“Dogs make us human.”

[Warning: The following may piss off all the cat people who read this blog. I am about to make the claim that all humans are, at heart, dog people. Please keep all pet-speciesist vitriol to a minimum in the comments.]

Near the end of Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin uses an Aborigine saying: “Dogs make us human.” She presents a very interesting bunch of evidence of just how right this saying seems to be. 

But a study by Robert K. Wayne and his colleagues at UCLA of DNA variability in dogs found that dogs had to have diverged from wolves as a separate population 135,000 years ago. The reason the fossil record doesn’t show any dogs with humans before 14,000 years ago is probably that before then people were partnered with wolves, or with wolves that were evolving into dogs. Sure enough, fossil records do show lots of wolf bones close to human bones before 100,000 years ago.

If Dr. Wayne is right, wolves and people were together at the point when homo sapiens had just barely evolved from homo erectus. When wolves and humans first joined together people only had a few rough tools to their name, and they lived in very small nomadic bands that probably weren’t any more socially complicated than a band of chimpanzees…

This means that when wolves and people first started keeping company they were on a lot more equal footing than dogs and people are today. Basically, two different species with complementary skills teamed up together, something that had never happened before and has really never happened since.

Going over all the evidence, a group of Australian anthropologists believes that during all those years when early humans were associating with wolves they learned to act and think like wolves. Wolves hunted in groups; humans didn’t. Wolves had loyal same-sex and nonkin friendships; humans probably didn’t, judging by the lack of same-sex and nonkin friendships in every other primate species today. (The main relationship for chimpanzees is parent-child.) Wolves were highly territorial; humans probably weren’t – again, judging by how nonterritorial all other primates are today.

By the time these early people became truly modern, they had learned to do all these wolfie things. When you think about how different we are from other primates, you see how doglike we are. A lot of the things we do that the other primates don’t are dog things. The Australian group thinks it was the dogs who showed us how.

They take their line of reasoning even further. Wolves, and then dogs, gave early humans a huge survival advantage, they say, by serving as lookouts and guards, and by making it possible for humans to hunt big game in groups instead of hunting small prey as individuals. Given everything wolves did for early man, dogs were probably the big reason why early man survived and Neanderthals didn’t. Neanderthals didn’t have dogs.

But dogs didn’t just help people stay alive long enough to reproduce. Dogs also made it possible for humans to pull ahead of all their primate cousins. Paul Tacon, principal research scientist at the Australian Museum, says that the development of human friendship “was a tremendous survival advantage because that speeds up the exchange of ideas between groups of people.” All cultural evolution is based on cooperation, and humans learned from dogs how to cooperate with people they aren’t related to.

Maybe the most amazing new finding is that wolves didn’t just teach us a lot of useful new behaviors. Wolves probably also changed the structure of our brains. Fossil records show that whenever a species becomes domesticated its brain gets smaller. The horse’s brain shrank by 16 percent; the pig’s brain shrank as much as 34 percent; and the dogs’s brain shrank 10 to 30 percent. This probably happened because once humans started to take care of these animals, they no longer needed various brain functions in order to survive. I don’t know what functions they lost, but I do know all domestic animals have reduced fear and anxiety compared to wild animals.

Now archaeologists have discovered that 10,000 years ago, just at the point when humans began to give their dogs formal burials, the human brain began to shrink, too. It shrank by 10 percent, just like the dog’s brain. And what’s interesting is what part of the human brain shrank. In all of the domestic animals the forebrain, which holds the frontal lobes, and corpus callosum, which is the connecting tissue between the two sides of the brain, shrank. But in humans it was the midbrain, which handles emotions and sensory data, and the olfactory bulbs, which handle smell, that got smaller while the corpus callosum and the forebrain stayed pretty much the same. Dog brains and human brains specialized: humans took over the planning and organizing tasks, and dogs took over the sensory tasks. Dogs and people coevolved and became even better partners, allies, and friends.

-Grandin, 304-306

Isn’t that cool? What else could this mean? I wonder how this squares with werewolf literature. Do tales of werewolves show humans who truly seem to have more wolfie characteristics, like a further push extension of the process described above? I don’t know; I haven’t read much werewolf fiction. Probably not, which clearly means that someone should write a more plausible werewolf story. I wonder where the idea of werewolves came from. Maybe it has more of a historical basis than we might have thought.

In any case, I now really, really want a dog again.

Previous Animals in Translation-related entries are:
* (4/17/07) First Sight and Inattentional Blindness
* (5/14/07) Visual vs. Verbal Ways of Thinking


3 Responses to “Dogs make us human.”

  1. TheGnat says:

    I’d just like the evidence that humans didn’t hunt in groups. I’m not disagreeing with the idea wholesale, most of it pans out from my knowledge of anthropology. But my particular favorite topic is hunter-gatherers and foragers. So I’m wondering what evidence they have to support that early humans didn’t work in groups. Primates stick in groups, and most evidence that I know about at least points to humans working in groups.

    Also, yes I am a cat person.

  2. Electra says:

    Um, I don’t know why being a cat person would influence our emotional take on this post…
    That being said, I would want to read the whole book and more about the studies that gave evidence to extrapolate that wolves taught those social skills and relationships.

    Right now, I’m reading Dogs Never Lie About Love by Jeffrey Masson, and it talks about the contrasts between the wolves of today and the dogs (selectively bred by humans) of today, and their relationship with humans. While he hasn’t said the things you’ve said above, there are enough similarities between his collected research and the hypothesis above. Wolves are really smart, and have that awareness and problem-solving trait. Also, they live in about the same habitats that humans do — all over the world.

    However, it would have been very interesting relationships – the ones between wolves and humans – because its not too hard for a wolf to learn to live in a human society, but its very difficult for a human to live in a wolf society. They have strong rules of behavior, and an individual steps out of line, there are serious consequences like physical injury, severe lessening of hierarchical standing, or exile. People who are devoted to learning about and understanding wolves can live among them, but very precariously. Wolves can live with humans (if they are exposed to them during the conditioning phase during puppy-hood) pretty well so long as humans respect their independence and intelligence, and the fact that they could decide to change the human-wolf relationship whenever they see the opportunity. (There’s a case study of wolf caretakers where the handler had injured his leg before entering the kennel and the wolf sensed that he was weak enough to be overcome and attacked, after years and years of dog-like friendliness.)

    If the extrapolations you mention are correct, it must have been an interesting shift between humans likely supplicating wolf help by respecting them and learning from them to selectively breeding for neotony so that our relationship changed from equal companions to the owner-pet relationship that predominantly is present today.

    That being said, even if a relationship with wolves and our mutual domestication shaped the way humans think, I don’t think it makes all humans dog-people. After all, you only need a few dog handlers in a community to reap the benefit of the advantage dogs give to survival. While the entire community could come to rely on the wolfdogs to do the sensing and take over thinking, you wouldn’t need every menber of the community to have rapport with the wolfdog for it to work.


    I’m a cat person because I understand cats as a species and as individuals more than I understand dogs. I know how cats relate to me, and how I can relate to them. With dogs, I don’t quite know what to do with them.
    Unless they’re really savvy dogs. Then we’re good buddies.

  3. TheGnat says:

    Electra was so much more insightful than me. It’s true though, you’d only need a few handlers. Most societies delegate work. In many societies, only a few are in charge of religious things, a few deal with plants, a few with child rearing, a few with hunting. These often overlap, but I at least can easily see how dog handling would become a special role, like religious leadership and hunting.

    And just because she said why she’s a cat-person, I’ll say why I am: with cats, I have to earn their rescpect and love. Dogs just sort of hand it to you unless you do something to make them not adore you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: