Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Devolution of Dog and the Training of Man

Man's intervention has actually devolved the wolf from a self-sustaining animal that can take care of itself, to a dependent infantalized parasite that can barely function without human assistance.

Something to think about as we approach Darwin's birthday on February 12th.

It turns out that being a parasite to humans (and eating a lot of vegetative matter as a consequence) is actually more adaptive than living a free and independent life.

Which, perhaps, is not that surprising.

There are more bacteria in your stomach than there are lions in all the world.

Big fierce animals are always rare, while grazers that live down the food chain are always more common, and parasites are the most common of all.

The dog has evolved with humans, same as corn, apples, potatoes, insects, cows, and chickens.

Have we domesticated the dog, or has it domesticated us?.

If our friends pissed and crapped in the house, yelled at us early in the morning, stole our food, humped our leg, ate their own vomit and crap, and then tried to kiss us on the mouth, we would brick them in the head in short order.

But when it's the dogs we pay good money, take good care of them, and chose our houses to suit their needs.

And is it any different in the field? We plant apple trees, potatoes and corn with care, protect them from insects, fungus and predation by deer. We fertilize them, water them, and trim them as needed.

We build houses for our cows and horses, feed them, water them and supply them with antibiotics.

Ditto for sheep, chickens, and pigs.

And as a consequence there are more of these animals under domestication than there are in the wild.

Survival of the fittest. That was Darwin's Deus ex machina. But is "the fittest" animal or plant the one that can train man to do its bidding the best?

Who, exactly, is training whom here?

And is this the most subtle trick the dog has to offer -- the fact that we are the animal being trained?

Darwin, where are you now that I need you? I have questions.



Anonymous said...

Dogs have a bunch of adaptations for mooching off us. The smaller brain, smaller teeth, and smaller jaws helped them live on a very low quality diet-- most which was probably cast-off bones and human feces. (I can see fad dog diet come from that!)

As a result of their higher levels of serotonin, they really aren't as spooked by people. For some reason they also have very long critical periods for imprinting--3 or 4 months. (A wolf has about 19 days for its critical period-- just a few days after its eyes open.)

But the best adaptations are the ones that made them look cute. And paradoxically, breeding for cuteness and novelty is what's killing dogs. A little tiny dog with unusual spots or one with a slightly shorter muzzle probably got better food and its offspring probably got better treatment. And these animals probably didn't get eaten. The novelty was an adaptation to milking us for better food and not getting eaten. On my ancestral farm in West Virginia, there are black gray squirrels. They make up at least half the population. And they all got started because no one would shoot the black ones for about ten years after they showed up. Novelty in the eyes of humans is a potent adaptation. And dogs are perfectly designed to give us novelty-- they have an unusually high number of tandem repeats in their junk DNA, which means they can shape shift very easily.

But novelty can go awry, and that's what we're seeing in the show ring. It's novelty gone gone mad.

As for the parasite issue, that's what Budiansky pretty much comes up with. However, Coppinger has a harder time calling them parasites, because dogs can be beneficial for humans. After all, the wolves that scavenged off of people also cleaned the camps up and also provided a warning system in case really bad predators showed up. The ones that Coppinger studies in Pemba, though, those are real parasites-- like our pigeons.

All I know is I love my dogs. I don't know whether they love. But they sure make me feel like they do. And that's another one of their wonderful adaptations. I have no idea whether its love-- or whether they've developed some way of making me project that emotion on them.

And that tendency to cause projection is why dogs aren't widely studied in cognitive studies-- well, until recently. It's just so hard to be objective with a dog.

PBurns said...

My dogs have trained me to take them hunting so they can "release their inner wolf."

I don't mind -- there's an ancient predator in me too, and it's not so strange that we create a happy bobbery pack of two species ;)


Rocambole said...

Your post is pretty much Pollen's thesis in "Botany of Desire"

Pollen also did a piece on corn that was much the same which is here:


PBurns said...

I am not certain, but I think Pollan's points about corn are an idea that came from William (Bill) Paddock, the corn geneticist (I mention him somewhere on this blog, I think). The question of animal domestication, of course, was raised by Thoreau who wondered if the farmer owned the cows, or vice versa. Only the dog, however, is self-taming. All the others man did, but the wolf had to say "yes" and say yes everyday taht it was not chained. This is, I think, why we have taboo against eating dogs. It is violation of the pact we made when the wolf said "yes."


Retrieverman said...

Doesn't that graphic come from Ken Hamm's nonsense about "dog kind." (Coyotes aren't in the domestic dog family tree at all!)

Ken Ham has some interesting theories on dog genetic defects that are worth reading (for a laugh):