Science & History
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The Wolf Who Stayed

In their book, Dogs, Coppinger and his wife, Lorna, argue that these early protodogs would have resembled the ownerless dogs of Pemba Island, a remote part of the Zanzibar archipelago. As a model, Pemba suffers numerous problems, as does Coppinger’s theory. It is an Islamic island, and Islam has scarce place for dogs, believing them filthy, largely because they scavenge and eat excrement.

Beyond that, Pemba was a wealthy island in the 18th and 19th centuries due to its clove plantations, which were worked by African slaves and overseen by Arabs. The plantations have long since fallen into disrepair, on an island populated by the descendants of free slaves, where poverty is the rule. Attempting to read the past by looking at the present is a well recognized form of historical fallacy. It can’t be done, especially in a place where there is no strong cultural tradition.

Elsewhere in the developing world, free-ranging dogs are often more than scavengers or food. Some are fed; they protect territories or vendors’ carts. A few might be taken in, but, again, these dogs must be studied and understood in their current context and then placed in a broader historical context, if possible.

Moreover, Coppinger ignores the entire tradition of dogs and people in Europe, Japan and Korea—wherever dogs were employed from an apparently early date for a purpose, including companionship and ritual. Archaeologist Darcy F. Morey clearly demonstrated in the February 2006 issue of The Journal of Archaeological Science that people have been burying dogs and treating them with reverence and respect from the beginning, hardly the fate of scavengers.

People will argue, but I think the question of whether the dog is a juvenilized wolf is best answered with this observation: The dog follows human gaze, according to Hare, and is so attentive to people that it can imitate them, according to Vilmos Csányi, and it does so from an early age. No wolf of any age can replicate that basic behavior. It is far better to look at the dog as a differently developed wolf than as a developmentally retarded wolf.

Similarly, until shown otherwise, it seems more accurate to view domestication as a dynamic process involving wolves and people. At a time when the boundaries between human and wild were much more porous than now, people doubtless took in animals, especially young animals of all kinds, especially wolf pups, since in many places, they were hunting the same game and perhaps scavenging from each other.

As those pups matured, they returned to the wild to breed, with the naturally tamest among them denning close to the camp where they had been raised and, yes, could scavenge. Over the past year, researchers have shown that the area of the brain known as the amygdala is quite active when “fear of the other” begins to develop. In 2004, a team of researchers from Uppsala University, including Vilà, reported in the journal Molecular Brain Research on changes they had found in gene expression in the frontal lobe, hypothalamus and amygdala of wolves, coyotes and dogs. More than 40 years ago, J.P. Scott and John L. Fuller showed that the dog pup had a lengthened socialization period before fear of the other set in, compared with the wolf pup.

No one knows how fast the change happened, but in some places, tame wolves—dogs—resulted from this process. They provided territorial defense, helped with hunting (which they do well), scavenged, and were valued for companionship and utility. Some could be trained to carry packs. That early dog probably remained nearly indistinguishable from the wolf except in places where their gene pool became limited by virtue of some isolating event. The smaller gene pool forced inbreeding that, along with changing environmental conditions, somehow “destabilized” the genome.

Vilà and two colleagues suggested in an article published online on June 29, 2006, in Genome Research, that domestication relaxed “selective constraint” on the dog’s mitochondrial genome, and if that relaxation extended to the whole genome, as it appeared to, “it could have facilitated the generation of novel functional genetic diversity.”

European and North American breeders have taken full advantage of that or some other mechanism to create the most morphologically diverse mammal around. But other cultures did not follow that path.


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

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