What Is a Dog Anyway?

What Is a Dog Anyway?

Jared Diamond, a geographer, has called domestication the greatest mistake humans have ever made . He says domestication is responsible for the rise in monoculture, which leads to a more sedentary population and rapid spread of disease. Moreover, the climate , natural disasters and diseases that affect settled populations are more likely to be caused by their dependence on crops. Diamond claims that domestication also led to a rapid decline in biodiversity and an increase in social inequality and warfare.

Sounds a bad choice.

Yet, the first domestication of wolves into dogs was a remarkable feat. Humans had to assess each new species they encountered at the time. If it kills you, how can it be stronger or more skilled than me? What can I gain if I kill it?

Eventually, humans realized that living with other species was more beneficial than killing them. Our ancestors chose the gray wolf, one of the most dangerous predators, to live with. I am a paleoanthropologist and have been studying the effects of domestication. The origin of dogs is contentious, but I hypothesize that domesticating wolves into dogs may have helped the first modern humans to outcompete other hominins like Neandertals.

What was the benefit of cooperating with wolves Modern wolves have greater endurance than humans and a top speed of up to 40 miles per hour, versus 30 to 45 mph in dogs and only 27 mph in a world-class runner like Usain Bolt. Wolves have a superior sense of smell (they have more than 50 times the smell receptors that elephants, which must be laboriously trained anew with each generation. Most animals humans have tried to domesticate have rejected them. The striking example of this is the beautiful Zebra, which, although closely related to domestic horses and donkeys, remains one the most dangerous animals at the zoo.

Because domestication is something humans do, they have sharper teeth and claws that humans and better night vision. These abilities were borrowed or co-opted by humans to improve hunting and survival. the wild Wolf had to be able to benefit . The main benefit to the canids would be less danger and more meat. Their role was to locate prey, track it, and surround it while humans using distance weapons did the dangerous job killing it. In independent studies, Karen Lupo and Jeremy Koster have shown that hunting with a dog yields more meat per hour of effort than hunting without one, despite the fact that the dogs eat some of the meat.

Forming a successful wolf-human pack required developing a way of communication and genetic changes to make this cooperation permanent. Domestication is not like taming wild-born Asian animals. It involves selection (by humans for genetic traits) and takes generations to complete. Some scholars see the earliest changes about 30,000 years ago, while others see domesticated dogs only by about 16,000 years ago. Humans tried to domesticate more than just the friendly or tasty animals like sheep and cows. They also had to contend with fierce competitors for food, water, and safe places to raise their children. I hypothesize that allying with wolves allowed modern Homo sapiens to outcompete and out-survive earlier species like Neandertals who had lived successfully in Europe long before modern humans got there. There has been no remarkable change in weapons since the earliest human settlements. This would explain their survival. Modern humans would have used dogs to hunt and protect the carcass from scavengers.

Dogs excel at an unusually broad set of tasks: acting as companions; as haulers of loads; as guardians and living weapons; as detectors of disease or contraband; and as trackers. They can provide fur, meat, and potentially useful bones for tools making. They are excellent at making living blankets. Dog bones and teeth can also be used as jewelry to identify members of a particular human group. Despite the inherent risks of associating closely with another large carnivore, this versatility may have spurred the proliferation of dog breeds in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, one’s job or social status has long been signaled by the dog one owns, from the Pekingese of Chinese royalty to the saluki, the racing dog of Egyptian kings, the corgis of the late Queen Elizabeth II, and the sheep-guarding great Pyrenees.

So why is the origin of dogs so contentious? We don’t know what a dog is. First, there is no one trait that can be identified in ancient or modern canids that makes them dogs. Dogs have a look and a familiar behavior, but not one trait. Genetically, the number of genes that makes a dog a dog is hard to quantify, even if we have the whole genome of a specimen. For example, in maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA, there are about 16,000 base pairs. To identify a species, how many genes must be sequenced? We don’t know, because there are mutations that can occur but have little effect. How many must be changed to make the specimen no longer a wolf but a dog? We don’t know.

Second. There is a fundamental problem in dating the transition from wolf to dog. If the specimen is less than 50,000 years old, bones, charcoal and other organic substances can be dated based on the percentage of radioactive carbon that has degraded to a nonradioactive nitrogen. To date specimens, geneticists use the number mutations in the genome. However, mutations can occur more quickly or slower than “normal.” Genetic dating does not guarantee precision. Importantly, not all animals are preserved as fossils. This is why so much of the record about life on Earth is invisible.

Finally, I fear we have neglected part of the evidence–where the iconic Australian dingo fits in. Modern humans arrived in Australia after having evolved in Africa. They reached Australia before reaching Central Europe, the Americas, or Antarctica. Madjedbebe, the earliest archaeological site in Australia, is dated to about 65,000 years ago. This date is accepted by researchers because they can’t find any trace of domestic dogs or domestic canids anywhere else in the world at the time. Genetic estimates suggest that dingoes got to Australia up to about 18,000 years ago, but there are no dingo bones earlier than about 4,000 years ago. Is it possible that they were in Australia for so long without leaving any traces?

Dingoes are prominent in the Indigenous culture of Australians and their mythology. However, dingoes and their ancestors were not marsupials like all other large-bodied mammal endemics to Australia. People have brought in every placental mammal in Australia, including horses, dogs, rabbits and cats. Unfortunately, many researchers who are trying to understand the origin of dogs dismiss dingoes as irrelevant. However, they are the only alternative story we have about the transformation of wild canids from dogs. The unique traits of dingoes are fascinating. Is it possible for them to climb up and manipulate objects with their feet so well? Why do they bark but not howl? Why do they only reproduce once a year, just like wolves, and mature slowly? Why are they so resistant when kept in captivity? What makes dingoes so different from dogs? Did it have to do with the way that the Indigenous Australians lived, which led to a different kind of domestication? As Adam Brumm, Loukas Koungoulus suggested. Is it the isolation from other canids. Was there something missing in the later canids that dingo ancestors had?

We take the origins of the species we love as a given. We need to ask more questions to truly understand what a dog looks like.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


    Pat Shipman has an M.A. She holds a M.A. in biological anthropology and a Ph.D. in biological anthropology from New York University. She is interested how humans and their ancestors fit together in their ecosystems. She has written more than 150 articles in popular science magazines and professional journals, in addition to three biographies and eleven science books.

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