Dogs, Early Humans, and Destiny

The two readings for this week, the beginning of How The Dog Became the Dog by Mark Derr and “Misguided Nostalgia for our Paleo Past” by Marlene Zuk, are peripherally related to each other, in that they address the history of the dog and the history of the human species, respectively. However, as we learn in the first reading, the history of our species and the history of the dog are inextricably linked. I address the history of the dog directly and the history of the human race indirectly in the first section of this post. Then I directly address human history and ideas related to destiny in the second section.

Dogs were always dogs

Logically, it makes sense that the dog was always in the wolf, and emerged very easily to befriend us. Wolves are highly sociable animals and live in packs with complicated hierarchy-based social structure. Or, alternately, you could just as easily say: humans are highly sociable animals and live in groups with complicated hierarchy-based social structure.

Social structure. What exactly do I mean? Wolves have a single alpha in a pack. Primitive humans often looked up to a single leader. Wolves in a pack all help to raise the pups belonging to the alpha and his mate. Humans look after others’ young. The lowest ranking wolf in the pack often retains some puppy-like characteristics for its whole life. This returns to the idea discussed in an earlier post–the idea of humans domesticating animals successful in part because they are such good nurturers. They nurture their own young and the young of others of their species, so nurturing animals of other species was not a particularly large change. I believe that modern humans view their pets almost in the same way that they view their own young.

My point is that wolves were naturally compatible with us before they became dogs. I am planning to read the rest of How the Dog Became the Dog (probably after school is over), because I like the author’s tone, but also because I am curious as to whether he agrees with my theory–that wolf social structure produced animals predisposed to incorporate into human social structure.

 Paleolithic man (Or: Are Our Genes Our Destiny?)

Is there truly anything that we are “meant to be”? Is that even a thing? If we are meant to eat diets and live lives like our paleolithic ancestors, then aren’t dogs meant to be wolves? Aren’t all livestock animals meant to run free and feed upon wild plant materials? Maybe we are all meant to return to the primordial soup.

I jest, but I am also quite serious.

I do not believe in destiny. I do not believe that I am meant to be anything, least of all a paleolithic human. Zuk’s points are valid, and I agree with him that humans are evolving more rapidly than they are often given credit for. Evolution can happen quite rapidly, particularly in response to environmental stresses. However, at the root of the argument that Zuk makes is the idea that our genes are our destiny and that we must do what our genes require us to do. I am a scientist, but I cannot believe that. We all are more than the sum total of our parts, more than our genes. An Olympic champion will not necessarily produce an Olympic champion. a genius will not necessarily produce a genius. There are countless stories of people rising to fame from completely unremarkable backgrounds (and equally unremarkable genetic material).

I do not think that our genes bind us to any certain fates. I think that it is silly, in this day and age, to make life decisions based upon what we are “meant” to do. I would argue that the human race is meant to do anything that it can innovate. If we are meant to do anything, we are meant to make choices.

 

“If The Reindeer Do Not Come”

Domestication as a mutualism

This week, our readings returned to an idea discussed in week 1‘s readings: that of domestication as a close mutualism. However, the perspective presented in The Reindeer People is a different one than those presented in Energy and Ecosystems and Evolutionary History because, in The Reindeer People, author Piers Vitebsky is describing an actual population, the Eveny people, with whom he has lived and who he has long studied.

The Eveny people, native to Siberia, have lived intimately with domesticated reindeer for 1000s of years. They are semi-nomadic in that they follow the reindeer as they migrate on their natural routes. They rely on the reindeer for transport and food, and in turn, the reindeer rely on them for protection. They Eveny need the reindeer as much as the reindeer need the Eveny. In the concluding chapter, Vitebsky quotes an Eveny song with the line:

“If the reindeer do not come
If the herd turns away
If the reindeer do not come
There will be no more Eveny!”

The Eveny obviously recognize their need for the reindeer and treat the reindeer with according respect. They do not fence the reindeer in and then mass-produce them for food, as we have with cattle and swine in this country. The dual nature of their relationship with the reindeer–both as a food source and as a mount and beast of burden–makes their relationship more complicated still. If you have established a bond with an animal in which you trust it as a mount, you are unlikely to want to eat that animal.

Perhaps the Eveny have a relationship with their reindeer that is similar to the relationship that early humans had with their domestic animals. They respect and even love and worship their animals and then eat them out of necessity.

Selection, domestication, and genetic variability

The domestic reindeer of the Eveny people lives side-by-side with the wild reindeer of siberia. However, the Eveny believe that domestic reindeer are entirely different animals, originating from different stock (according to legend) than wild reindeer and have two distinct words in their native language for wild and domesticated reindeer. Attempts have been made to tame wild reindeer, even calves, without any success.

Vitebsky basically implies that wild and domestic reindeer are two different strains and are genetically distinct. I did a bit of looking around and couldn’t find any population genetics papers to back that up. However, I would be willing to believe that this is simply because no one has done any specific research on reindeer genetics.

