Part Wild – An Extremely Apt Title

Ceiridwen’s experience and records of living with and raising a wolf-dog mix offer insight into the difference between a tame animal and a domesticated one.  Based on this reading I would argue that cats as a whole cannot be called domesticated, though many individuals act domesticated.

Ceiridwen’s wolfdog, Inyo, is tame.  She is relatively calm around people and doesn’t attack them, even when provoked.  Inyo was able to be trained and kept as a pet, but still retained behaviors attributed to wolves.  Hiding her food for times of hunger, and howling rather than barking, Inyo was by no means completely domesticated.  There are a variety of breeds of wolf dog, some of which have surprising features.

220px-Czechoslovakian-wolfdog-profile_big(Czechoslovakian Wolfdog)

220px-Llop(Arctic Wolf/ Malmute Hybrid

220px-Kunming_Dog(Kunming wolfdog)

Inyo’s independence and lack of blind obedience lend credence to one of the breeder’s statements that, “Dogs are retarded wolves.”  I was reminded by this of how cats act in comparison to dogs.  While dogs are blindly loving and relatively obedient, barring abuse, cats are more independent, aloof, and far less trainable.  Cats act more like the wolfdog hybrids, tolerating and even being fond of people, but retaining their own agendas.  As a whole cats would be better described as a species that adapted itself to a niche opened up by people, rather than as domesticated.

One suggestion that arose in class as to how wolves had been domesticated was that the wolves adapted themselves to live around humans.  This idea was supported in the reading by the idea of genetic tameness preceding full domestication.  This would also support the idea that wolves were domesticated in different areas at different times.  This would also explain how different researchers determined that dogs had been domesticated in both the Middle East and China.  I do find it dubious that dogs were domesticated in China as food animals, as they’d be horribly inefficient from an energy standpoint.

The legal ramifications of wolfdog hybrids was explored well in the reading, as Ceiridwen was forced to lie about her wolfdog’s identity to get it vaccinated.  The threat of Inyo being put down has been ever-present, and her identity being something of an open secret will likely become a problem.  Most of the laws seem to either outright declare the hybrids illegal, or give them the benefit of the doubt up until they cause any bodily or property harm.  While the laws do appear unfair in how they’ve been portrayed, they do exist for a reason.  Not all hybrids will be as calm as Inyo, and the breed has the capacity to do major harm to a person if it attacked in full force.  Personally I’d be inclined to agree with the benefit-of-the-doubt laws, though with more wiggle room for exceptions and slip-ups.

(images are pulled from wikipedia)

What are they thinking?

It seems that many of our discussions circle back to this question.  What animals think and how they experience the world are big questions that impinge directly on how we understand domestication.  So I was delighted to see that NOVA is putting out a three-part series in April called Inside Animal Minds.  I’m eager to see it and hope everyone else can watch it as well.  There should be lots there for the scientists as well as the humanists in our group. I’m also excited about a conference I’ll be attending in March on Animal Thinking and Emotion. I’m sure there will be lots of material relevant to our class and I’ll definitely post my thoughts about it here.

In the meantime, some of you have indicated that you’d like a more scholarly reading about the domestication process and it occurred to me that Melinda Zeder’s recent article on “Pathways to Domestication” might be really helpful as you begin working on your research projects.

Week 5 – Congratulations! You’re so special!

** EDITS**
Because I couldn’t make it to class last week, I missed a discussion that involved reading the stories on the author’s terms instead of your own. So I’m going to try and re-write my reaction to the reading in response to that attitude.

Terrill’s narrative tells the story of her experiences owning and raising a wolf-dog. To my eyes she seemed a bit naive at first, expecting it to be somewhat like raising a very large dog. I know she wrote all about how she knew it would be difficult going in, but reading through the stories I think that’s more of a hindsight bias coming in as she was writing. Regardless, her experiences allow us (the readers) to glimpse at just how hard it would be to domesticate a wolf in a single lifetime. Inyo is not even a full wolf, imagine how much harder that would have been!

