Posts Tagged ‘How the Dog Became the Dog’

Mark Derr takes on a recent New York Times piece that quotes experts making claims like this one.

In doing so, he also explains several of the theses in his book, How the Dog Became the Dog.

Hint:  That theory that Raymond Coppinger and others like to promote probably isn’t true.


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The topic is Derr’s new bookHow the Dog Became the Dog.

Lapham has carefully read this book, because he doesn’t just focus on the dog origin information that is the main focus of the text.

He gets Derr to discuss other parts of the book, which are just as interesting. They discuss (among other things) the origins of dog breeds– the “water curs of Newfoundland” caught my ears– and how the ancients used dogs in war.

Lots of good stuff.

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Mark Derr takes on the big controversy on the origins of the domestic dog.

The pro-Southeast Asian and southern China  origins theorists have some conceptual problems:

A persistent bias in all these genetic analysis the geneticists are running assumes that the highest genetic diversity is found at a point of origin; indeed, the statistical analysis they use is based on that assumption. Another built-in bias assumes that an expanding population radiated out evenly from the place of origin.

Both assumptions have been shown to be inaccurate, but they persist in part because statistically they must and in part because the results are what the researchers want to prove their point. They do not.

For all we currently know the founding dog population–or its descendants–could have been decimated by war, disease, or the influx of a few favored dogs–or masses of dogs. Mitochondrial diversity can be increased by preferential keeping of breeding of females for food production, as was apparently done in the Area South of the Yangtze River. can also increase through expansion in an environment where it is relatively isolated from large-scale infusions of fresh blood that might overwhelm the native stock.

The real problem is that there is a desire to find that dogs originated in one place. I don’t know where this comes from. It might be  unintentionally theological– the quest for a secular and non-mythological Garden of Eden.

But as we’ve seen with many different domestic species– those that don’t have nearly as long an association with people– that most have evidence of at least two or more domestication events. Pigs were domesticated in the Near East and China.  We have evidence of early horse domestication in Saudi Arabia, the Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan.  Cattle have two confirmed domestications– as in they were domesticated from the Eurasian aurochs in the Middle East and from the Indian aurochs in the Indus Valley. However, the Indus Valley aurochs was totally absorbed into the domesticated indicus cattle population. There is also evidence that European aurochsen bulls contributed to European taurine cattle that were derived from the Middle Eastern aurochs.

I don’t know why we would be so shocked to find that dogs have a similar history, but dog domestication is one that took place over a much longer time period and over virtually the entire continent of Eurasia.  Over this vast time and place, lineages have died out, and because both dogs and wolves can be quite mobile, lineages from one region can easily be transmitted to another.

Because of these reasons, we need to be very careful about using mtDNA and y-chromosome studies to tell us where the dog came from.

These studies are looking at only a tiny part of the genome. Even if they are including hundreds of samples, you’re still not getting a very good picture. Granted, the nuclear DNA studies that Wayne and the UCLA team have performed are also looking at just at tiny fraction of the genome,  but they are looking at a whole lot more of the genome than mtDNA and y-chromosomes.  The number of individuals in these samples may be significantly lower than the mtDNA and y-chromosome studies, but they are looking at each individual sample much more clearly.

They are being much more precise in what they are measuring, while the East Asian theorists are just looking at a large n. But only a tiny part of that large n.

It’s like looking a truckload of twigs, when you should be looking at a truckload of logs.

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On Huffington Post.

It’s Mark Derr writing about How the Dog Became the Dog.

But it’s HuffPo, and it allows comments.

The comments are awesome!

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Very good interview here.

It has a nice little swipe at Cesar Millan– just to show that just because dogs are wolves doesn’t mean that all this alpha nonsense is accurate. Thinking of wolf packs as families helps us understand how dog domestication could have happened:

Well, first, there’s been a huge misunderstanding of pack behavior — so let’s just make sure we’re in agreement on that one. The Cesar Millan “you are pack leader” or “you have failed to be pack leader” routine is based on this notion of what a wolf pack is that grew out of studies of captive packs, which were made up of unrelated animals thrown together in these wolf parks. And people studying them saw that the males — unaltered males, unrelated males — fought for status. And they developed this notion of the “alpha wolf” — the biggest, meanest wolf — leading the pack. (It happened to fit, as an aside, with our views of what corporate America should be like. But let’s forget that for a minute.)

But when the researchers — David Mech is the most prominent wolf researcher — finally went and looked hard at wild packs, guess what they discovered? It wasn’t based on fighting at all; it was based on mutual cooperation. Why? Because the pack was an extended family. Ma and pa were the alphas by definition, because they were the breeding pair. Then you had the juveniles, the two- or three-year-olds moving out, and the puppies. And they worked cooperatively. And in fact, the alpha male often deferred to other animals in the pack. Why? Because not fighting is more important to social cohesion than fighting, if you follow me. Chimps, on the other hand, are known to be a rather violent sort, and wage war in various ways; they’re not as socially minded in that respect as wolves.

The early unit that humans had was the extended family — small family groups traveling around. And so I think there’s a kind of mix there that allows for this movement of wolf into human society, much more easily than other animals might do it. I mean, if in fact the wolf gained its dominance through fighting, then you’d be hard-pressed to see how humans and wolves would have gotten together to produce the dog; it’s more likely they would have gotten together to produce bloodshed.

That explanation goes a long way to explaining why we didn’t domesticate chimps, even though they lived alongside us in Africa for so many years. Chimps would easily learn to respond to human language, but once they hit a certain age, they turn into warlords.

Although not all wolves would have been suitable for domestication, it is likely that many were.

Taming wolves had to have been so easy that a caveman could do it.


Derr also wrote this piece on Cesar for the New York Times.

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Click to listen to the interview.

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It’s not often that a book causes you to stop and think.

It’s even rarer for a book to make you question many of the long-held beliefs you may have developed over the years.

When I first started on this blogging project, I accepted two ideas as essentially true:

1. Dogs were derived from East Asian wolves.

2. Dogs are neotenous or paedomorphic wolves.

Those two ideas have generally been accepted in much of the literature on domestication that it is generally hard to have a conversation about the subject without having to confront both of them.

But what if both of these accepted facts were bogus?

Well, it turns out that genome-wide analyses have found that dogs are likely not derived from East Asian wolves at all.  The primary source for their genetic diversity are Middle Eastern wolves.

And recent study that compared wolf cranial anatomy at varying ages with those of domestic dogs found that dogs simply are not paedomorphic wolves. Their unusual head morphology is the result of selective breeding, not the retention of juvenile traits.

At one time, I bought into much of the Coppinger model for dog domestication, and I generally accepted the idea that dogs had self-domesticated in villages of the Neolithic.

But by the time I started this blog, there were real problems with that model:  namely that there were newly discovered dog remains that were several thousands years older than when the Coppinger model suggests they would have appeared. Dogs were the product of the Paleolithic, when humans were hunter-gatherers.

As new discoveries in both molecular genetics and archaeology have continued to reveal that much of what we think we know about dog domestication is simply wrong, I began to wonder if maybe we needed a paradigm shift in our understanding of how this process actually happened.

Enter Mark Derr.

Mark Derr is the author of several great books on dogs. Dog’s Best Friend and A Dog’s History of America are both explorations of the human-canine bond.  The former is an exploration of the various human cultures that have developed around domestic dog. The book examine the human side of the bond, and not surprisingly, it finds us wanting in so many ways.  The latter is perhaps the most complete work of historiography ever written about dogs in the United States.  It is also an exploration of the dog culture, but it is one that examines its evolution over time within the context of US history.

However, it is in the question of how dogs became dogs that Derr makes the what is perhaps most ambitious attempt to explain how this human-canine bond began.

Most of the literature on dog origins examines it from either a biological or social sciences perspective. The biological approaches often use just a few methodologies and are quick to discount evidence from other sciences.  For example, archaeologists have been among the most conservative when it comes to examining the origins of dogs. For several decades, archaeologists claimed that the oldest dog was the one found at the Ain Mallaha site in Northern Israel.  The remains consisted of a puppy that was buried next to a woman, and it has been dated to around 12,000 years ago.  The first mtDNA assays of dogs and wolves found that dogs and wolves split around 135,000 years before present, which means that dogs were a product of a domestication that happened before modern humans left Africa.  Which doesn’t sound plausible, until you realize a wolf subspecies was indeed discovered in East and North Africa– but it hasn’t been connected to the ancestry of the domestic dog.

Derr hyperfocus on a single methodology. Such hyperfocus in as much blinding to reality as it is revealing, which is perhaps the book’s strongest point. Derr does not discount evidence that appears to contradict the findings that others have found. It is perhaps the most unique multidisciplinary approach to dog origins that has ever been attempted. No other book examines dog origins from so many different angles, using the latest evidence from molecular genetics as well as anthropology,  archaeology, and paleontology– and some remarkable, good old-fashioned historiography. Derr just places these findings from such divergent fields into the proper context– which is quite rare for most books written on the subject.

Ten years ago, the book on dog origins that everyone had to read was Raymond and Lorna Coppinger’s Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution. The book has a complete domestication theory that went something like this:  About 12,000 years ago, the megafauna that were once so common during the Pleistocene began to die off.  Hunter-gatherers and wolves were both without food, and when humans began to farm on the small scale, they were creating garbage dumps.  Wolves would scavenge from the dumps. The wolves that could tolerate human presence more were better adapted to scavenging.  Over generations of this selection pressure for less fear and less aggression, the wolves became genetically tamable.   And because selection for tameness is also a selection for a bunch of domesticated traits, dogs became spotted and floppy eared. Because they were living in a low nutrition environment, their jaws and brains got smaller. Dogs are nothing more than developmentally delayed wolves, and because they have floppy ears and shorter muzzles, they are considered paedomorphic or neotenous wolves. Dogs are incapable of exhibiting full wolf motor patterns, and working dogs, like herders and retrievers, have been selected for an arrested predatory motor pattern.

