should not persecute them, but honor them for what they have meant to us as a species over the last 40,000 years.

You discuss and criticize some popular, but unsubstantiated theories of domestication, that center on how wolves became dogs, or, how Mark Derr puts it, how dogs became dogs. Can you briefly tell readers which ones you critically discuss and why you reject them? 

We have been troubled by the dump scavenging model argued for by Ray and Lorna Coppinger, because it is both anti-dog and anti-wolf in its conceptions.1 We are amazed that it received the attention it has because it is in no way an evolutionary argument. This argument makes little sense in terms of the timing of events, however, some archaeological scholars have accepted a version of it because they do not think that “dogs” existed until they could be easily distinguished based on skeletal traits. It is this argument at which we direct our main critique. The key thing to understand is that a number of other scholars seemed to concede to the Coppingers’ argument so it seems like we are more critical than we actually are when we reference these other scholars. We are critical of Richard Francis’ book on domestication, but he basically falls into the ancient argument that wolves and humans were competitors and bitter enemies. We are all critical of some individuals who seem to believe that there can be no such thing as a “domestic wolf”, and who basically argue that wolves and dogs are different species.

In addition, we have some serious questions about the results from DNA based studies because 1) scholars in this field seem unwilling to provide a scientific name for the organisms they are studying, and 2) we suspect that is because they do not want to acknowledge that dogs and wolves are the same species, i.e. Canis lupus, because they are worried that making this argument might lead conservative critics to argue that wolves are not endangered because dogs are so common. This argument has some merit, but rather than address this they simply avoid it. In addition, results from different DNA based studies provide results that are mutually incompatible. Finally, DNA based work seems to be based on the assumption that there was a single origin of all dogs, even though they argue for at least four different locations of dog origins (Eastern Asia, Northern Europe, the Levant, and China). We suspect that “dogs” originated in all of those localities, however, under contemporary systematics it is necessary that each “species” have a single origin because polyphyly does not fit cladistic models.

What view(s) do you favor on how wolves and human coevolved and why?

Pierotti: It is important to recognize that we think this relationship occurred on multiple occasions in several different regions. We think this explains the different DNA results and also that this process continued until very recently in some areas, especially Siberia and pre-contact North America, where many “dogs," or at least “canids living with humans”, were basically wolves from at least a phenotypic perspective. We think the relationship started because when modern humans moved out of Africa into Europe and Asia they were competent hunters, but unfamiliar with cold climates and the large ungulates found in these regions. They surely noticed the presence of wolves, as the other medium-sized social (group-hunting) carnivore, and according to many indigenous origin stories, depended upon scavenging wolf kills to survive. It is likely that each species recognized a useful ally in the other, with wolves being strong at pursuit and tracking and humans being good at killing once a prey had been run down or cornered. For some reason, there seems to be no evidence that Neandertals ever hunted cooperatively in this fashion, which is a major premise of Pat Shipman’s argument in The Invaders. Wolves would already have been familiar with similar arrangements since they seem to hunt cooperatively with ravens throughout North America and probably did in Eurasia as well.

Fogg: We use the term coevolved because we believe certain aspects of human society were actually learned from wolves. After our nomadic period in history, we chose to live in areas with established boundaries. At one point these were boundaries for an entire village and eventually we staked out property lines for single family groups. This is similar to the way wolves claim territories and monitor these boundaries. Humans live in family groups that are unlike any other primate species. The closest living arrangement to the way humans live is that of a wolf family group. This arrangement allows humans and wolves to invest more time and energy into ensuring the survival of those we share the most genetic material with. Humans naturally recognize the need to be a part of a social group. The lone wolf typically does not do as well as members of a cooperative family group. Research shows us that social relationships and interactions are essential to human health, both mentally and physically. 

Who is your intended audience?

We hope anyone who cares about dogs will find this book interesting, and also realize that the animals they care for so much are, in fact, domesticated wolves, and in some cases not all that domestic. We also hope that scholars interested in human behavior and evolution, or people interested in coevolution within a cooperative framework will find this book useful and that it stimulates more thinking about how cooperation is more important than competition.

What are some of your current and future projects?

Pierotti: My next project is a book about another underappreciated group of organisms who have been associated with garbage dumps. I refer to gulls, better known to most people as “seagulls” even if some of them never visit salt water. I studied this group for twenty years and published a number of papers, and I want to reveal how gulls are important components of aquatic ecosystems, and act as catalysts for mixed species foraging groups.

Fogg: My next project will focus on the relationship Americans have had with a specific breed of dog. We selectively bred them to have a unique set of qualities that would allow them to protect our families and help work with livestock, but several factors have contributed to this breed becoming one of the dangerous and often mistreated breeds in America. Certain cultural trends caused this breed to fall from a respected role in families as “nanny dogs” to statistically a danger to society. I plan to explore the history of the American Pitbull Terrier so that people will recognize this remarkable breed as the victim of irresponsible ownership and breeding instead of an innately ‘bad dog.'

An apt summary of the Pierotti and Fogg’s view of how wolves became dogs is, “As long as humans considered themselves to be fellow predators....we lived comfortably with wolves. They were our companions, sharing both our hunts and our kills and living with us in a more or less equal sort of reciprocity.” (P. 23) Their conclusion is well founded and in basic agreement with those of others who have written on how wolves became dogs, including experts Mark Derr and Patricia Shipman. 

The First Domestication is an outstanding book because of the care with which existing data are treated and presented and its encyclopedic scope. It could well become a classic not only in terms of the numerous topics it covers but so too as a model for how detailed analyses of copious data and relevant stories can be used to make for a coherent and factual account of the subject at hand. Each time I read different sections, I came away knowing far more than I did on a topic in which I’ve been interested in for decades. It would be an excellent choice for undergraduate and graduate students and for non-scientists who want to learn more about how wolves became dogs, or, as Mark Derr puts is, how dogs became dogs, and the numerous disciplines that need to be given serious attention when trying to credibly answer this fascinating question.

I'm sure others will weigh in both supporting and refuting some of the calling made in this book. I look forward to these exchanges.

1A little more detail here might be useful for readers. I could easily see how the subtitle for this eclectic book could well have been something like, Dumping the Dumpster Belief and Other Ideas About How Wolves Became Dogs. While Pierotta and Fogg focus on and thoughtfully reject a number of theories of how wolves were transformed into dogs, they thoroughly and convincingly show why the one belief that has received the most media attention with little to no scientific backing is incorrect. Often called the “dumpster theory” of how wolves became dogs that is attributed to the late Ray Coppinger and his wife, Lorna, the simplistic idea that wolves evolved as scavengers around human camps and that humans controlled the interactions between wolves and themselves fails on biological/evolutionary (“The Coppingers are at odds with evolutionary theory…” p. 37), behavioral, and archeological grounds (The Coppingers argue “There is zero evidence for dogs before 12,000 BP… P. 207). It also is narrowly monocultural, assumes a single origin for dogs (Pp. 31ff and elsewhere), and is self-contradictory (P. 33). 

This story was originally published by psychologytoday.com. Reprinted with permission.

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

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