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Posts Tagged ‘Active Social Domestication Model’

Mark Derr has been writing critiques of the Coppinger model of dog domestication for decades. His best known work on the subject matter is How the Dog Became the Dog, but his ideas can be read in a more succinct place at this article at The Bark (but do buy the book!).

Derr recently posted about Jung and Pörtl’s “Active Social Domestication Model” on his blog at Psychology Today.

His analysis is worth your time to read. He largely agrees with this model, but he contends that it needs to be placed in a larger framework of Derr’s own work and that on Wolfgang Schleidt and Michael Shalter, which is linked on Jung’s website.

Derr contends that Jung and Pörtl’s ideas need to be placed in this line of scholarship to which I’d also add the work of Darcy Morey and Pat Shipman. They don’t agree with each other on some important particulars, and they may have quibbles with this new model. But both scholars have been publishing outside of the Coppinger model for quite some time.

What I find most interesting is how this scholarship is pretty well-known outside of the English-speaking countries, but in the US and the UK, the generally accepted model by virtually everyone is the Coppinger model. Part of it may be that North America is home to wolves that are not particularly admixed with dogs. Indeed, they are probably the most “pure” wild wolves anywhere in the range of Canis lupus. And Great Britain and Ireland have no wolves, and there is no chance of any wolves coming back to those islands, at least by their own volition.

However, in Germany and Russia, wolves are admixed with dogs, and in the case of Germany, it is not at all impossible to see wolves living near large urban centers.

So they have a much more practical understanding of what it is like to live near wolves that have quite a bit of gene flow from domestic dogs, and they are less likely to buy into models that see dog and wolf as fundamentally distinct entities.

North Americans are much more accepting of a dichotomy model, and we have a hard time with gene flow between Canis populations. Our laws want hard and fast species, but the thing about Canis is that none of them are hard and fast species.

So it is easy for North Americans to posit that wolves are unable to be domesticated, because modern North American wolves (for the most part) are reactive and timid predators that do kill both dogs and coyotes they find on the trail. They do, but they also do the same with other wolves. And sometimes they mate with those wolves, just as they will mate with dogs and coyotes.

The Coppinger model requires an assumption that all wolves living in history and in the present are these shy timid ones, but that’s not what the historical record shows. And it is certainly not what is seen on Ellesmere or Baffin Island, where the wolves have never been persecuted by man.

The Coppinger model requires us to create the gray wolf as a Neanderthal dog in which it is big in size, big-brained, and meant to hunt only large prey, and posit the dog as the modern human with a smaller brain and more flexible diet.

We need a model that can place the origin of dogs before the Mesolithic, and this Active Social Model goes along way in that direction.

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Wolves and coyotes working as sled dogs in Ontario in 1923. 

The world of dogs is full of ideas, and over the years, those ideas and their expositors have created several camps.  I have learned to keep my head down in most of these discussions about dog ideology, and yes, I learned it the hard way. But I know there are several idea with which I will lay out my own views, or at least critique what I think is an error.

It is hard to overestimate the work of Raymond Coppinger in forming the main ideas around modern dog science.  Coppinger was a biology professor at Massachusetts’s Hampshire College, and he proposed a particular dog domestication hypothesis. This is the model that lots of dog experts believe is correct, and this model also informs how they view the essential biology of dogs.

Coppinger’s domestication model relies heavily upon the work of a Soviet geneticist named Dmitri Belyaev. Belyaev was a Mendelian at the time of Lysenkoism, and he was banished a research facility in Novosibirsk, where he conducted domestication experiments upon silver-phase red foxes that were from fur farm populations. Belyaev selected for tameness using several criteria, and after so many generations, he produced foxes that had drop ears, less sexual dimorphism, large areas of white on their coats, curled tails,  and even multiple estrus cycles per year.

This suite of features very strongly resembles the traits we see in domestic dogs, and Belyaev thought of his experiments as a sort of controlled analogy to dog domestication. 

Coppinger took Belyaev’s ideas a bit further. Instead of seeing humans as actively domesticating wolves, Coppinger believed the whole process came from wolves scavenging near dumps near what became Neolithic settlements. These wolves evolved to become smaller and evolved smaller brains so they could live more easily on wastes, and these animals became the village dogs. Later, people would select for working and hunting behaviors in village, but dogs themselves were not domesticated for any purpose. They evolved from scavenging wolves.

The analogy that Coppinger saw in Belyaev is that he assumed that all wolves through all history had been the very timid paranoid wolves that are known in the lower latitudes of North America and Eurasia, and he thought that for wolves to become successful scavengers in such close proximity to humans that they would have undergone something similar to Belyaev’s selection.  Those that were less afraid of humans would be more likely to stand in dumps while humans were nearby, eating more of the easily procured food.

