Book review – The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved

The evolution of domestic dogs from wolves is something that has been written about a great deal. Seeing dogs are one of our oldest domesticates and very close to our hearts, there has been an intense interest in this subject. The First Domestication provides a new perspective by turning to a rich vein of knowledge that is often ignored by contemporary Western scientists: traditional stories from tribal and indigenous peoples. If the sound of that makes you roll your eyes – something I am normally much inclined to do – you would be missing out on an incredibly well-written book that deserves your full attention.

The First Domestication

The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved”, written by Raymond Pierotti and Brandy R Fogg, published by Yale University Press in January 2018 (hardback, 326 pages)

The story of dog evolution has come to be dominated by the idea that humans tamed wolves that were lurking around human camps and garbage dumps, hoping to scavenge scraps. Popularised by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger in Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution, this idea has been given airtime on popular science channels and the idea of humans dominating and controlling the human/wolf interaction has influenced scientists, as exemplified by Francis’s 2015 book Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World.

In their superb introduction, Pierotti and Fogg lay out both their critique of this school of thought and their contribution. Throughout the book, they are very critical of the Coppinger’s work, pointing out many flaws, inconsistencies, and the hallmarks of a troubling post-colonial, Western bias that sets humans apart from, and often in opposition to, nature. Interestingly, their critique does not mention the Coppinger’s more recent 2015 book What Is a Dog?, where the Coppinger’s continue their idea of dogs evolving as scavengers of human refuse.

The authors raise some very interesting points that are hard to argue with. First, there is the confusion over the status of wolves and dogs, which has not been helped by Linneaus’s unfortunate decision to consider them separate species. They are not. Dogs are domesticated wolves. Or, as the authors put it, all dogs are wolves, but not all wolves are dogs. This taxonomic misconception has fueled further misunderstandings, such as the idea that there would have been only a single origin of domestic dogs, with new forms being reproductively isolated from one another. The fact that hybridization between wolves and dogs is common runs counter to this. Rather, Pierotti’s assertion that the evolutionary history of dogs resembles a complex mosaic rather than a simple tree, is far more likely. This rings especially true in light of recent findings on human evolution, summarised in Harris’s Ancestors in Our Genome: The New Science of Human Evolution and my recent review of Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past. It will be interesting to see what will be revealed once scientists start analysing ancient DNA, i.e. DNA of archaeological remains, of dogs.

“[…] Linneaus’s unfortunate decision to consider [wolves and dogs] separate species […] has fueled further misunderstandings […]”

Examining traditional indigenous knowledge and stories about wolves in Japan, laiki (a primitive dog breed) in Siberia, dingoes in Australia, but especially wolves in native America, Pierotti and Fogg instead argue that humans and wolves coevolved, mutually cooperating. Pat Shipman’s views, summarised in her book The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, are especially fascinating in this context.

Native Americans have always revered wolves. Their stories and legends of humans and wolves living and hunting together are not mere fancy, and are backed up by historical records of colonists and settlers (the fact that I mention these records as substantiating material no doubt betrays my own Western-scientist bias in the eyes of Pierotti and Fogg). For a long time, these wolves were wild, but, as the authors put it, socialized to humans rather than tamed. Indigenous people do not distinguish between wolves and dogs, whereas Europeans considered everything living with humans to be a domestic dog. They could not conceive of the free-spirited bond between wolves and humans.

This clarifies much of the arguing in the literature over archaeological remains. Are they wolves or are they dogs? When did wolves change into domestic dogs? We only have morphological measurements to try and answer these questions. The revolutionary Russian fox study of Belyaev and Trut showed how rapid artificial selection can produce a suite of changes, including morphological (see Dugatkin & Trut’s fascinating book How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution, reviewed here). However, indigenous people likely never applied such rigorous pressure on wolf cubs. Socialized hunting companions would have been more than sufficient, and such behavioural changes can rapidly occur without accompanying morphological changes.

“[…] A lot of traditional indigenous knowledge is tainted by Western re-interpretation, romanticizing, and New Age nonsense. Pierotti and Fogg thankfully are not guilty of this […]”

The final section of the book looks at contemporary interactions with wolves. As a European, it is easy to forget just how much sheer hatred there is for wolves amongst large parts of the human population, especially in the US. Most of us will have been spoon-fed the clichés of the big bad wolf in fairytales, the scary bedtime stories of werewolves, etc. Once the Roman Catholic Church started demonising animals such as wolves and bears (see also Pastoreau’s The Bear: History of a Fallen King), European shamanic traditions disappeared. And when European colonists reached the Americas a veritable wildlife holocaust ensued and shaped attitudes for centuries to come.

Other than the well-documented controversies around wolf reintroductions, these attitudes also affect dogs that look like wolves, such as Belgian sheepdogs, huskies, Alaskan malamutes and other little-known breeds. US legislation means that any incident between humans and such dogs can spell trouble for the owner, but especially the dog. Pierotti, whose expertise has often been called upon in court, is very dismissive here of the work and knowledge of so-called wolf experts (his words) such as Erich Klinghammer’s Wolf Park, as well as some scientists. They can’t tell apart these dog breeds and wild wolves, and have no inkling of their complex evolutionary history. Unfortunately, they often advise in court cases on whether or not such “wolves” should be put down.

The First Domestication turned out far more interesting, relevant, and convincing than I thought it would be. A lot of traditional indigenous knowledge is tainted by Western re-interpretation, romanticizing, and New Age nonsense. Pierotti and Fogg thankfully are not guilty of this, skewering a few such examples in the process, and their arguments are persuasive and well written. If you are interested in dogs, wolves and their origins, this book is required reading, especially if you have previously read or heard the Coppinger’s take on dog evolution. I have several of below books on my shelves, though I have not yet read them, and this book will no doubt provide interesting context when I do get around to them.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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The First Domestication hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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