I think that popular culture has taken wolves and given them a mythical aura, making them out to be essentially prehistoric dogs. Maybe it’s just me, but when I think of domesticated wolves oftentimes I have this image of a caveman running around with his pet wolf, much like a modern man would run around with his pet dog. This book pretty much shatters that illusion, as evident by some of my original rants below. And if that idea about wolves is hopelessly wrong, the long-held ideas of how they became domesticated would definitely change. I know we’ve been reading a few alternative theories regarding the domestication of dogs in class, and for me this book is a personal anecdote that might reinforce those scientific theories. Even though anecdotal evidence is a logical fallacy when trying to support an argument, it does tend to create a vivid picture in our minds.

I think the biggest scientific point this book reinforces for me is that the ancestors of dogs were not wolves, at least not in the sense that we think of them today. It isn’t as if we could take a modern wolf and only breeding within wolves end up with dogs as we know them. Modern wolves and dogs shared a common ancestor, one which most likely we’ll never get a chance to experience in the flesh. Perhaps if Terrill had one of those creatures and tried raising it as she did Inyo, she’d have an easier time of it. An interesting thought experiment would be wondering what might happen if we found remains of that ancient animal in the ice somewhere (similar to mammoths), and then possibly clone it. It certainly would be an exciting venture…


I’ve left the original text below in case someone wanted to read it.

So far (page 70 or so) I’m very disappointed in this book. I was excited to finally read something that addressed the issue of domesticated dogs in a way that the other readings we’ve done simply glossed over. However, instead of examining the issue of domestication and trying to explain exactly where dogs came from and how they got to their present breeds, Catherine Terrill instead simply tells the tale of her and her wolfdog. The story reads like a personal journal, which might be appealing to those who care about the author’s life and experiences, but frankly I don’t. The way I see it, there are several very good reasons that humans have dogs as pets and not wolves, and yet the author spends an enormous amount of time essentially defending the idea of owning a wolf (or an 85% wolf-dog hybrid), even in the face of repeated frustrations and issues that arise with such an animal. I understand that at this point Inyo is still a puppy, and puppies are frustrating sometimes. But even so, it sounds to me like her entire life revolves around this dog, even to the point of having Inyo sleep in between her and her husband on her wedding night. The entire story sounds like Terrill is just begging for attention and wants people to acknowledge that she’s special and managed to overcome the challenges of owning a wolfdog, with a lot of love, patience, and some good old Disney family-friendly magic (think the Beethoven movies with wolves). And talk about anthropomorphizing…


I’m very curious as to what year the author decided to move to Reno. She and her fiancé simply drove up and expected to find a place to live that would allow big dogs in one day? Also, why would owning a northern wolf be a good idea in the cities of Tucson and Reno? Both of which have very hot climates that I’d imagine would be unsuitable for wolves.


Chapter 10 is essentially 12 pages of “my beautiful, genius wolf is better than your ridiculously looking, stupid dog.” Also, Leda sounds like an extremely annoying person.


On page 119, Terrill feels guilty (but still does it) about letting Inyo free to eat vulnerable animals whose populations were declining. Yet a few chapters earlier she had harshly criticized poachers who shot wolves in the Northern and Southeastern US. Is that hypocritical?


Terrill mentions at the end of chapter 14 how money was very tight, with her husband unable to handle the finances. Yet they just adopted two puppies. I find it hard to feel very much sympathy with them when they knowingly add big expenses to their lives even when they can’t pay for things like electricity.


I did like the bit about foxes, but it seemed kind of out of place with the rest of her narrative. I wish her entire book had focused more on the type of questions she explored when examining the domestication of foxes, rather than her wonderful experiences owning a wolfdog.

The Old Nature vs Nurture

There were so many different topics to write about this week, but I think the most interesting is something we’ve touched on before: the extent of co-evolution between man and domestic animals. How have we shaped each other, as separate species? It’s clear from experiments like Belyaev’s that domestication goes beyond simple taming and docility, that the genetic makeup of these animals is actually being changed. Rob Dunn mentions in his book The Wild Life of Our Bodies that we have bred many of our domesticated animals to have significantly reduced tendencies to feel fear. My question is, is all of this really genetics? In neither Dunn’s book nor reports on Belyaev’s foxes does there seem to be a mention of a more psychological explanation.