When I first started this blog, you can see echoes of Coppinger in what I wrote on dog domestication. I loved his 2001 book, but as I’ve read more about wolves and new studies on dog cognition. I’ve come to doubt many of his ideas. 

One of the biggest problems with Coppinger’s model is that the earliest dog remains that are not in contention as belonging to a dog are those of the Bonn-Oberkassel dog. It dates to 14,000 years ago in what is now Germany, and recent analysis showed that was actually a seven-month-old puppy that died of distemper. This dog existed in Europe thousands of years before the Neolithic cultural exchanges hit the region. That means the dog was created by hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic, not in the Neolithic middens.

The other problem I have with Coppinger’s model is the assumption that all wolves through history are these fearful and often paranoid wolves that exist in much of North America and Eurasia. However, when one reads accounts of early explorers and settlers to North America, there are many accounts of curious and often socially open wolves approaching humans. Lewis and Clark’s diaries tell of luring a wolf in very close with a piece of meat and then killing it with a spear, and various other authors talk of wolves living very near native people’s camps and settlements, often crossing with the dogs. It is likely that our widespread persecution of wolves has culled out all this curiosity and tolerance of people in most extant wolves. Through our hunting, trapping, and poisoning campaigns, we have selected for wolves that are timid and shy, if not totally paranoid.

Further, we have wolves on Ellesmere and Baffin Island that have never been extensively hunted by humans, and these wolves are quite curious and tolerant of humans. (See Jim Brandenburg’s “White Wolf” and Gordon Buchanan’s “Snow Wolf Family and Me” to get an idea of how tolerant and curious these wolves are.) These wolves, though certainly adapted for life in polar conditions, are potentially a good model for what the original wolves of Eurasia were like when they first encountered our species. They were likely quite curious and socially tolerant as these wolves are, and it would have been easy for hunter-gatherers to form a relationship with them.

Several attempts to counter some of Copponger’s shortcomings have come to the fore in recent years. Darcy Morey and Rujana Jeger have posited shifting trophic strategies between wolves and hunter-gatherers, such that dogs evolved from wolves in hunter-gatherer societies and became apex predators with people, later becoming apex consumers with humans in the Holocene. Raymond Pierotti and Brandy Fogg have made a similar attempt in their First Domestication: How Humans and Wolves Coevolved. These two authors rely heavily upon ethnography of hunter-gatherer peoples or partially hunter-gatherer peoples and their complex relationship with hunting dogs and wolves.  The authors contend that these societies have the best framework for understanding how wolves might have been domesticated within a hunting symbiosis.

Recently, though, I came across a new model, one that offers a critique of Coppinger and encapsulates many of the ideas of Morey and Jeger and Pierotti and Fogg. It also posits a new theory of dog domestication called the Active Social Model of dog domestication. 

The authors of this model are Christoph Jung and Daniela Pörtl, and they posit a model that sees wolves and people in the late Pleistocene operating as predators that often worked together and showed each other some mutual respect. In this model, emotional bonds that existed between wolves and people were a major driving force behind the domestication of dogs, and this is the missing piece that explains why wolves were domesticated. Foxes, jackals, and hyenas have all been noted as scavenging near human settlements, but they have never attempted to form emotional bonds with people, unlike the aforementioned wolves of Ellesmere. 

I really like this model, because it actually does mention many things I’ve discussed on this blog. It allows for the less-than-timid, more socially open wolves of the High Arctic as a better model for Pleistocene wolf behavior than those from other more persecuted populations. It also allows for the concept of a potential hunting partnership between wolves and humans as the catalyst for domestication. 

As I noted before, I think the way humans capitalized upon wolves as hunting partners is that humans figured out that a very good way to kill fat healthy game was to follow wolves.  Wolves constantly test game.  If the quarry runs, it is usually unhealthy and will be easily run down, so the wolves’ instinct is to give chase. If game is healthy, it will stand and fight the wolves. 

The stand and fight behavior would give ancient hunter-gatherers a relatively stationary target for their spears, so wolves and humans learned that they could both easily bring down healthy prey if they made it stand and fight.

It is precisely how elkhounds, Karelian bear dogs, and big game laiki bay up moose and wild boar for the rifle shot.  The only difference is these dogs bark while the prey stands at bay.

Humans are big-brained, and our nutritional needs when living on a meat-based diet require quite a bit of fat. Being able to kill healthy prey in this way was a great way to get the fat we needed to power our large brains.

And it would have been to our advantage to hook up with wolves, and wolves would have had an easier job getting meat. They wouldn’t have to grapple so much with big dangerous prey. Our spears would do much of the work, and they would get some meat for their troubles.

This new active social domestication model allows for this sort of relationship to have been the process whereby humans and wolves hooked up. This relationship is far beyond the simple scavenger at the dump. Wolves were not the trash pandas of the Pleistocene. Instead, we had humans and wolves interacting with each other, and over time, these interactions led to the development of the dog.

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