Category Archives: February

Wolves, Dogs and In-betweeners

I’ll start off by saying I really enjoyed reading Terrill’s Part Wild, even if I didn’t agree with her life choices at times. I have had a lifelong fascination with wolf-dogs, so reading about Inyo and her life was entertaining. The book didn’t necessarily stimulate any new thoughts or questions about the relationship between wolves and dogs and how dogs came to be domesticated, but it did reinforce some theories I’d already had.

I liked that Terrill kept coming back to looking at the process of domestication of the dog from all different aspects: behavioral, morphological, and genetic. To me, wolf and dog are the same species, but I feel like a wolf is more like a breed of dog (albeit a very estranged breed) than an ancestral link in the chain. While we were domesticating dogs in all shapes and sizes, wolves were undergoing their own changes as a species, and most of these changes were probably the exact opposite of what we bred into the domestic dog: distrust of humans, tendency to avoid human civilization, and looking at us as predators more than providers. This brings me back to something I’ve been wondering since talking about Belyaev’s foxes: the researchers bred the foxes into two distinct groups- domestic, and aggressive. Could this be what happened to the common ancestor of dogs and wolves? Those with the slightly higher tendency to be curious about their neighbors the humans, who didn’t mind their company, and who could develop a bond with them would be those whose descendents became the domestic dog. On the other hand, the tendency to avoid human society and distrust what could be perceived as threat was exacerbated in the strain which became modern-day wolves. I see their common ancestor as on more of a middle-ground behaviorally, with wolves and dogs at the two polar extremes, due to inbreeding and selection (natural or artificial).

One thing that does irk me is that people have a tendency to refer to all domestic dogs in a general sense, as one entity whose behavior is constant between individuals. Dogs are more complex than that. Different breeds show different behavioral traits- how could a Chihuahua possibly show the same behavioral tendencies as a St. Bernard? But even deeper than on a breed level, different individual dogs have different personalities. They aren’t as complex as human personalities, to be sure, but anyone who has owned dogs, who has watched them interact and watched other dogs can tell you that they exist. Dogs have personal preferences, distastes, and habits which start developing as soon as they’re born. From research papers I’ve read on behavioral analysis in wolves, it appears they have something akin to personalities as well, however the research is not generalizable enough to be sure. Given the circumstances, we can’t expect wolves to have as much individual differences- it wouldn’t be a good survival mechanism for pack animals.

Discussion of personality is a good segue into what really interests me when discussing wolves and dogs: intelligence. Terrill believes that dogs are the mentally retarded cousins of wolves, bred only to be blindly obedient and want only affection and care. After her experience with Panzer, I can understand her point of view. After all, who should we consider more intelligent, the wolf-dog who avoided the cars, or the dog who got hit and was killed? But I disagree with her train of thought. After all, dogs ride the subway in Russia ( with no problems. So which is really the more intelligent- dogs or wolves? I guess the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. In the human world, dogs will come out on top; in the wild, a wolf is definitely more able to survive. Knowing this makes it all the more heart-wrenching when reading about Inyo, who doesn’t belong in either place. It supports the belief that the practice of purposefully breeding wolf-dogs should be put to a stop. It will not fix the issues that have cropped up in modern dogs, as Leda believes; only give rise to a breed who can’t survive in either world.

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:


Bulliet’s Hamburgers: Still Tough to Chew

After my post last week regarding my distaste for the first four chapters of Bulliet’s Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, it may surprise you (as it surprised me) to learn that I found the next few chapters much more interesting and accessible. It probably helped that he finally started mentioning animals that were not domesticated for farming, such as DOGS (admittedly a bit of a sore spot for me). I also was surprised to read his critique of our old friend Jared Diamond’s take on the history of domestication, and to find that I agreed with Bulliet’s opinion of it- interesting, but too flawed to really be persuasive. As I have no prior knowledge of the domestication of rats, I found the passage on Dr. H. D. King’s experiment intriguing. I wonder if it would be possible to conduct similar experiments with other wild animals which we have domesticated over the years? It would of course be impractical and an expensive procedure to conduct, especially given the amount of time it would take before any publishable results were made, but wouldn’t it be interesting to watch a wild population turn domestic before our very eyes? I can’t help but wonder how enlightening it would be to try and replicate the process of turning wolves into dogs, if the wolf population were not as threatened as it is today. I wonder if it would be similar to that of Dimitry Belyaev’s research on the fox population he studied.

