Book review – The Wolf Within: The Astonishing Evolution of the Wolf into Man’s Best Friend

DNA recovered from archaeological remains, so-called ancient DNA, has caused a revolution in our understanding of human evolution (see my review of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past). In my review of The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved, I wondered what analyses of ancient DNA would reveal about the domestication of dogs from wolves. I have not had to wait long to find out. Geneticist Bryan Sykes here tells that story, and how man’s best friend subsequently radiated into today’s riot of breeds.

The Wolf Within

The Wolf Within: The Astonishing Evolution of the Wolf into Man’s Best Friend“, written by Bryan Sykes, published in Europe by William Collis (a Harper Collins imprint) in October 2018 (hardback, 290 pages)

Sykes starts off with an interesting revelation: unlike most authors of dog books, he is actually not much of a dog person. Researching and writing this book has helped him overcome some childhood fears and appreciate them more, however. Although he initially casts the forebears of humans and wolves as mortal enemies, he is quick to put his cards on the table: our shared history is not one of humans subjugating wolves, but that of coevolution and mutual cooperation.

In that sense, his thinking is in line with Pierotti & Fogg’s ideas (see my review of The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved). He also highlights Pat Shipman’s thesis of our domestication of dogs being a factor in driving Neanderthals extinct (see The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction). And, though not mentioning names, it is clear whom he refers to when he mentions that he does not think much of the idea of wolves self-domesticating by scavenging on human refuse (this is spearheaded by the Coppingers, see their Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution and What Is a Dog?).

So what does ancient DNA reveal? Well, unfortunately it has not yet shed much light on which of the above scenarios is more likely. But it has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the wolf is the dog’s ancestor, and is the only one (Darwin himself wondered if other canids such as jackals might have been involved). And evidence so far is pointing to Eastern Europe between 32,000 to 19,000 years ago as the cradle of this process.

“[…] our shared history is not one of humans subjugating wolves, but that of coevolution and mutual cooperation.”

Interestingly, it seems that the ancestors of Native Americans migrated into the Americas from Asia together with these transitional wolf-dogs in tow, rather than domesticating American wolves. Although Sykes alludes to the ancient DNA work having yielded many other fascinating insights, he does not go into them here. Instead, the book continues with (informed and clearly sign-posted) speculation about human-wolf cooperation based on archaeology and indigenous stories, before moving on to the emergence of modern breeds, the rise of pedigree breeding and studbooks at the end of the 1800s, the risks of inbreeding in pedigree dogs, and the sequencing of the dog genome, which was published in 2005.

This is interspersed with chapters explaining the technical details, such as the basics of DNA, how it can be analysed to provide information about relatedness, as well as the genetic details of sexual reproduction (how genetic variation is produced by chromosomes exchanging chunks of DNA when sperm and eggs are formed, i.e. homologous recombination during meiosis, or the relevance of mutations in germ-line versus somatic cells). And, as is appropriate given the topic, there is a short chapter on the legendary work of Dmitri Belyaev who showed how rapidly foxes can be domesticated (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).

Up to this point I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Sure, I would have liked to read more about what ancient DNA has revealed, but transitioning into the topic of the genetics of modern breeds is also relevant to the book’s narrative of how the dog ended up as man’s best friend. Sykes’s writing is thoroughly enjoyable and he paces the book nicely, spreading it out over 22 short chapters and 185 pages.

“Sykes’s observation that the wolf is virtually absent from cave paintings is interesting. […] Detractors might argue that there was no wolf-human cooperation […] “

But then the book radically changes gears. Chapter 23 sprawls out over 60 pages and contains transcripts of numerous interviews Sykes’s wife had with dog owners, highlighting how strong the bond between humans and dogs is. As someone who has grown up around dogs, I found many of the stories both recognisable and amusing, but I also found the transition between this chapter and the rest of the book rather jarring. Personally, I would have selected a number of these interviews and sprinkled them as vignettes throughout the book.

There were a few other places where I raised my eyebrows. Sykes’s observation that the wolf is virtually absent from cave paintings is interesting. But his argument that “it is as if the taboo our ancestors felt about creating a human image also extended to the wolf” is not very convincing to me. Detractors could easily jump on this observation to argue that a more parsimonious explanation is that there was no wolf-human cooperation the way Sykes envisions. Similarly, he brings up the (in)famous story of the trophic cascades that resulted from wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park, a story that went viral with the George Monbiot-narrated YouTube clip. This is a hotly contested story that many consider an oversimplification (see also my review of Effective Conservation Science: Data Not Dogma), with some pointing out that other animals are likely to be important contributors (e.g. beavers, see my review of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter).

All this makes for a slightly uneven book – some chapters seem to have been placed rather haphazardly and the chapter with interviews feels superfluous. Overall though, these flaws are outweighed by the fascinating topic. And when Sykes is on form, he is really captivating. I especially appreciated how he righted many misconceptions around genetics and topics such as cloning. For dog people and those interested in evolution or domestication this is recommended reading.

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

You can support this blog using below affiliate links, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases:

The Wolf Within paperback, hardback, ebook or audiobook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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