Caging Wolves

I really enjoyed the article about our collective Paleofantasies.  I think it is a rather common idea that at one point in our evolutionary history, humans were perfectly adapted to our environment.  I have probably thought that myself.  The article does a good job of pointing out the obvious flaws in that line of thinking.

I found the reading about dogs and wolves to be more interesting.  The story of wolves becoming dogs was very interesting and, as the author showed, very relevant in our dog centered world.  I found two points to be most interesting.  The first was the author’s discussion of early interactions between wolves and dogs.  At that point, humans did not have the means to restrain wolves in any way.  Their ability to physically control what wolves did was very limited.  Humans did not have metal for cages or strong collars or anything like that and wolves could easily chew through any restraining device that humans could create.

This lack of control meant wolves could come and go from groups of humans as they pleased.  The author put it in terms of wolves knowing when humans were beneficial and when they were not.  If associating with humans stopped being mutually beneficial, the wolves could leave and return to hunting by themselves.  As long as the humans kept being beneficial, the wolves would stay.  The fact that wolves stayed with humans long enough to become dogs is interesting to me because it ascribes a great deal of agency to wolves.  Wolves chose to remain with humans long enough to become dogs because it was beneficial to them.

We have mentioned this idea of animals deciding to become domesticates because it is beneficial for them, but I think this is the first time an author has so explicitly put so much emphasis on the animal making a conscious choice.  I am so interested in this idea because it ascribes so much agency to animals, which is something very new to me.  As a historian, I am so used to reading about humans doing this or that, reading about an animal made such a momentous choice is very interesting.

The second point I found interesting was something Derr only briefly mentioned.  During his discussion of feral animals and stray dogs, Derr mentioned wolf “culture.”  This piqued my curiosity because, for me, culture has always been the sole domain of humans.  Animals don’t have culture because they are animals.  This notion is becoming increasingly problematic as I consider it more.  Culture as a shared legacy of practices and behaviors is obviously not limited to humans.  What does everyone else think?  Is culture limited to humans, or do animals have culture too?  As of now, I’m leaning towards animals do have culture, but I’m curious as to what everyone else thinks.

5 thoughts on “Caging Wolves

  1. Animals absolutely have culture. In ethology, cultural transmission is thought to account for many of the behaviors that animals perform–basically the young learn certain things from the adult population (tool use, etc). This can vary from population to population (chimpanzees in one region may use a tool differently than chimpanzees in another region, because the two cultures, in two different regions, have developed tool use differently). They may not have culture in the complex way that we (humans) do, but I think that many (if not all) species of birds and mammals have some sort of culture that from simple to complex at a level appropriate to their level of intelligence.

    In response to the other portion of your blog post, our readings do keep returning to this idea that domestication took place because it was beneficial to everyone involved, humans and animals. It is becoming increasing clear to me that domestication originated almost entirely as a mutualistic relationship and only recently developed into the mostly exploitative relationship that it is today.

  2. Who ever would’ve thought, or begun to have thought, of the idea of culture shaping dogs? Usually our prime suspects for the differences in dog species is human interaction, but the social/cultural side that Derr brought up was very interesting. At what point do we decide “oh it’s just where the dog’s from is why it looks, acts, and seems that way?” I would love to dig a little deeper into this idea during discussion.

  3. I found the whole idea of animal culture to be very interesting as well. I think one of the major ideas that is developing in this class is that topics like culture and domestication that we normally attribute only to humans are actually universal among the whole animal kingdom. One may be able to make an argument that humans exhibit culture to a larger extent than most other animal species but as Camilla pointed out in her comment, there are plenty of examples of animals showing their culture through cultural transmission, among many other things. It would be interesting to be able to view this whole idea from the mind of some other animal just to get a different perspective because it is often hard to see the whole picture from just one angle.

  4. I too admit that as humans we would be able to be perfectly adapted to our environment but the article convinced me otherwise. With the trade-offs between adaption and environment it seems impossible to actually be perfectly suited for one’s environment. I agree that wolves played a larger part in their domestication than other domesticates did but I am still cautious with how much credit Derr gives the wolves. Derr makes it seem that humans imposed no will upon wolves in their journey to become the dog which I find hard to believe just because of human nature and our controlling ways. I wish the author discussed wolf culture more but enough was said for me to agree that animals can have a culture. If you were to compare cats and dogs they obviously live by separate ideals, wants and needs which is enough to be classified as culture I believe.

  5. We will be spending lots of time on “animal culture” in the next few weeks. Later in the book, Derr elaborates on the aspects of wolf-dog ethology that has made the interaction between humans and dogs so fruitful for so long. For now, check out the “founding fathers” of ethological inquiry: Lorenz, Tinbergen and Uexkuell…

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