Thursday, March 18, 2010

29. The Origin of Domestication of Dogs

Analyzing a large collection of wolf and dog genomes from around the world, a UCLA research team led by Bridgett M. von Holdt and Robert K. Wayne has found that the Middle East was probably the origin of domestication of some wolves and breeding of dogs. Until recently, some scientists believed that wolves were first domesticated in East Asia.

"This finding puts the first known domestication — that of dogs — in the same place as the domestication of plants and other animals, and strengthens the link between the first animal to enter human society and the subsequent invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago," reports Nicholas Wades in March 17 issue of the New York Times.

"A Middle Eastern origin for the dog also fits in better with the archaeological evidence, and has enabled geneticists to reconstruct the entire history of the dog, from the first association between wolves and hunter gatherers some 20,000 years ago to the creation by Victorian dog fanciers of many of today’s breeds."

"Humans lived as roaming hunters and gatherers for most of their existence. Dr. Wayne believes that wolves began following hunter-gatherer bands to feed on the wounded prey, carcasses or other refuse. At some stage a group of wolves, who happened to be smaller and less threatening than most, developed a dependency on human groups, and may in return have provided a warning system.

"Several thousand years later, in the first settled communities that began to appear in the Middle East 15,000 years ago, people began intervening in the breeding patterns of their camp followers, turning them into the first proto-dogs. One of the features they selected was small size, continuing the downsizing of the wolf body plan. 'I think a long history such as that would explain how a large carnivore, which can eat you, eventually became stably incorporated in human society,' Dr. Wayne said.

His team scanned for genes that show signatures of selection. One such favored dog gene has a human counterpart that has been implicated in Williams syndrome, where it causes exceptional gregariousness. Another two selected genes are involved in memory. "Dogs, unlike wolves, are adept at taking cues from human body language, and the two genes could have something to do with this faculty," Dr. Wayne said.

"Dog domestication and human settlement occurred at the same time, some 15,000 years ago, raising the possibility that dogs may have had a complex impact on the structure of human society. Dogs could have been the sentries that let hunter gatherers settle without fear of surprise attack. They may also have been the first major item of inherited wealth, preceding cattle, and so could have laid the foundations for the gradations of wealth and social hierarchy that differentiated settled groups from the egalitarianism of their hunter-gatherer predecessors. Notions of inheritance and ownership, Dr. Driscoll said, may have been prompted by the first dogs to permeate human society, laying an unexpected track from wolf to wealth."


NTROPEE said...

On the whole, it seems like dogs have fared much better than their wild counterparts in a world dominated by human beings. The price wolves have paid for remaining wild has been nothing short of genocide while dog populations continue to grow.

Kamran Nayeri said...

You are absolutely right. But it may be worthwhile to consider the reasons even briefly. Since domestication of dogs, human society has moved in the direction of more "civilization." Civilization as such has included the derive to assert human control over nature. This process has speeded up since the rise of capitalism, in particular since the rise and spread of "industrial revolution." Dogs and cats have fared better than their wild cousins only because they feed off the scrap of our carnivorous diet. Today, this diet is sustainable largely because of our use of fossil fuel and of industrial farming. As you well know, this is not a sustainable diet. In time, if our present world order does not lead to self-destruction, this carnivorous diet has to be given up. Accordingly, we will see a sharp decline in the population of dogs and cats.

Another issue is domestication and breeding. These are methods to change animal nature to meet our desires. It is unethical as it is unethical to destroy wild life or to raise and slaughter animals for our consumption fancy. Wolves have been subject to genocide--but they have maintained their wolf nature. Dogs have been breed every other way to serve human purpose. These are important issues better left for in depth treatment in the future.

NTROPEE said...

We agree here. But it is still true that, over the centuries that human civilization has expanded at the expense of MOST other species, dogs have prospered more than wolves, despite their mistreatment and detrimental breeding practices. This is even true in many poor nations where few people own dogs as pets, but many dogs run in semi-feral packs scavenging for food in the slums. In these packs the unhealthy extremes of controlled breeding disappear and most dogs are medium sized, normal bodied "mutts."

This doesn't mean dog populations won't decline as the calorie base of industrial civilization shrinks from the scarcity of fossil fuels. But dogs are an intelligent and opportunistic species, highly adapted to survival with & among humans. I believe it will take more than the collapse of industrial civilization to break this bond. Dogs will continue to survive at the margins and make themselves useful to humans in many ways long into the future.

One final observation, dogs are not wolves. Consequently, "wolf nature" is not "dog nature." Yet your statement about wolves maintaining their true wolf nature implies that dogs have not maintained their true "dog nature." I think you assume dogs should have a dog nature that closely resembles wolves. But what if dog nature is shaped by its long history of co-evolution with human nature and is, therefore, fundamentally distinct from wolf nature? Then perhaps domestication is an essential part of what it means to be a dog.

Kamran Nayeri said...

Thanks Craig. Just two points to consider. Alan Weisman in his The World Without Us argues that dogs will perish without humans, but not cats. On "dog nature": I am not sure what that is suppose to be. Dogs are bred so that they please various human requirements. So, they differ greatly not only in appearance but also in temperament, intelligence, loyalty, etc. True, there are other characteristics that (almost) all dogs share in common, such as being a pack animal. But how much of these are shared with wolves and how much of them are not found in wolves? I do not know the answer. But the question is relevant to your concern.