It’s hard to imagine human life without dogs. An entire culture around the human-dog relationship has existed right along with us every step of the way. Whether it is Hachiko or Laika or Toto, the loyalty and friendship of canines has been a cause for celebration for thousands of years.
However, 30,000 years ago, dogs did not even exist, yet now we have over 400 species of dogs. Surely, you’ve already started thinking, “EVOLUTION, OBVIOUSLY!” in your head… but just wait. Be patient and hear me out. The evolution of dogs is a particularly special case that deserves some extra attention.
FROM WOLVES, WITH LOVE
Let’s rewind 30,000 years or so to understand this better. Back then, the Earth was going through a truly brutal Ice Age, which was drowning every contour of the land beneath white pristine sheets of ice. Our ancestors in that Age lived a precarious nomadic life, hunting and scavenging for food wherever they could – struggling to survive. They traveled in small groups, fighting against the harsh wilderness to live. Unlike now, humans at that point in history competed with other carnivores, like lions and bears, for their food, and prey was getting more scarce as the weather worsened. One of these competitors was the wolf.
Wolves not only competed with humans for the same resources, but also posed a threat to the weak and the young among human clans and tribes. However, the wolves soon realized that human camps, unlike the wild, were littered with bones and chunks of meat. We humans have never been particularly elegant carnivores. Most wild wolves avoided these human feasts because their fear overpowered their hunger, due to the release of stress hormones in their bodies. Some wolves, however, due to random natural variation, had lower levels of stress hormones and were more trusting of human beings. They took advantage of the easy food available around humans by appearing and acting non-threatening. Thus, the human-wolf symbiotic relationship began.
It was a great survival strategy for these “tame” wolves, because they ate in abundance and gave birth to offspring that reinforced their domestic tendencies. This new generation of wolves understood and accepted their dependence on humans. Humans benefitted from the alliance as well; wolves are territorial animals, so once they were initiated into human tribes, the wolves became protective of their human “partners”. Humans also discovered that wolves could be trained for hunting and company. Humans continuously meddled with the natural selection of these wolves, breeding only those wolves that displayed favorable traits and killing off those that appeared dangerous. It was through this long and gradual process that the first dogs were born! Basically, it was humans, not nature, that stimulated the evolution of the imposing Wolf to the adorable Dog.
Evolution that occurs naturally happens in a very different way than selective breeding controlled by humans. Let’s take the polar bear, for example. When a bear living in the polar region received a random mutation that gave her white fur, she was able to survive better than the other bears. Her mutation was passed onto her offspring, who similarly outlived their brown-coated bear generation. This process repeated over and over again, thereby establishing the icy reign of polar bears. Nature takes billions of years of random mutations to chip away the unnecessary traits in newer environs, but humans can do it in a few dozen generations.
Of course, this is because we humans don’t have billions of years to wait. Therefore, we started controlled breeding of those animals that pleased us, providing us with the range of domesticated animals we have today. However, at some point, the owning of dogs surpassed their functional purpose and became a much more aesthetic one. With the new-found knowledge of Evolution and Eugenics in the 19th century, dog breeding was monitored even further, almost fanatically so, in order to create the pure-bred dogs that we know today. Nature did not give us pure-breeds, but human experimentation sure did! Unfortunately, this experimentation of in-breeding to maintain a pure bloodline of dogs has led to several problems for these animals, and has even been fatal. Don’t believe me? Watch this hilarious CollegeHumor video that discusses this point even further.
It’s clear that pure-bred dogs are riddled with genetic problems, and yet people still spend thousands of dollars on a pure-bred, as though pure-bred pet ownership is directly related to happiness.
Given that we want our dogs to be happy and healthy, adopting a healthy mutt is often a better option than buying a pure-breed!
- Origin Of The Domestic Dog – Wikipedia
- Discover Magazine
- Study Narrows Origin of Dogs – Cornell Chronicle (Cornell University)