Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How wolves bred people

In his article "From the Cave to the Kennel," Wall Street Journal, Oct. 29, 2011, Mark Derr reviews new evidence and inference about the process by which wolves became dogs. The old view, as he describes it, was that some wolves entered human settlements as scavengers, and we set about transforming them into dogs. The new view is that wolves and humans chose each other, and that early domesticated dogs were much closer to wolves than we might have thought. "The emerging story," he writes, "sees humans and proto-dogs evolving together: We chose them, to be sure, but they chose us too, and our shared characteristics may well account for our seemingly unshakable mutual intimacy."

Derr points out that humans assisted by dogs would have had "a competitive advantage over those without," as their dogs would have served both as camp guards and pack animals (early dogs were big). Then he comments, but without elaboration, that "[t]he relationship between dogs and humans has been so mutually beneficial and enduring that some scholars have suggested that we--dog and human--influenced each other's evolution."

How would that have come about? Well, of course we don't know. But it's easy to see what might have happened. Those humans who had dogs to help them were more secure and more mobile, and hence more likely to survive.  Their children were more likely to survive too. And we're more likely to be the descendants of the humans who were good at associating with wolves and dogs than of other humans.

What does it take to be good at associating with wolves? Communication skills are probably important; those humans who were best at conveying instructions to other creatures who lacked language would have been best able to take advantage of the aid wolves could offer. Empathy would also have been useful, in part to make communication more effective, but perhaps also to make interaction more enjoyable. The wolves that chose us would have preferred to stay with the people they liked.

The upshot is that the interaction between humans and wolves tens of thousands of years ago favored people who were empathetic and communicative. Not overwhelmingly empathetic, to be sure; humans and wolves no doubt hunted together from a very early time, and jointly treated various other animals as prey pure and simple. But the people who made friends with wolves could well have been somewhat warmer and more social than others. And once those traits were favored as a result of the survival value of having wolves or dogs as companions, then their impact needn't have been limited to our dealings with wolves. We are the descendants not of those with an empathy-with-wolves trait, perhaps, but rather of those with an empathy trait -- now available to help shape our relations with many other animals, not to mention with each other.

So if people and wolves evolved together -- or, put differently, if wolves bred people even as people much more emphatically bred wolves -- what wolves bred us for may have been traits that are an important part of what we think of today as most distinctly humane.

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