Dunn mentions that, “Cows and lambs are not just meek. They are actually numbed to the dangers that once haunted them, too tame to flee even when the wolf is at the door.” Belyaev’s foxes were selectively bred for “domestic” qualities, and each subsequent generation seemed to produce more and more dog-like foxes. I’m not arguing the truth of this, just the mechanism of the phenomenon. Mammals are particularly sensitive to human emotion- as the common saying goes, “they can smell fear.” Well, they can smell a lot more than that. Every animal trainer learns that the secret to success in forming a bond with an animal is that you have to be calm. If you are trusting and gentle, the animal will perceive you as such. This works especially well when you give the animal this impression of yourself at a young age- or when it is taught to them by their mothers and other “role models.” This is my theory: cows and lambs are meek not because they have been bred to have a repressed fight-or-flight response, but because they have been raised repeatedly in a world where this type of defensive behaviour is unecessary. They don’t need to be able to protect themselves; humans do it for them, to protect their investment in the animal. For herd animals like cows, sheep, and horses, humans serve as the dominant leader, the one in charge of protecting and defending the rest. In pack animals like dogs, we are viewed as members of the pack, and as long as they feel protected by their owners they will feel it is their duty to be protective of us as well. The integration of the lives of domestic animals with our own over the centuries, our protection of them (for whatever reason), has meant that from an early age they are used to us. They can read us emotionally (some better than others), and this I think lends itself to their docility and other domestic qualities more than anything else.

More evidence that this psychological explanation might have some credence? What about feral animals? By all standards, animals like cats, dogs, and horses have been completely domesticated. If genetics were the only things at work here, that means feral animals, who have had no interaction with humans during their formative years, would not act wild. But they do. Sure, feral cats and dogs may live in populated areas, and have no problem with human life–they may even rely on it to survive. But attempt to interact with them as you would a domestic animal, and you’ll quickly find their adrenal systems have not been dulled. Compare a wolf and a dog that has been feral all its life- they respond the same way.

We may have influenced the genetic evolution of our domesticated animals to make them rely on us, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that our selective breeding has changed their inherent instincts and behaviour. We learn these when we are young; animals are the same way.

Until we code the genomes for all domestic animals (and their wild counterparts, should they exist), we’ll never know for sure the extent that our selective breeding has influenced their genetic makeup. Here’s one more story to make us think about the huge impact of psychology on the domestication of animals: Christian the lion. Follow the link here to watch a short video about Christian:


Monkey see, monkey do

First off, I would like to say how much I still appreciate Dunn as an author, and I will discuss his writing style further in our discussion this week. One example though, is his ability to link past occurrences to the modern actions of humans, a task Bulliet failed to achieve (in my opinion). He mentions in his novel Wild Life of our Bodies, that old world monkeys had a full spectrum similar to humans of color vision, probably for discerning which fruit was ripe. Apparently, this trait has been passed on to New World monkeys, but it is far less common than with the ancestors.

I have always sort of struggled with concepts of evolution because I believe in the “Creation” theory for the development of mankind, though, over time, I have come to accept that natural selection could have absolutely modified and even killed off thousands of species. That being said, I wanted to explore first how scientists know that monkeys saw or can see color, but also find some other theories on why that is. Shockingly, the best answers I found as to how scientists can tell which colors animals can see appeared in a yahoo blog. Simply stated, researchers can tell from cones in the eyes of the animal whether he can determine red from green (the true test for color blindness), which Dunn briefly mentioned in the passage.

Now, as to why the monkey used to see in full color as opposed to the New World monkeys, I found the article I have attached to this post. You may wish to read it for yourself, but in summary, the article verified Dunn and Isbell’s proposal that monkeys had to use their vision to see whether the fruit was ripe or not. Furthermore, the article also presented that females develop red skin near sexual organs (sorry for that visual) that would help a male with a poor sense of smell (causing him difficulty in sensing female pheromones) mate. Other than these two proposals for the monkey’s ability to see red, the article said there were not many other accepted proposals for the monkey’s inherited ability to distinguish colors.

