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No, Your Dog Is Not a Barking Exemplar of Macroevolution

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Dogs are yet another evolutionary icon that Jonathan Wells, perhaps in his next book, could handily leash and take for a walk. The idea expressed by Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and others is that the descent from a common ancestor with wolves demonstrates not only the power of artificial selection, but by extension that of natural selection to sculpt brand new animals. In other words, your pooch is a barking exemplar of macroevolution.

One problem with this, among others, is that the virtue we value most in our dogs – the ability to form relationships with humans – appears to be no product of their evolution. At least it did not evolve from scratch. Dogs have it, but so, in their way, do wolves.

Here’s the tentative conclusion of research published in Royal Society Open Science, based on a limited sample of ten wolf cubs raised and cared for by humans as we would dogs, complete with “daily walks on leashes, cuddling, grooming, etc.”:

[W]e demonstrated that human-raised wolves can develop an individualized relationship with their human raisers which may not include attachment to and dependency on this person but which, at least before the sexual maturation of the animals, is characterized with a higher level of affiliation with the foster parent than with other closely familiar humans. Finally, we confirmed that intensive socialization and hand rearing result in general affinity towards humans.

This “affinity” may be more developed in dogs, which is to be expected, but it sounds like the seed is present in wolves. That would suggest it characterized the wild common ancestor of both dogs and wolves that existed 15,000 years ago.

From the story about this at Gizmodo:

[S]cientists have also documented some behavioral similarities between dogs and wolves. When greeting each other, for instance, wolves like to lick each others’ faces—a trait that’s all too familiar to dog owners. Wolves are also capable of following a person’s gaze into space, and they understand gestures like finger pointing (not even chimps can do this).

Given these similarities, [researcher Dorottya] Ujfalussy sought to learn more about the kinds of relationship that wolves, when socialized to humans, can have with their human caretakers. A primary aim of the study was to figure out what makes dogs so unique in their relationship with humans, and where their traits may have originated. Ultimately, Ujfalussy was trying to learn if dog behaviors were already present in ancestral wolves, or if they’re a product of domestication and artificial selection. This new research suggests the former may be true. [Emphasis added.]

The wolves were not found to be dependent on humans, as dogs are. But this is unsurprising. As geneticist Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig has described, the “evolution” of dogs from wolves “represents no increase in [biological] information but rather a decrease or loss of function on the genetic and anatomical levels” (as we reported here at Evolution News, see “The Dog Delusion”). Meaning no disrespect to them and certainly no lack of affection, but dogs are dependent because they are, in a sense, “degenerate” wolves.

A wolf is an apex predator, at home in a wild environment where your typical dog could not survive long or at all. In evolutionary terms, it’s a long step down. This explains, if you follow the interesting neighborhood-based social networking app Nextdoor, the constant refrain of panicked dog owners notifying everyone to be on the lookout for their lost pets. Even in a sheltered suburban context, dogs aren’t safe on their own.

In short, what’s most precious about them was likely there in the pre-dog ancestor. The rest was bred through loss of fitness. All of which is the opposite of what people typically mean when they talk about evolution.

I know, I know – some of this sounds unkind to them. But we love dogs just the same. They are our best friend. What they are not is a legitimate mascot for evolutionary advocates.

Photo credit: © koszivu — stock.adobe.com.