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Of dogs and men

malcolm gladwellMalcolm Gladwell told Stephen Colbert on Tuesday that the domestication of the wolf was possibly the most narcissistic thing mankind had ever done.

What a bleak vision of the relationship between man and dog! I prefer to think of us as co-dependent — that we evolved together. And there’s plenty of good science to support this view.

Indeed, it’s even possible that dogs domesticated us. Rearing cattle or goats would have been much easier for the farmer who had a dog, and we can be fairly confident that dogs were hanging around with us before we gave up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The oldest dog found by archaeologists dates back about 30,000 years to a cave in France. And our relationship almost certainly goes back quite a bit before then.

So perhaps dogs really did help hunter-gatherers settle down and become farmers — and perhaps we owe them part of the credit for civilisation as we know it.

And before they domesticated us, it’s possible that dogs also domesticated themselves. Wolves are generally wary of humans, for good reason, but this wariness varies from one individual to another. Wolves that were less afraid and had the confidence to scavenge from our rubbish might have gained an advantage, particularly when food was scarce in the wild.

Over generations, these individuals might have produced offspring that were even less wary of humans, until eventually they saw us as fellow members of the wolf pack. Soviet scientists conducted their own experiment to see if they could domesticate a fox by selecting for friendliness. And it turns out that you can.

But the most interesting lesson from this experiment was that breeding for friendliness also changed the fox’s physical appearance. They even looked friendlier!

This is fascinating, and suggests that we might have had nothing to do (directly, at least) with dogs becoming man’s best friend — they did it to themselves. By selecting out their fear of humans, they simultaneously selected in the traits that make them so irresistible to us.

Is there a more remarkable story in the animal kingdom? I don’t think so.

There are competing theories of course, but I like the explanation that gives us the least credit, not because I’m a misanthrope (which I am), but because it seems much more likely that bold scavengers would emerge again and again, wherever humans set up camp. This would create lots of opportunities for domestication.

Another theory is that we took in lost or injured wolf pups and nursed the poor little things into dogs, so to speak.

Sure, some wolf pups probably did end up in human care, but the Soviet experiment suggests that, although changes can happen relatively quickly, it still takes multiple generations to breed in friendliness. Wolf pups do not make good pets!


I will try to add in some links when I get the chance to find some of this stuff. There’s a particularly good documentary with footage of the friendly foxes. They also bred some mean foxes, which are awesome too.

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