Despite my new gradual acceptance of Bulliet’s writings and theories, I still have my complaints. I wish that Bulliet had spent more time on the “secondary uses” of animals, since I find domestication in animals used for more than just food to be the most intriguing. I’d never thought about it before, but why did humans start drinking milk from other species? Who first came up with the idea of simply shearing a sheep, instead of skinning it, to use its wool? Bulliet places a lot of the blame on religion, but skeptic that I am I’m not so willing to believe that that is the case. Perhaps, as Tim Ingold suggests in Chapter 4 of his book Perceptions of the Environment, it came about due to an unwillingness to waste possible resources. It only takes the ingenuity of one person to try something new, so it’s not surprising that secondary uses of domestic animals arose. Seeing the accomplishments of those who came before us makes me wonder if those who live in our time are still just as resourceful. I believe they are, however, significantly less egalitarian. We are not so willing to share everything we have with everyone in our community. So what does this mean in terms of sharing knowledge and creativity? Is society progressing at a slower rate than it might if the world were more egalitarian?

I found it interesting that both Bulliet and Ingold mentioned society’s perception of other human cultures considered “less” than human. It highlights the importance we assign advanced culture in distinguishing ourselves from animals. Can it be said that any animals have culture? Recent research suggests that chimpanzees, in fact, to exhibit behavioral patterns akin to basic culture among separate populations. If we delved into the behaviors of other animals with higher degrees of intelligence than most (for example, dolphins), would we find primitive cultural behavior there as well?

Once last thought inspired by Bulliet’s writing. Are our domestic animals fundamentally more or less intelligent than their wild counterparts? One would think that a tendency to trust rather than run away would be indicative of an animal which may not survive long. We do slaughter most of our domestic animals- perhaps it’s not as obvious as when our ancestors would hunt them down with bows and spears, but the end game is the same. Yet we often consider our domestic animals to be of higher intelligence. One of my favorite comparisons between wolf and dog: when you point at something, a dog will look where you’ve pointed, however a wolf will continue to look at you. Is this an inbred tendency to trust and understand? We are able to train our animals to do amazing things, lauding their intelligence in their ability to learn new tricks, but is this really intelligence? Or does “train-ability” indicate a lesser inherent concern for safety and survival?

Postdomesticity: Making up your own word doesn’t mean you should write a book about it

Yes, that title is a bit harsh. But while I appreciate most of the various viewpoints on the origins of animal domesticity which Richard Bulliet highlights in his book Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, I have to confess that four chapters in I’m still extremely skeptical. Part of that may have to do with the fact that, while the actual topics Bulliet writes about are of great interest to me, and ones I would like to explore further, his actual writing style is a huge turnoff. His paragraphs are dense, his sentences are wordy, and I find him to be extremely and unnecessarily repetitive. I don’t think of myself as an unintelligent person, but seriously, I’ve read research articles which are easier to digest. Let’s just say it’s not a “light read;” this would perhaps generally not be such an issue, however when combined with the heavy though-provoking content I find the book to be a bit inaccessible, which is a quality I think every author should strive to avoid (after all, the end goal is for as many people as possible to read your book).

But this post is starting to sound like a high school book report. I’m not exactly a great writer myself, so who am I to criticize? Let’s move on to the actual meat of the message (pun not intended, but I do hope it’s appreciated, even if most of you are rolling your eyes).

