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God Made Wolves but Sapiens Made Dogs

How humans and dogs evolved to help each other

My dog and I | Photo by Molli Kirkpatrick

Relative to the age of the planet, dogs are new additions on Earth. Charles Darwin initially believed dogs were part of the genus Canis, which includes a variety of wolf-like animals (wolves, jackals, coyotes). New DNA information from archaeological digs, however, points to just one progenitor of dogs: the gray wolf.

The oldest remnant of dog DNA goes back to a Belgian cave a mere 31,700 years ago. In his groundbreaking book Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari describes the “cognitive revolution” Homo sapiens experienced about 70,000 years ago, after assimilating to (or being replaced by) other hominin tribes like Neanderthals and Denisovans. During this period, early humans developed abstract thinking and reasoning abilities that radically altered their interactions with themselves and the world.

Pridefully enough, we later named ourselves “the wise ones” (“sapiens”).

Gray wolves. Photo: Arne von Brill/flickr/CC BY 2.0

Children of the wolf mother

If we look back at history, it appears God created the wolf but man made the dog.

By “God,” I mean many things: the Big Bang, the One, the energies that intelligently designed the universe. Wolves were there from the beginning — or what we perceive as the beginning. Since the dawn of humanity, Homo Sapiens feared wolves, and wolves have feared Homo sapiens’ fire.

At some point, a mother wolf died and left her cubs unprotected. Homo Sapiens brought her wolf cubs into their circle of fire. The wolf cubs, raised under the command of Homo Sapiens, began to change. Over generations, they evolved genetic mutations that made them markedly different from their ancestors.

Darwin called these ever-so-slight genetic mutations “sports.” Today, scientists call them pathological mutations. They were due, in part, to the fact that these young wolves no longer lived in the wild but under the care and feeding of human hunter-gatherers. Soon, they began to develop new traits.

The morphology of breeds took only 10 or so generations, and humans encouraged interbreeding. The mutations that turned wolves into dogs were ever so slight. For instance, all smaller dog breeds carry the IGF1 gene (the insulin-like growth hormone factor 1). This is the only significant difference in genetic makeup between the world’s small dogs and the gray wolf.

How dogs became helpers

Homo sapiens raised, bred, and loved the offspring of the wolves — animals they’d once feared. This turns man’s creation of dogs into a gold-standard myth: The dog is a result of fear transformed into love. And that’s a reassuring thought in chaotic and confusing times. The transformation reflects the goodness of man’s imagination and discipline.

The dog is a result of fear transformed into love.

When we were hunter-gatherers, these newly-domesticated dogs became our helpers. They led us to food. Later, when humankind fell under the spell of the aroma of wheat during the agricultural revolution, dogs were bred into herders and trained to keep their eyes and short legs on sheep, cattle, and goats.

The bond deepens

According to recent studies at the University of Helsinki, at some point along the way, a physiological bond emerged between humans and their dogs. Their emotional connection became even richer.

When we look into the eyes of a dog, the hormone oxytocin is released into our bloodstream. It gives us humans a sense of warmth and affection. And when a dog sees a human smile, oxytocin is released into its bloodstream as well. We don’t necessarily need to give Fido or Rover a treat when they do a good deed or trick; our smile, according to the study, is rewarding enough.

In light of this information, it’s worthwhile to look at a classic moment from Walt Disney’s production of Greyfriars Bobby. In it, three-year-old Bobby (a Skye Terrier) is rewarded for his obedience time and again with a smile from his shepherd-master.

One of the most touching pieces of early evidence for the bond between humans and dogs is contained in the famous Chauvet Cave, in the south of France. There, we find human art that dates back 23,000 years. During the excavation, researchers found the footprints of a child overlaid with the footprints of a dog. By the track marks, the researchers surmised that the dog’s tracks were slightly later than the child’s; that is, the dog was following the child. Or the child was leading the dog.

The excavation also revealed low torch-smears on the cave walls running adjacent to the foot and paw tracks. It would seem, then, that the child and dog were walking into the dark of a cave together, protected by the light of a torch.

Every man and his dog

What does all this mean? It boils down to this: What we once feared we transformed by love and imagination. When we look at a dog, we see the best in ourselves. Though we feared wolves, we did not hide from them. Instead, we trained their cubs to love us.

In my view, this is one of the most sparkling examples of co-evolution. Man and dog grew up together, helping each other change and grow along with the world. Science’s newest findings on DNA, oxytocin, and walking side-by-side point toward a very positive view of humankind. There is so much divisiveness in our modern world; our enduring connection with dogs is a bright spot.

When we look at a dog, we see the best in ourselves.

Culture comes from the Latin word colere, to cultivate — to grow and shape life. Our culture is neither forest nor jungle. Instead, our culture is a garden. And from civilization’s garden, we transformed those dark nightshade tubers into potatoes that fed the world and wolves into dogs that, every day, show us their amazing unconditional love.

When we look at a dog, we don’t just see a furry friend. We see an adopted child.

Photo: Mike Burke/Unsplash

David Paul Kirkpatrick

Written by

Co-founder of MIT Center for Future Storytelling, President of Paramount Pictures, Production Chief of Walt Disney Studios, optimist, author and teacher.

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