Book Review: Dawn of the Dog
Dawn of the Dog:
The Genesis of a Natural Species
by Janice Koler-Matznick
Cynology Press, 2016
The standard version of the origin of man’s best friend, the dog, will be familiar to anybody who’s ever read a high school natural science textbook or a dog-centered issue of National Geographic: roughly 15,000 years ago, wolves haunting the periphery of early human camps in order to eat the garbage humans leave behind gradually became accustomed to closer and closer proximity. Their pups feared humans less and less as the years went on, until ultimately a kind of self-domestication took place, with these acclimated wolves – the first “dogs” – getting steady meals out of the arrangement and those primitive humans getting a powerful ally in the animal kingdom, a faster, stronger, more efficient, and more sensorially gifted species that could help immeasurably with hunting prey and protecting kills from other predators. Over time there arose a new kind of canine, Canis lupus familiaris, and over the last 5000 years, humans have exerted tremendous selective breeding pressures on that new canine in order to produce the bewildering variety of domestic dog breeds in the world today. Those National Geographic articles typically tack on headlines like “The Wolf Sleeping on Your Couch.”
Janice Koler-Matznick, in her new book Dawn of the Dog, takes a long, hard look at this version of the story and courteously and circumspectly demolishes it, substituting something she calls the Natural Species Hypothesis. Her contention, buttressed by an abundance of data (the book is beautifully and bounteously illustrated), is that dogs are an entirely separate species from wolves and always have been:
If the prejudice that the dog is merely an artificial variety of wolf is suspended, then the dog can be analyzed as if it were a wild canid. Objectively compared to its nearest relative, the gray wolf, the dog is more than different enough that it would easily be declared a separate, “good” species. The dog has more differences from the wolf than there usually are between two closely related sister species (two species that evolved from the same ancestor).
Anchoring her study on the dingo, she looks at a suite of basic physiological differences between wolves and the “natural” dog that’s been loping alongside mankind for the whole of human history (and possibly much longer than that, according to the intriguing speculation that Homo erectus may have worked with dogs for a million years before Homo sapiens began to appear on the scene). These differences don’t just involve dental and ocular alignment and the like but also matters of common sense that Koler-Matznick articulates with simple effectiveness:
Wolves back then had no reason to fear humans any more than they feared other animals with the ability to defend themselves, such as elk or horses. Even armed adult humans would not have been able to defend themselves from a wolf pack any better than, say, a deer could with its horns and hoofs. A single person with a club or spear could not successfully defend herself against more than one wolf. A long person with arrows would have to be exceptionally fast and accurate to fight more than one wolf. Children would be especially vulnerable to predation. Would these people allow, let alone encourage, wolves to live around their camps?
The Natural Species Hypothesis calls instead for another candidate, one every bit as curious about those human camps (and not just as sources of food) but far more malleable and adaptable than wolves, far more likely to ally itself with an equally adaptable hominid species. The hypothesis makes more sense out of the fact that there’s scarcely a subsistence-level primitive human society on Earth that isn’t perpetually surrounded by so-called “village dogs,” whereas those societies never have wolf puppies loitering around. The drift of Dawn of the Dog is that humans made beagles, basenjis, and basset hounds out of dogs, not wolves or any other fierce wild canid species. It’s a tremendously convincing account, one designed to reset scientific thinking about the history of the dog. Dog-owners should make certain to read it.