Science & History
Print|Text Size: ||
The Wolf Who Stayed
A domestication that went both ways


That the dog is descended from the wolf—or more precisely, the wolf who stayed—is by now an accepted fact of evolution and history. But that fact is about all that is agreed to among the people who attempt to answer fundamental questions about the origins of the dog—specifically, the who, where, when, how and why of domestication.

Dates range from the dog’s earliest appearance in the archaeological record around 14,000 years ago to the earliest estimated time for its genetic sidestep from wolves around 135,000 years ago. Did the dog emerge in Central Europe, as the archaeological record suggests, or in East Asia, where the genetic evidence points? Were they tame wolves whose offspring over time became homebodies, or scavenging wolves whose love of human waste made them increasingly tame and submissive enough to insinuate themselves into human hearts? Or did humans learn to follow, herd and hunt big game from wolves and in so doing, enter into a complex dance of co-evolution?

Despite the adamancy of adherents to specific positions, the data are too incomplete, too subject to wildly different interpretations; some of the theories themselves too vague; and the physical evidence too sparse to say with certainty what happened. Nonetheless, some models—and not necessarily the most popular and current ones—more clearly fit what is known about dogs and wolves and humans than others. It is a field in high flux, due in no small measure to the full sequencing of the dog genome. But were I a bettor, I would wager that the winning view, the more-or-less historically correct one, shows that the dog is the result of the interaction of wolves and ancient humans rather than a self-invention by wolves or a “conquest” by humans.

Our views of the dog are integrally bound to the answers to these questions, and, for better or worse, those views help shape the way we approach our own and other dogs. It is difficult, for example, to treat as a valued companion a “social parasite” or, literally, a “shit-eater.” To argue that different breeds or types of dogs represent arrested stages of wolf development both physically and behaviorally is not only to confuse, biologically, description with prescription but also to overlook the dog’s unique behavioral adaptations to life with humans. Thus, according to some studies, the dog has developed barking, a little-used wolf talent, into a fairly sophisticated form of communication, but a person who finds barking the noise of a neotenic wolf is unlikely to hear what is being conveyed. “The dog is everywhere what society makes him,” Charles Dudley Warner wrote in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1896. His words still hold true.

Since the dog is both a cultural and a biological creation, it is worth noting here that these opposing views of the dog’s origin echo the old theory that the sniveling, slinking pariah dogs and their like—“southern breeds”—derived from jackals, while “northern breeds”—Spitz-like dogs and Huskies—descended directly from the wolf. Darwin thought as much, so did the pioneering ethologist Konrad Lorenz until late in his life, when he accepted that the wolf was the sole progenitor of the dog. In the theories of Raymond Coppinger and others—and I think this transference is unconscious—the scavenging jackal becomes a camp-following, offal-eating, self-domesticating weenie of a tame wolf. In turn, those wolves become the ur-dog, still manifest in the pariahs of India and Asia, from which the dog we know is said to have emerged. It’s a tidy, convenient, unprovable story that has an element of truth—dogs are accomplished scavengers—but beyond that, it is the jackal theory with a tattered new coat. In dropping humans from the process, the scavenging, self-domesticating wolf theory ignores the archaeological record and other crucial facts that undercut it.




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.

Illustration by Amadeo Bachar

More From The Bark

Mark Derr
Claudia Kawczynska
Mark Derr
More in Science & History:
Myths: Loyalty Rewarded
Body Language
Is Your Dog Waiting For You?
Scientists Searching for Clues to The First Dog
The Wolf in Your Dog
Alexandra Horowitz, The Canine Mindseeker
DNA Testing
Can DNA Decipher the Mix?
Darwin’s Dogs