Tuesday, January 20, 2009

First Dog

I've loved dogs since I was a little boy, when a skinny stray collie with matted hair walked into our village in search of care and comfort. We cleaned her up, fed her, and gave her a home. Her tri-color coat thickened and grew beautiful. We named her "Princess" - I think that my elder sister came up with the name - and Princess became a loving companion. She was generally very playful and easygoing, but we lived near a potato farm, and she would put on a badass display of let-me-tear-his-flesh-off whenever a farm worker would approach us as we took our walk past where the woods adjoined the farm. We wondered whether this reaction was a reflection of any traumatic experiences she may have had with people before she joined our family, as we never knew...never asked, really... who had been keeping her before she left her previous home to join ours. Maybe her previous people, maybe the farm workers, had abused her. Or maybe her defensive display was simply triggered automatically in a part of her primal dog brain which told her to guard us against the advances of unfamiliar grownups. Anyway, we kept her away from the farm workers, and she stayed with us for a few years until she developed some type of serious illness, and my parents decided that she should be put down. Of course, that decision was carried out over the tearful objections of my sister and me. Princess was a good dog who served, or tried to serve, an important function in our family.

Lately I've been reading some of the contemporary literature on the evolution, cognition, and behavior of the domestic dog. The way that ethologists think about dogs has been changing in interesting ways in recent years (see, for example, the work of Ádám Miklósi, whose textbook on the subject was given to me by my wife this past Christmas). The prevailing view among naturalists, from Darwin to the current generations, once held that domestic dogs could be of little interest to students of natural history, because their descent from wolves some tens of thousands of years ago theoretically occurred by an artificial, human-deliberated, unnatural process. According to the orthodox view, wolf and dog look and behave differently from each other because breeding them through artificial selection produced a domesticated variety of the wolf that is weaker, less intelligent, and more dependent. One is to imagine that the process began with humans capturing wolf pups from their dens during the Stone Age, and then breeding these domesticated wolves in a relatively sheltered environment, thus thwarting the mechanism by which natural selection would otherwise prevent unfit animals from spreading their genes through successive generations. In this view, the domestic dog is a weak and passive prisoner of human intentions, and her adaptation to human society is a byproduct of unnatural forces.

A less orthodox theory is gaining support in the field today. In this newer view, it is believed that wolves who were the early ancestors of today's dogs, who likely had already developed natural capacities for taking part in complex cooperative social systems, played an active role in connecting with humans by interacting with them in ways that promoted their survival (e.g., scavenging for food scraps at the outskirts of human villages, monitoring humans' actions to anticipate the best feeding opportunities, defending their human/canine turf against competing wolf packs, etc.). To the degree that human-friendliness and responsiveness to human cues are heritable traits in dogs (as current research findings suggest that they are), then natural selection would have favored increasingly domestic traits in dogs who lived near humans, and the domestic dog's natural history therefore would not depend upon humans raiding their dens and snatching their pups. The dog's evolutionary course is increasingly seen as having converged with ours, not having been derailed as claimed in the orthodox view. We can think of the origin of the dog even in spiritual terms, in a story of our ancestors forming a partnership in survival that endured through generations. It is a story that Princess reenacted when she walked into our neighborhood and became part of our family.


Andrea said...

What an interesting post...love how Princess' story is woven into it! It's nice to meet you! :)

mouse (aka kimy) said...

ditto to what andrea said...I saw a wonderful documentary on pbs on the evolution of dogs - fascinating stuff.

I love keeping company with dogs.

dw said...

Andrea - Nice to meet you too!

mouse - I might have seen the same documentary. Yes, fascinating.