One discrepancy I would like to point out in the article, is that it gives credit, for the theory of the monkey being able to see red in order to find good fruit, to Andrew Smith of Scottland, when Dunn writes an entire passage on how the personal life of Isbell became affected by her desire to prove why the monkeys could see red. It does not mean either author was wrong, but I would favor Dunn’s credibility over the article’s because Dunn does not often propose his opini0ns as facts, and he tends to support his theories with formal citations, as well as with historical anecdotes that only an expert and great researcher could access.

Snakes, Eagles, and Foxes, oh my

The best word I have for the readings this week is dynamic. From imagining humans running around, being attacked by various predators swooping in from all directions, to the visual of a snake violently striking a poor, innocent biologist, to the somewhat depressing image of a fox being shot by Soviet researchers, there was certainly a wide range of discussion. I became somewhat more hooked by Wildlife of Our Bodies than I was initially. Dunn certainly has an exciting writing style. I was a little distracted by his “storytelling,” seeing as he wove what was probably a two page story about the tiger being hunted by Jim Corbett throughout approximately 20 pages of reading. It definitely was an interesting story, however I began to get somewhat confused by the points he was trying to make as I was pushed and pulled in and out of this tale. The next portion of the book about the venomous snake theory was presented a little more clearly, though I felt it was somewhat biased. Dunn only includes a very small blurb about how not all scientists agree on Lynne Isbell’s theory. I’m no scientist, but I think even a narrative-style book needs to include slightly more diversification of opinion in order to transmit a believable idea. And once again, Isbell’s entire theory was convoluted by stories of Dunn’s friends being bitten by venomous snakes, and by the somewhat more detailed than necessary example of the blind man, Vermeij. Overall, I was intrigued,  I kind of felt like I was left hanging with some underdeveloped theories that I was actually somewhat interested in.

Moving on to the topic of foxes, I think I was fairly distracted with the radio show and article by the points that were glazed over. I somehow couldn’t stop thinking about the foxes being killed and their limp, dead carcasses being draped around the neck of some plump, rich Soviet woman. Getting to the science, however, it was a really interesting story. I couldn’t stop looking up images of the wild and domestic foxes. It’s absolutely insane that they look so vastly different. And this happened after only 10 years of experimentation. That seems incredible to me. The image is below, for anyone who hasn’t seen them yet.


But beyond the actual experiment, I picked up on something in the National Geographic article that I think we will inevitably discuss based on our past discussions. The article states, “At the beginning of the domestication process, only natural selection was at work,” as Trut puts it. “Down the road, this natural selection was replaced with artificial selection.” This is really a big point of contention. Can it be called “artificial selection” just because humans are doing the selecting? Furthermore, the radio show discussed the way in which humans have domesticated themselves, and they made this seem like an artificial process in which humans were unnaturally (I know we don’t like that word, but it works here) changing the course of evolution. The evolutionary history article discusses the many ways that humans have altered evolution of multiple species, but the question about these thoughts is can we call this process “artificial” or, because humans are just as organic as every other living thing on this planet, can our alterations of evolution still fall under the category of “natural selection?” This is definitely a lingering question.

And in conclusion, I may be the only one who was horrified to learn that eagles were such violent enemies of humans, and I was further traumatized by the idea of a beautiful, majestic eagle diving down and swiping up a human child. For anyone who had trouble picturing this image, check out this horrifying eagle attack. Although it’s fake, it still provides a good image of the threat our ancestors faced daily.