I think my biggest problem with Bulliet is that he just seems to be flinging every theory ever postulated about the origins of animal domesticity at us, and not really fully exploring their plausibilities. Maybe that’s what he intended, but personally I’d rather focus the those that are the least far-fetched. For example, call me crazy, but I don’t think that changing interpretations of domestication in the 20th century had any sort of causal relationship with an increased societal apprehension (and therefore, fascination) with blood and sex. Yes, humans stopped becoming so involved with the actual killing of animals being used for the meat industry. The growing population of countries such as the US and Great Britain made more industrial methods of harvesting animal meat a necessity to keep up with the growing demand. Avoidance of actually bloodying our hands to get our own beef and pork may have been a byproduct of this change, but attempting to be as uninvolved in watching the light slowly drain out of an animals eyes has been a characterization of advanced societies for centuries. As for beastiality, whatever Bulliet’s sources say, I’m pretty sure that’s been taboo for even longer. It was simply the rise of technology in the 20th century which made it easier for us to know every detail of people’s intimate lives and share them with the world that has sparked a louder, more insistent vocalization of “society’s” opinions about human interactions with animals, sex, and blood that has made us the two-faced society we are today; exclaiming our horror and disgust at blood and sex, and the turning around and becoming enraptured with X-rated HBO crime dramas and sexy vampires. My point is, I don’t see a correlation between our changing societal views on the nitty-gritty parts of human life and changing over from farms to meat factories.

I thought we were finally getting somewhere when Bulliet started discussing the ways in which we distinguish ourselves from animals, and why we see our own species in this elevated light, however some of the views and theories he presented on this topic were a little too impractical for me to swallow. I’m pretty sure our hominid ancestors weren’t concerned about whether the animals they were interacting with had ‘souls’ or not–I think the fact that they needed meat to survive probably had more to do with the origins of domestication. I don’t even agree with his bit about believing we should domesticate and bring animals under our rule because of our own believed superiority; keeping our major source of food and life easily accessible just makes sense. Why would we expend our energy trying to constantly hunt down our meat when it’s simpler and easier to keep it with us? All the religious rationalizations for human domination of the natural world came after the fact.

I found some holes in Bulliet’s list of reasons for why we are different from every other animal species, as well. I’m not saying that humans aren’t unique, but he presents some things as fact which simply aren’t true. For example, humans aren’t the only species to engage in sex solely for pleasure and not for reproductive purposes- dolphins have been shown to do the same thing. And it’s common knowledge that while we can only understand our own speech, that doesn’t mean other animals don’t communicate. We’ve developed a language that can be expressed by symbols scratched on a wall, but honeybees wiggle their butts to give directions. One could actually see language as compensation for our lack of ability to express our thoughts by pheromones or body language. This is because humans are uniquely capable of abstract concept, which isn’t something that can be expressed by butt wiggling or peeing on a fire hydrant. I think this is the main division between humans and other animals, not the development of speech itself, and Bulliet should have mentioned it.

I do agree that cooking our food is a distinctive and important trait not found in other species. I wish Bulliet had explored the possible origins of cooking our meat more–I agree that it must have been accidental. However, I disagree with his theory for why early hominids began to eat meat. I’ve learned that the simplest explanation for something is usually the most correct. Therefore, I believe the carrion-eating theory to be the most likely- we were scavengers, learning what to eat to survive based on what we saw other animals eat, and putting ourselves in as little danger as possible to obtain food. We developed a taste and need for protein, but we were still only killers first in self-defense; however through defending ourselves and reaping the benefits of a fresh kill we came to learn how to hunt.

One more point. I may sound repetitive and a bit obsessed, but in four chapters Bulliet referred to wolves and dogs once. The first domesticated species, and they are continually glossed over in favor of those animals which provide us food. I agree they’re important, but would they even exist as domesticated animals if we hadn’t domesticated the wolf first? I think there’s a huge part of the story missing when dogs are left out of the story of domestication, and when a book about how domestication arose fails to mention them, it definitely makes me question the credibility of the author. I know I sound like a crazy dog lady, and maybe I am a little bit, but that doesn’t diminish their importance.

While bringing up some interesting points of discussion and further thought in his book, I wish Bulliet had gone about it in a different way. Maybe I just don’t like his writing style, but I think content-wise he was missing out a bit as well. I do plan to finish the book, however, so we’ll see what happens.