Saturday, April 16, 2011

Man's best friend

At the end of the last Ice Age, Paleolithic foragers forged lasting bonds with wild wolves and started the process of genetic alteration in the animals that would culminate in the creation of man's best friend, the domestic dog.  The domestication of the dog likely occurred independently at multiple locations and occasions during prehistory and some argue that this process was actually one of codomestication, with humans also changed by the relationship.  It seems that early man, as we still do today, saw benefits in keeping dogs around, whether as beasts of burden, hunting assistants, as sources of food and fur, or simply as companions.  We see in the current legacy of domestic dog breeds a great diversity of traits, which can be molded to the will of breeders through artificial selection.  In this ability to consciously manipulate the genomic composition of other species, humans are perhaps unique.  In the genetic imposition of certain traits on dogs, aggression, docility, neoteny, etc., humans reveal certain qualities of their own nature.

A Maltese dog

The Maltese dog is not a creature that could exist naturally.  Just about every trait that was bred into these dogs would be a detriment to their survival without human assistance.  Their size would make them a choice meal for larger predators.  They have been bred for docility and friendliness, likely at the loss for behavioral traits beneficial to solo or pack hunting.  A Maltese that escapes or otherwise becomes separated from its owner's care will not last long in the harsh reality of the natural world.  Assuming it makes it past the automotive gauntlet into a natural area, it would only be a matter of time before it is picked off by a bird of prey or other carnivore.  Even it it manages to elude predation, its stubby legs and cuddly nature preclude its ability to capture food.  These dogs are an abomination of nature, yet humans see enough value in their traits to continue investing resources into sustaining their existence.

The Maltese was bred for a docile and gentle temperament that would prohibit its existence in the natural world without human intervention.  The Cordoba Fighting Dog, on the other hand, is a bred for traits on the opposite extreme of the aggression spectrum.  An amalgamation of the Mastiff, Bull Terrier, Boxer, and Old English Bulldog, the Cordoba was bred to dominate the dog fighting pit.  The dogs were selected to display extreme intraspecific aggression, so extreme that the males and females of the breed would rather fight than mate.  It is reported that the dogs were capable of hunting in male and female duos, but larger packs would suffer from infighting.  A combination of deaths in the pit and reluctance to mate led to the breed's extinct status (although Wikipedia confusingly notes that a number of the breed continues to exist in small numbers in Argentina).  The Cordoba, like the Maltese, was bred for such extreme behavior that its ability to survive was brought into question. 

A video about the Belyaev Silver Fox domestication experiment, which has led to insights into the nature of the relationship between man and the domestic dog.

For many domestic breeds, man has imposed a genetic leash that prevents the animals from surviving without man's assistance.  It should be noted that many breeds are capable of going feral and thriving, for example the Australian dingo.  However, these breeds are often the ones that more closely resemble the phenotype of their wild ancestors than that of toy dog breeds.  Man's plant and animal domesticates are reliant on our intervention for their survival, and so are we reliant on them to a large extent.  Our complex and densely populated societies are sustained by a relatively small number (on the scale of global biodiversity) of domesticates.  Some of these domesticates, such as maize, wheat, and rice, occupy disproportionally important roles in agriculture.  Domestication has clearly played an important role in determining the developmental trajectory of domesticated plants and animals as well as man.  We know now of many effects that pets can have on the lives of pet owners, for example, pet owners enjoy a number of health benefits.  How much do you think the behavior that we have bred into our domesticated animals affects our own?


  1. You make an important point in your last sentence: the domestication of species affects both the domesticator and domesticated. According to animal behaviorist Temple Grandin when man domesticated the wolf into the dog, we shrank the size of their brains through in breading. Dogs need less intelligence than their wild counterparts due to their easier lifestyles and breading towards physical traits of beauty, size, and shape. Similarly our brains may have shrank as a result, as our ancestors could now hunt with the sensory systems of dogs as aids. Evolutionary pressure would have made us forget more critical survival instincts that were unnecessary due to the domestication of foreign species.

  2. Humans no longer need to fear other predators besides other humans. We have developed into a society that seeks control over all situations. Instead of embracing the natural order, we create a routine that is based off of productivity and predictability. This has spilled into aspects of all living organisms, which is brought out by years of evolution, as some traits are favored more than others. As mentioned above, we too have become domesticated and thereby limited by what we can do. I would like to believe that I could fare in the wild much better than a Maltese dog but I know it would be marginal. As Survivorman and Man vs. Wild demonstrate, our instincts to survive are no longer genetic gifts but something we have to re-cultivate.


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