The Austin Chronicle

Does This Relationship Have a Future?

If dogs aren’t welcome on the Starship, I’m not going either

By Nick Barbaro, February 16, 2018, Features

We all have a rough sense of how the wolf became the dog. At some point in our past, the more adventurous and sociable members of a wolf pack decided that the bipeds' campfires looked pretty inviting, and as they gradually learned to be more friendly and cooperative with humans, humans learned that they could do useful work – hunting, hauling, guarding, herding – and the rest is (pre) history.

Now that we humans are in the technological age, and reaching for the stars, working dogs seem something of a novelty, and futurists – whether in hard sciences or science fiction – don't seem to see any role for our canid friends. As someone whose ancestors evolved alongside my dog Hank's, I find that deeply troubling.

Evolution, Part I

Consider the dog. Canis lupus familiaris, the "household wolf canid," carries much of the same genetic mix as Canis lupus lup­us, the Eurasian Gray Wolf. In fact, most recent genetic and archaeological evidence suggests that dogs and wolves continued to interbreed ever since they split off sometime in the last 50,000 years. (That interbreeding has continued so consistently, up to current-day wolf hybrids, that some scientists disagree with this taxonomy altogether, and insist that the two should be considered different breeds of the same species.)

In any case, as more evidence accumulates, that domestication date has become fuzzier. It used to be thought that the first wolves began coming into human campfires and becoming dogs just about 10,000 years ago, as the Neolithic Period turned humans from hunter-gatherers to herders, farmers, and trash producers. In other words, after humans became more successful, we could afford to share our bounty with the more sociable wolves, who rather quickly adapted to this easier life and – selecting for sociability and working skills that made them useful to these very successful bipeds – evolved into modern dogs.

But again, as more archaeological and genetic evidence piles up, it appears that the "domestication event" happened much earlier, and likely many different times over many millennia. Dogs – or dog-wolves, with the telltale signs of shortened snout and cranium, smaller teeth, and a less robust physique – have been found buried with humans in sites as much as 30,000 years old, and there could be older sites that we'll never see, because sea levels were 420 feet lower back then, during the end of the Ice Age. That pushes the evolution of the dog back to almost the beginning of the Upper Paleo­lith­ic Period, perhaps to the very beginning of Homo sapiens' behavioral modernity – the dawning, we imagine, of human consciousness.

As soon as humans began to really think – to develop an ego to go with the id that was always there – we also developed language, art, religion, a broad range of implements, and a working relationship with another species that lived, in many ways, the same way we did. And since the very beginning of human modernity, we have evolved along with those sociable dog-wolves, from pack-hunting nomads, to specialized workers (collaborating in field and stream, land and sea), to relatively sophisticated urbanites (Hank has his favorite local restaurants, as do I; we both work at the Chronicle, and many days he's much more excited about coming to work than I am).

Evolution, Part II

Now we dream of evolving even further – into space, the final frontier. From Jules Verne to Neil deGrasse Tyson, from Star Trek in the Sixties, to Star Wars in every decade since then, popular culture has been fascinated with the possibility of spreading our species across the universe, evolving beyond our home planet. More recently, and more "seriously," Stephen Hawking has given our species 100 years to start moving off of this planet before we have fouled its capacity to support life as we know it.

And increasingly, as the realities of space travel become better understood, it has become clear that there's not going to be any Noah's Ark event as we leave our smoldering wreck of a planet behind, and set forth for the stars. Our departure, as Hawk­ing sees it (along with most all modern science and science fiction), is going to be more like Kal-El's escape from Krypton: a biological imperative to spread our own genetic code more widely, in a sterile vessel with scarcely any room for fuel and the essentials of life, let alone other organisms competing for oxygen. Certainly no room for dogs. And no need for them either: Their particular work skills have been made obsolete.

Laika, a Russian mongrel, was the first animal to orbit the Earth in 1957, but she was purely a test subject, and when her oxygen ran out, she became the first animal to die in space. Two other Moscow street dogs went up in 1960 and became the first animals to return from outer space alive, but that may have been the end of the road for canid space travel.

