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.

The Mysteries of Evolution: From Dogs to Us

This weeks readings provided interesting insights on the many mysteries that surround the evolution of dogs as well as on our feelings in regards to our own evolution. I really enjoyed both articles and felt that each presented some very valid arguments in addition to posing some thought provoking questions.  I felt like How the Dog Became the Dog by Derr and Zuk’s article Misguided Nostalgia for Our Paleo Past tied together well in many aspects in relation to the complexities of evolution.

In How the Dog Became the Dog, Derr did a great job of presenting the evolution of the wolf to the dog using a variety of evidence from a multitude of different fields of study. He was able to combine the many archaeological findings with all the information on modern species to disprove some of the less fact based theories on how dogs came to be, and in doing so created a lose timeline of how and where the dog originated. Central to his theory is the idea that there are significant overlaps, both in genotype and phenotype, between the stages from the wolf to the dog. I thought this was a very logical way to look at evolution, and it stuck me as strange that this idea wasn’t really a significant part of any of the other readings we have done. Evolution is a very gradual process (in many cases but not all as we saw in Misguided Nostalgia) and it doesn’t make any sense to think of things as black and white, or in this case wolf and dog. There is always a gray, or dogwolf, area in between that is so often overlooked, and Derr picked up on this and used it as the backbone for developing his opinion of the origins of the dog.

In addition, in How the Dog Became the Dog, there was a reference to Buffon’s opinion that species tend to degenerate, not improve, from the parent form. I can see how the argument could be made because in many cases animals in captivity do lose some of the skills that made their ancestors more capable of survival in the wild. For example, the more wolf-like dogs are arguably more capable of survival than the little hairball lap dogs that are common today. But when I began to think about it, the only other examples of degeneracy that came to mind were of domesticated species. In the wild all species seem  to improve, likely due to the pressures of natural selection and survival of the fittest, which, to some extent deflates Buffon’s argument. However, in Misguided Nostalgia, Zuk talked about how we long for the past because we feel like times were better, but in you assume that this feeling was common in people throughout history, you eventually end up back as a single-celled organism. This idea would support Buffon as it suggests that we have slowly degenerated from that first single-celled organism that leads to what we are today. I guess where I am going with this topic is, is there some validity to Buffon’s theory that animals degenerate from the parent form or is there enough evidence in the study of wild animals evolution to disprove him?

Finally, in Misguided Nostalgia, Zuk brings up another interesting question when she mentions that there is an idea floating around that the relative isolation of countries like those in Africa from other places like North America may be leading to evolutionary developments in two separate directions. If this truly is occurring, which is very much up for debate, then we could potentially develop subspecies of humans, just like when a species of animal gets separated from its kin and develops differently as a result. What would be the result of a series of subspecies of humans? Would it result in the development of more capable humans, and if so would this result in the inferiority, or collapse, of the other species? Is speciation even possible in humans with all of the global connection that exists? Let me know what you think!


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.


Eat your cereal!

Or wheat, not meat, offers new clues on the evolution of the dog… An article in the Washington Post yesterday suggests that developing the ability to digest grains played a key role in the evolution of the dog. This morning, NPR also reported on the Swedish study., confirming the carb-canine connection. Since dogs will bark throughout the semester, I’ve added a page for us to discuss them here.