Outsmarting science

Again, while none of my studies involve science I have also been the process of evolution. I enjoyed the scholar article by Russell  outlines three steps  variation, inheritance and selection.  I liked that he took such a complex process and broke it down into three easier requirements.  The article then goes on to talk about some of the problems with organisms somewhat outsmarting our defenses for illness. The example he gave was will tuberculosis but what I immediately thought of was the flu being that it is currently flu season. Every year I hear the debates about whether or not to get a flu shot. Some people believe that the virus is becoming stronger and stronger by us constantly finding immunity to it and others believe it is completely reckless not to protect yourself because of the serious consequences that can arise. I would like to know some of the facts that back both of those arguments up because as of now I always get a flu shot out of habit. How quickly can the virus outsmart the immunity?


“is that with most of the early animals—dogs first, then pigs, sheep, and goats—there was probably a long period of time of unintentional management by humans.” The word domestication “implies something top down, something that humans did intentionally,” he says. “But the complex story is so much more interesting.”

I liked the short national geographic article especially the last quote posted above because when I have thought about domestication I have always associated it with the process humans did to animals instead of a more complicated process suggested by the article. What was the extend of this unintentional management? Are we currently unintentionally domesticating another animal?

I liked Dunn’s writing style better than Bulliet and Clutton-Brock. While I enjoyed more of Clutton – Brock’s scientific analysis, I believe Dunn includes similar references in an easier to understand manner. I also think he raises some interesting points especially with the relationship animals and humans had post weapons. I think he brings a humorous style to his writing while still managing to get his point across in an educated manner. For example, when he says ,” we (humans) are nearly as well packaged for consumption as a hot dog.” He draws attention to how poorly adapted we are to being able to defend ourselves but in an easy joking fashion. I enjoyed reading chapter 11 about how , “each species constructs the world out of the signals received from its senses.” This was interesting to me in a broader view because even amongst humans everyone sees the world differently. In theory with more or less the same capabilities humans should have similar views of the world but that is becoming increasingly opposite in today’s world. More wars, conflicts, and disputes are emerging because of differences of opinion, beliefs, priorities, religion, and desires. Do animals have these same types of conflicts or are we just more intelligent and advanced and therefore these types of disputes only exist within our species? Dunn addresses some of these human differences by saying, “relatively few of the truths we hold to be self-evident are held to be so everywhere.”



Genetic Basis for Domestication, and Hunting’s Effects

The two readings for this week covered relatively different subjects, the susceptibility to domestication some animals have at a genetic level, and how humans shifting to greater reliance on hunting affected us.

The physical characteristics associated with domesticity, soft fur, larger eyes, and relaxed friendly attitudes, constitute a certain phenotype.  With the experiments in domesticating foxes there is mounting evidence that this phenotype corresponds to a genotype.  That is, some animals are more likely to be domesticatable based on how easily they can be bred or naturally acclimate themselves to approach this genotype.  As was discussed in class, some of the early changes in dogs, like being more relaxed and friendly to humans, may have been the wolves adapting themselves to the niche provided by humans.

In the Dunn reading the idea that human’s long ancestral past as prey has greatly influenced our bodies and minds.  One example of the kind of physical traits we might have acquired from being prey is the tendency to give birth at night, when young be in a safer environment.  The evidence I found after a cursory search on the internet for studies suggests that the average time of birth is late afternoon, which would be safer as a time where there is still light, but a clan would probably be finding or have found a safe haven for the night.  Other ways predators have shaped us is our fight or flight response, which is common in prey animals as it allows quick decision making on the best strategy for survival.


To tie the two readings together, I would like to suggest that as our level of predation on other animals rose we began to breed ourselves to be quicker, cleverer, and faster, and, that once we domesticated animals and settled down into towns and cities, we began to domesticate ourselves.  Once we became sedentary, being more aggressive and specialized for hunting became a liability, so we selected for different traits, still cleverness, but social status, and charisma as well.  The new desired traits reflected the more complicated social structure that emerges with sedentary settlements.  While social skills are important to communicate a hunting pattern, they are even more needed for haggling over the price of bread, or arguing a point in civil debate.

Wild Life of Our Bodies 2

The focus of this post will be primarily on Chapter 11 of Wild Life of Our Bodies. Dr. Nelson expressed interest in my take on the connection between our past and anxiety disorders, which is something I’m definitely willing to talk about in class. However, Chapter 11 struck me as particularly problematic.