Dogs aren't good with technology; their major talent is in being able to read humans, and to learn to perform tasks for us – first physical, now increasingly emotional. But then, humans aren't really that good at advanced technology either; robots and computers are proving much more efficient than we are at just about every task imaginable. So I have to think that in the ranks of obsolete workers, we're not far behind our canid partners.

We evolved right along with dogs from our, and their, very beginnings. We've worked together from the start, and I have to question, if the future we're now envisioning has no place for dogs, whether it really has a place for humans.

The Post-Apocalyptic Option

There's one subgenre of futurism, though, that clearly sees a place for dogs, and that's the one that envisions a sort of second Dark Ages, where due to plague or nuclear war or ecological disaster or whatever, the human race loses its technological edge, and its position of dominance in the ecosystem.

And it's not surprising that, as human civilization regresses, so would our relationship with our canid partners. There could be both dogs and wolves in this kind of future, and how we relate with them depends largely on our own status. If humans are weak and scattered, wolves could make a comeback, and once again become our rivals as alpha predators. They're extremely adaptable hunters and scavengers, so it's no surprise that wolf packs are a present danger in settings such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road, to take just one example. But where humans retain their dominance, dogs maintain their role as our most useful working partners. Mad Max and his cattle dog, Dog, is the most prominent modern example (if you don't count Harlan Ellison's vicious black comedy A Boy and His Dog), but other examples abound, dating back at least to the early 1800s, when both Lord Byron and Mary Shelley wrote post-apocalyptic classics ("Dark­ness" and The Last Man) which featured dogs still faithful to their masters and their domesticated duties. Guard dogs, pack dogs, herding dogs – they all have a place in the milder visions of the post-apocalypse. To again take just one example, Doris Les­­sing's Story of Gen­er­al Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog takes us back to a future ice age, where the eponymous Ruff is as vitally useful a companion as his ancestors were to ours, a thousand generations prior. Times may be tough for us humans in this grim future, but if we stay strong, dogs will stick with us.

There are a lot of different futures out there, most of which haven't even been imagined yet. But whatever lies in store for us, it will be good to keep in mind that humans aren't human without the rest of our biological family – especially our closest evolutionary partner, the dog. So, am I saying we need a nuclear war to save humanity? Surely not. Let's just say that for now, for me, the score is Apocalypse 1, Stephen Hawk­ing 0.

A Timeline

The Middle Paleolithic period, 50,000-300,000 years ago, dates from the emergence of Homo sapiens, through its gradual replacement of the other surviving hominids, to the beginning of behavioral modernity: the emergence of language, art, religion, a wider variety of tools ... and the beginnings of a social relationship with canids.

The Upper Paleolithic period, 10,000-50,000 years ago, is the age of hunter-gatherers, rapidly growing more sophisticated and cooperative. It's also the end of the Ice Age. The Last Glacial Maximum peaked out around 27,000 years ago, and a rapid thawing began 20,000 years ago, causing a 420-foot rise in sea levels, transforming the global environment, and leading to the Pleistocene extinction event that wiped out most large mammal species, and left two apex predators across most of the globe: humans and wolves.

The Neolithic period began about 10,000 years ago with farming and herding, which led to permanent communities, and eventually land ownership, nation-states, and space travel.

Suggested Reading

Canine psychology, largely neglected for most of the 20th century, has flourished in the past dozen years. Here are a few highlights:

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (Temple Grandin, Catherine Johnson, 2006). A seminal work in the new wave of animal psychology; all else follows from this.

Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals (Temple Grandin, Catherine Johnson, 2010). They're not dumb beasts, but they don't think like us; we can all get along better if we understand that.

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think (Brian Hare, Vanessa Woods, 2013). Dogs aren't great at basic cognition tests, but they excel in reading human faces and verbal and nonverbal cues; they've adapted specifically to work with the most successful species around.

Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (Alexandra Horowitz, 2009). Dogs seem to understand us pretty well, but the way they see the world is very different from the way we do. A lively mix of scientific data and personal observation of her own "two large, highly sniffy dogs."

Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell (Alexandra Horowitz, 2016). It's all about the nose: how they sniff, how they store odors, how they make sense of the world.

How the Dog Became the Dog: From Wolves to Our Best Friends (Mark Derr, 2011). Following the evolutionary past, Derr argues that the dog has been innate within canids since time immemorial.

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