Renouncing the Call of the Wild: the self-domestication of wolves

“The cub came upon it suddenly. It was his own fault. He had been careless… He went down past the blasted pine, crossed the open space, and trotted in amongst the trees. Then, at the same instant, he saw and smelt. Before him sitting silently on their haunches, were five live things, the like of which he had never seen before…”

White Fang

When the eponymous and lost little wolf cub with the white fangs stumbles upon a human campsite, it is in a time and a place in which man and dog are already symbiotic. Yet the scene that sees White Fang discover people, domesticated wolves, and fire all in one traumatising evening is representative of a long line of similar scenes that reaches back to life as a wolf in pre-domesticated times, and serves as a good introduction to talking about a really interesting, compelling idea: that the first steps toward the unique bond between humans and dogs were not taken by us. That we didn’t round them up, or encourage them in, or actively pursue them to capture cubs to keep and raise. That it was them, having initially been drawn by the consistent supply of scraps of food, who were intrigued, drawn to us, our fire, our voices. That actually the process of the domestication of wolves into dogs began as an act of cautious self-domestication by the wolves themselves through natural, not artificial, selection.

The theory, most championed by zoologist Raymond Coppinger, could be summarised as: the favouring by natural selection within successive generations of wolves of an ever-decreasing flight distance with regards to humans. To appropriate an analogy recruited by Richard Dawkins while explaining this theory in his book The Greatest Show On Earth (which is where I first encountered the idea, and which you should definitely read) – when watching an African savannah segment of a BBC Earth episode, or the real thing while on safari, you are likely to encounter what ought to be an unlikely scene. To see predator, competitor, and prey going about their business in full view of each other seems, particularly for the prey species, unnecessary, unsafe, foolish, making for a stressful mealtime. An antelope ear up and scanning in constant vigilance. A zebra’s wary eye flicking incessantly between what she eats and that by which she may be eaten. And beyond Africa and its savannahs, a scavenging wolf advancing, despite herself, toward that unnatural clearing, toward the ominous dwelling places, the inexplicably contained and controlled dancing pockets of heat and light, closer to the calls and howls of an animal that ought to send her running. Why face such risk and stress? Why suffer any proximity, however near or far, with something so perfectly dangerous?

Life in the wild hinges on weighing up costs and benefits, balancing risk with reward, and it is this which influences an animal’s flight distance – how close an animal will allow you to get before fleeing. The urge to take flight can be overridden by hunger or thirst. As humans became a more settled animal, with larger, long-term camps and proto-villages, a new food opportunity appeared for scavengers willing to risk proximity with people. Wolves are pack-hunters, but also scavenge, as most, if not all, hunters do. Scavenging food from the edges and outskirts of human settlements, wolves risked facing shouts, rocks, and spears, and most individuals, retaining a long flight distance, will have fled at the first sight or sound of people. But others, those that by genetic chance had a shorter flight distance, stuck around, dodging spears, suffering the odd blow from a stone, in order to continue to eat, surviving to out-compete those who played it safe and ran. Thus the optimal flight distance for wolves regarding humans began to shrink, setting the scene for something beyond pure antagonism.

Coppinger says that the word “tame” or “domesticated” could be defined as being able to comfortably eat in the presence of humans. As natural selection began to favour wild wolves who were willing to wander warily where no animal ever ought to, the most unlikely relationship, of two directly competing, hostile apex predator species, presenting real threat to one another, becoming increasingly comfortable in each other’s presence to the point of actual companionship, formed. Of course, the reality was not as romantic as it can be made to sound: humans will have dominated and broken many wolves into the master/servant relationship; the loving, family-member role of dogs today was a very distant, not actively sought after prospect, and; the whole thing certainly wouldn’t have happened if the selfish need for food had not brought them to the campsite’s edge in the first place. However, when romanticised or not, the idea is very plausible, possible and well-reasoned, on top of being an extremely appealing one. The idea that our strongest bond with any other species was not simply inflicted upon them by us, was not purely artificial selection, but began naturally, organically. That the first tentative steps toward deep, eventual friendship, informed by a self-interest in easy food as those steps may have been, were taken, willingly, by wolves.

“And yet he remained somehow different from other dogs. He knew the law even better than did the dogs that had known no other life, and he observed the law more punctiliously; but still there was about him a suggestion of lurking ferocity, as though the Wild still lingered… and the wolf in him merely slept.”

– White Fang


(Originally written for Trek-Eco Adventures, found here.)

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