Dunn references a theory (apparently proposed by Isbell) of the acuity of primate vision and ultimately the emergence of our intelligence. In short, he points to an apparent relationship between the presence of venomous snakes and the ability of primate species to detect a wider range of colors.  In particular, Dunn points to the fact that primates in the Americas and Madagascar cannot detect oranges and reds while those in mainland Africa can. He seems to also suggest that venomous snakes are linked to better vision altogether (e.g. resolution, depth perception, etc.) without giving any specifics.

The theory predicts that venomous snakes will be less prevalent where primates have poorer vision. And that’s about it. Unfortunately, robust theories are ones that make an amalgam of precise predictions–ones without alternative explanations–that hold up to testing and observations. It seems Isbell has just a single broad prediction that turns out to be true; this is not enough for any serious scientist to take the idea seriously.

The statistics Dunn gives are compelling. Many thousands of people in Africa are bitten by snakes every year. It seems likely that primates encounter snakes quite frequently, enough that they may have exerted selective pressures on primates. But here’s where I have problems…

Acute vision is one of the most effective adaptations that exists in animals. Almost all of them have it, and many species have vision far more acute than ours. There are, quite literally, a million reasons to have good vision, and snakes are just one of them. Don’t forget our horrendous night vision, something that I imagine would be useful for detecting snakes at night. And finally, correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that there are very few snake species in African forests whose scales contain orange/red pigments. If the primary deficit of South American primate vision is their inability to see these colors, my intuition is that this would not pose a great disadvantage in Africa where the majority of snakes, I imagine, have evolved a degree of camouflage coloring in the form of browns, greens, blacks, etc.

The poorer vision of lemurs in Madagascar and other primates in South America may be simply attributable to various happenstances in their environments. Dunn admits Lemurs have much more acute sense of touch and smell. Given that humans have among the weakest senses of smell (correct me if I’m wrong), it is self-evident that having stronger versions of these senses provides advantages to many other species that may be comparable to the advantage added by better vision. In other words, lemurs may have developed their other senses in ways that negated the need to develop better vision. And again the correlation between snake prevalence (which is low in Madagascar and America) and vision is not strong enough evidence of anything.

Dunn goes further to suggest that snakes may be responsible for the emergence of our brains in general. Dunn seems to ignore two things about the power of brains:

1.) What advantage does an unarmed genius have over an unarmed idiot against a snake? Snakes are frightening and elusive animals, and my intuition tells me that intellect does very little to combat an angry snake until a species evolves sophisticated tools, something that was done long after the development of our vision and of the size of our brains.

2.) There are, just with a vision, a million reasons to develop large brains. In a competition for best natural invention ever, what wins? Our brains, hands down. We may have the most sophisticated thing in the universe sitting inside our skulls. So my point here is that snakes may have been just a single selective pressure to develop large brains and acute vision–maybe even a relatively strong one–but once our brains were put on the path of growing larger at the expense of other parts of our bodies, everything in our environments was selecting for higher intelligence, because our minds can bend and adapt in real time and sharp claws, for instance, can’t.

Tame in the Wild

Bulliet adds to the list of possible way animals were domesticated (Genetic predisposition, living around humans for food, and self domestication) with the idea of “tame” wild animals.  These animals naturally lack a fight or flight response to humans and are relatively easy to capture and train.  The majority of these animals are at the peaks of their food chains and so lack predators of their own to make them skittish, or are found on isolated islands where large predators were lacking.  Some examples of these animals include Elephants, camels, alpacas, and the dodo.  These animals stretch the definition of domesticated, as they are certainly tame, but not all are controlled by humans for their entire lifespan.  Some, like the dodo, seemed simply ambivalent towards people, and were not controlled, herded, or bred.  Others, like the camel, can mature in the wild, or be raised in captivity, and be ridden and trained equally well.   In my opinion, these tame yet wild animals cannot be considered domesticates on the merit of being tamed alone.  To be considered truly domesticated, they must be purposefully bred and controlled throughout their entire lifespan.