Posts Tagged ‘dog ancestry’

I’ve actually run into this statement quite a bit:

We can’t know much about dogs by studying wolves. It’s about as much as we could find out about human behavior while studying chimps and bonobos.

That’s a cute one!

Unfortunately, it’s a bad analogy.

Dogs are not to wolves as humans are to chimps and bonobos.

Dogs are to wolves what modern humans are to archaic Homo sapiens.

It’s also not dogs are to wolves as humans are to Neanderthals. That analogy would be dogs are to coyotes, golden jackals, or Ethiopian wolves as humans are to Neanderthals (and maybe Denisovans and other descendants of Homo erectus). Same genus. Chemically interfertile.  Not the same species.

We can actually learn quite a bit about ourselves by studying humans who were around until 30,000 years ago but were much more robust than any living person.

The line that divides modern humans from archaic Homo sapiens is quite fuzzy, just as it is with defining the difference between dogs and wolves.

Contrary to what you may have read, the line separating dog and wolf is very, very fuzzy. There are doggish wolves and wolfish dogs, and the only physical features separating them are that wolves (at least  of the northern subspecies) lack sweat glands on the feet and dogs don’t have an active supracaudal gland. There are dogs that have brains that are proportionally the same size as those of southern wolves, which are the main source for modern domestic dogs.

There have been wolves  that were tamed at 6 weeks, and even fully grown adults have been tamed.

And there are dogs that are so nervous and hard to handle that they might as well be wild animals.

Humans are not chimpanzees or bonobos.

We’re actually much more different from them than dogs are from wolves.

For example, most people would never want to breed with a chimp, and humans, unlike male chimps, typically only attempt to devour the faces of other humans while high on bath salts.

However, there are plenty of cases of dogs and wolves interbreeding. Studies of free-roaming dogs and wolves in Italy found that female wolves that had not yet found a mate, would often solicit the attention of male dogs while in estrus.

Most single women don’t want to go on a date with a chimpanzee!

(Though bonobos, well, they are the doctors of love.)

When I see someone using this analogy, it makes me wince.

I know people are trying hard to fight the Cesar Millan-malarkey out there.

But too often, I see these anti-lupomorph or dominance theorists making claims that are just as bad as anything you’d hear from the Dog Whisperer.

Let’s try to get our analogies right.

Let’s understand what we’re actually opposing.

It’s not the entire phylogeny of Canis lupus familiaris.

Just because idiots use that Canis lupus part of the scientific name to make stupid arguments doesn’t mean that you should reflexively reject it.

We’re not exactly the same thing we were 30,000 years ago.

Neither are dogs. (And really, neither are wolves).

Evolution is about change. It’s almost the entire definition of the phenomenon.

But just because things change doesn’t mean analogies don’t work.

It just means they have to be correct.

You can learn more about us by looking at our more immediate ancestors than from animals that derive from more distant ones.

You can know more about your potential health problems by looking at your parents and grandparents than you great-great-great-great-great grandpa.

In terms of its phylogeny, a dog is a wolf.

It’s not anything else.

One cannot evolve out of one’s phylogeny.  One can only evolve from it.

Dogs and modern wolves evolved from ancient wolves.

If we saw these animals today, we’d call them wolves, though they’d likely be much more willing to approach us than modern wolves are. They might even be readily tamed and actively seek us out as social partners.

Dogs underwent selection pressures to become more and more incorporated into human society. Most wolves experienced selection pressures that selected for extreme fear and reactivity– the result of all those centuries of persecution by our species.

I doubt that archaic Homo sapiens would have ever fit into urban life. Some of them might, but most would not.

It doesn’t mean that they were a different species from us.

It just means that there were lineages of our species that were adapted to an entirely different lifestyle and potential future.

That’s the difference between wolves and dogs.

They aren’t as different from each other as humans and other great ape species are.

But there are differences.

Nuanced, fuzzy differences.

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