As I noted earlier, the theory that dogs are nothing more than juvenilized, developmentally delayed wolves has been falsified– at least in term of their physical traits.  The notion that dogs are less intelligent than wolves and that they are somehow incapable of exhibiting full predatory behavior, even if members of specialized working breeds, has also been largely falsified through cognitive research and through the experience of anyone who has ever seen one of the specialized working breeds kill and eat something. Dogs are much better than wolves at gaining information from humans than wolves are– even if these wolves are raised in a captive situation.

All dog domestication theories have a corollary that asks what this theory says about the differences between wolves and dogs. Coppinger’s theory suggests extremely large differences. Derr’s suggests much fewer differences.  Coppinger rejects the name Canis lupus familiaris, which Derr embraces.   Coppinger holds that giving the dog the full species name of Canis familiaris is necessary because dogs possess a different ecological niche than wolves. However, wolves often fill different ecological niches throughout their range, and the wolves Italy and the Middle East often live almost exclusively on garbage– as do legions of domestic dogs. Derr also notes these scavenging wolves have not become dog-like, except when they have cross-bred with them.

So if not Coppinger, what does Derr propose is the more likely story of how dogs came into being?

The answer cannot be described as simply as the theory proposed in Coppinger’s model.

Derr contends that dogs are the result of interaction between humans and wolves, but this interaction happened over tens of thousands of years. There was no single domestication event– a finding that is revealed in genome-wide assays of dogs wolves. Most dogs have Middle Eastern wolf at their base, but some dogs have a contribution from European wolves and others wolves from East Asia.

This relationship began while humans were hunter-gatherers.  Humans and wolves began interacting with each other, and they occasionally took advantage of each other’s hunting prowess. In other situations in which two predators compete for the same prey, they become adversarial competitors. The most famous example of this enmity between two predators is that which exists between African lions and spotted hyenas. But humans and wolves went the other direction.  Wolves began to attach themselves to humans, often just to scavenge from the kills, but they also likely participated in the hunt.  Perhaps the relationship was a bit like what existed between some indigenous Australians and  dingoes, where the dingoes were very useful in hunting but still retained their independence.

For tens of thousands of years, man and wolf continued to relate to each other along these lines, with wild wolves contributing to the gene pool all the time.

Although Derr agrees with the finding that most dogs have Middle Eastern wolf at their base, he contends that Central Asia is the place where dogs were first able to exist as a freely breeding population with very little contribution from wild wolves. It was in Central Asia that Middle Eastern wolves that had attached themselves to humans met up with similar wolves from Europe and East Asia. This meeting of the different camp wolves that created the sustaining population of these animals that evolved into the domestic dog as we know it today.  It was this situation that most closely resembled a domestication event. Because with dogs, there was only a long domestication process, not a single domestication event.

Derr claims that it was during the Last Glacial Maximum (ca. 25,000-13,000  years ago) that the dog began to develop the morphological features that resembled those which Coppinger and others suggest are the result of neoteny. It was at this time that humans began to experience a great gracilization of our bodies, which Derr finds actually came from a lack of good nutrition during this starving time. It is likely that the same pressures exerted themselves upon the wolves that were accompanying humans from this time period. This is why first morphological distinct dogs have been dated to this time period.

Derr also questions whether we should be using the Siberian farm fox experiment as the basis for our understanding of how dog domestication happened.  Derr finds several methodological flaws with the farm experiment, namely that foxes that were not selected for tameness also began to develop the spotted coats and floppy ears– and the domesticated foxes are larger and more robust than wild foxes. Further, the selection criteria that the Soviet scientists used was changed twice, and the main feature the scientists selected for was against aggression. However, there is no evidence that dogs were selected for reduced aggression, and we have plenty of examples of domestic dogs that are far more aggressive than wolves are.

The model is interesting, but it cannot be used to suggest much more than this is the process by which the Soviets were able to domesticate the fox.

The dog domestication process was much more complex than the one Coppinger suggests.

Dogs are both the product of biology and culture. They are both artifacts and specimens.

Understanding that the dog is both a biological and cultural construct helps us look at the possible ways in which dogs evolved from wolves, but if we ignore either and choose to reject data that doesn’t fit our preconceived notions, then we won’t be able to see how it might have happened.

Dogs are not neotenous wolves.

They are the wolves who evolved to live with us.

And we are the humans who evolved to live with them.


How the Dog Became the Dog is now available at bookstores.

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