Sunday, July 30, 2017

The new neighbors

A book I'm reading, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs by David Grimm, shares a theory. It's not original to grim, but interesting nonetheless. It has to do with what's called self-domestication. This is when an animal attaches itself to a human community and evolves the traits of a domesticated animal without direct intervention on our part.

In the case of dogs the theory goes something like this. Groups of humans in prehistoric times were nomadic. They were also none too neat, with scraps of meat and other food being dropped everywhere. Wolves took notice and their mouths watered. These temporary human settlements presented a way of supplementing their diet without additional hunting. Waiting for the humans to move on would mean getting to the food after much of it had gone bad. Therefore the best option was to hang around while the people were still there. The wolves that did this thrived, producing more pups.

It's interesting to project ourselves into the past and think how these prehistoric persons responded. I can see four stages, distinct but perhaps overlapping.

1) Fear: We know the wolves have the power to kill us or otherwise harm us. We certainly don't want them around our children. This can't be good.

2) Annoyance: Okay, they're only coming here to be fed. How does that make them any different from large, heavy rats?

3) Opportunity: There's an advantage to having these creatures in our camp. They help fend off other predators and parasites. Plus they still have hunting instincts, and can help us.

4) Affection: Rex is part of the family. We wouldn't dream of leaving him behind!

And to some extent, all of these responses are still part of our makeup, surfacing at one time or another.


susan said...

Your interpretation of how wild and dangerous animals came to be our companions sounds perfectly reasonable. Just recently I happened to read an article that says, in essence, that both dogs and wolves share a common ancestor that was neither dog nor wolf - and that dogs were domesticated several times and in different parts of the world.

Ben said...

That is interesting, and potentially supporting evidence for convergent evolution, at least on the micro scale. I wonder what happened to that original ancestor. Did it hit an evolutionary dead end? Or are there remnants?