Genetic variability is a measure of differences in genotypes of individuals in a population (or, in more simple language, it is an indicator of how similar individuals are, genetically). Genetic variability is what allows us to select for different traits in breeding populations of animals. If we have high genetic variability, we can select for a trait for many generations and make progress (if we are selecting for heavy body weight, for example, the animals will get bigger every generation if genetic variability is high enough). Behavior (including tractability) is a genetic trait, so it follows that populations with higher genetic variability should be more domesticate-able. Domesticate-ability should be a quantitative trait–not just something we speculate about, but something we can actually measure.

I wonder how genetically divergent domestic and wild reindeer are. all we know is that they can interbreed and that domestic reindeer can go wild, but wild reindeer cannot become domestic. I would postulate that they came from a common ancestral population, but diverged long ago. The more tractable reindeer (all of them) could have taken up an intimate mutualism with humans and since have been selected for domestic traits. The wild reindeer, on the other hand, were those selected for their unwillingness to take up¬† an intimate mutualism with humans and have continued, each year, to be selected for this trait. If the original population, particularly the wild population, didn’t possess that much genetic variability (or if variability has decreased since the original divergence occurred, perhaps because of some sort of population bottleneck), it would be difficult to successfully domesticate the current wild population.

Clearly, regardless of original cause, there are two distinct strains of reindeer. I would be really interested to see a genetic analysis of the two strains, to see genetic differences between and among individuals of the two populations.

Religion 

To be quite honest, I’m at a bit of a loss here. I am not religious and I have never been religious. I only understand religion in the context of “well, I can tell that it is very important to you.” However, I’ll do my best to understand the religious aspect of the Eveny people’s relationship with the reindeer.

I think that the spiritual connection that the Eveny believe that they share with reindeer stems from the fact that they rely on the reindeer for their livelyhood–they ride reindeer, eat reindeer, and live with reindeer year-round. Thus, because they rely so completely on reindeer, they have formed religious beliefs surrounding them. Of course, if you depend on a herd of animal, it is bad if one dies. It then logically follows, I guess, that this “bad thing,” bodes ill for your future and health–that is, it is a bad omen.

Conclusions

I guess that is has become clear in this blog post where my area of expertise are and where the holes in my expertise are. I really enjoyed the readings for this week and hope to, in my spare time, read the rest of The Reindeer People. I also hope to learn more about how the domestic and wild strains of reindeer came to be and about the genetic differences between the strains. This human/animal relationship, more than any other that we have discussed so far, is a fascinating one, because of the co-dependence between the humans and the reindeer. Reindeer have domesticated the Eveny people as much as the Eveny people have domesticated the reindeer and they are live together in a mutually beneficial way.

Inequality, Domestication, Evolution, and Studying Outside of Your Discipline

Following is a discussion of some main themes from our readings, for discussion. Erica discussed some others in her post.

 

Scientists are usually just scientists and historians are usually just historians. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel is an interesting exception. His training was as a physiologist (my own area of interest), but he embarked on an intellectual journey to find the roots of inequality in deep human history, with the idea that once there was no inequality–once we were all in small hunter-gatherer tribes. Where did inequality come from? Why do some people “have so much cargo while others have so little”?

Diamond argues that it mainly stems from geographic luck. Those who ended up in regions with climates conducive to agriculture, and domesticate-able plants and animals ended up with the more advantages. They had a constant source of protein, energy, and fiber. In addition, eventually, they had animal to use for draft purposes. What makes a plant or an animal domesticate-able?

Diamond notes that medium-sized or large, herbivorous animals generally make better domesticates. Further, out of about 150 potential domesticates from this category, only 14 have been domesticated, with the big four being cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs. Why these?

In their article Energy and Ecosystems, Mary C. Stiner and Gillian Feeley-Harnik have an interesting answer. They argue that it was inevitable, based upon all other circumstances. As a result of our traits and the traits of those species that we have domesticated, our association with them was as inevitable as the association of algae and fungus in lichen. It wasn’t a result of our intelligence or of some great mastery we have had over other species, but rather a result of our characteristics and those of the animals we domesticated. As far as I could tell, reading their article, they define domestication as a close mutualism between two species. They don’t even limit the definition to a mutualism between humans and another species, citing the relationship between ants and aphids. What, then, is domestication? This seems to indicate that it is a close mutualism in which one species protects and exploits the other, but ultimately both benefit.

Edmund Russell, in his article Evolutionary History: Prospectus for a New Field, tackles similar issues and questions in a very different way. His article focuses on the idea that we need to study evolutionary history, a field between history and biology. The field of evolutionary history looks at evolution, but takes into account the effect of human history on that evolution. It would also look at how evolution may have shaped human history.

To me, the main theme of Russell’s article was the great importance of interdisciplinarity when studying domestication, evolution, and history. This brings us back to Jared Diamond, who, as a physiologist, he attacked one of the largest questions of our time with great success.