The Hobbesian myth that life “in the state of nature” is “solitary, nasty, brutish and short” is one that simply cannot stand in the face of anthropological evidence. As we have seen again and again, while wild humans certainly do not live in the perfect, idealistic utopias of Rousseauian fantasy, their ways of life do enjoy the benefit of being the pattern of life to which two million years of evolution have adapted the human animal. A rational person would positively expect their quality of life to be much improved over civilization’s.1, 2 But of course, it is not an ideal utopia, either. We might best explore this topic by learning from an animal that we’re especially close to, one that has shaped us and molded us into who we are: Canis lupus, the gray wolf.
Wolfgang M. Schleidt and Michael D. Shalter make an excellent case in “Co-evolution of Humans and Canids: An Alternative View of Dog Domestication,” originally published in Evolution and Cognition (2003, Vol. 9, No. 1; PDF available through the Vault). They recognize the importance of cooperation and commuity in human evolution, but also note that this is fairly unique among primates (not entirely unique, of course—bonobos in captivity have somewhat similar practices3—but the kind of violent hierarchies found among the common chimpanzee are more the rule through the Order Primates). The closest parallel to human behavior is not found in primates, but among wolves.
The closest approximation to human morality we can find in nature is that of the gray wolf, Canis lupus. This is especially odd in view of the bad reputation wolves have in our folklore, as expressed in the famous phrase, Homo Homini Lupus. In Thomas Hobbes’ own words: “To speak impartially, both sayings are very true; That Man to Man is a kind of God; and that Man to Man is an arrant Wolfe.” Since Hobbes’ time, however, our understanding of wolves has changed considerably, even though for a rancher who leaves his livestock unsupervised and unprotected by a good shepherd, an “arrant Wolfe” is to this day a formidable threat. Wolves’ ability to cooperate in a variety of situations, not only in well coordinated drives in the context of attacking prey, carrying items too heavy for any one individual, provisioning not only their own young but also other pack members, baby sitting, etc., is rivaled only by that of human societies. In addition, similar forms of cooperation are observed in two other closely related canids, the African Cape hunting dog and the Asian dhole. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that canid sociality and cooperativeness are old traits in terms of evolution, predating human sociality and cooperativeness by millions of years. Thus, we can give a new and very different meaning to Homo Homini Lupus: “Man to Man is—or at least should be—a kind Wolfe.”
This shift in our attitude toward wolves opens a new vista as to the origin of dogs. Instead of perpetuating our traditional attitude that our “domesticated animals” are intentional creations of human ingenuity, we propose that initial contacts between wolves and humans were truly mutual, and that various subsequent changes in both wolves and humans must be considered as a process of co-evolution. The impact of wolves’ ethics on our own may well equal or even exceed that of our effect on wolves’ changes in their becoming dogs in terms of their general appearance or specific behavioral traits. (Schleidt & Shalter, 2003)
Schleidt & Shalter go on to challenge the view that we “domesticated” dogs in any meaningful sense, pointing out that the process began before humans became sedentary—how meaningful is pre-domus domestication?
Even the term domestication has the wrong ring, since the meeting of wolves and modern humans predates, by far, anything that could be considered a human habitation in the form of a domus (Latin for house). Canids’ use of dens dates back further. Consequently, instead of domestication, we should talk about “cubilication” (cubile, Latin for den) … and wonder who cubilicated whom. (Schleidt & Shalter, 2003)
Indeed, dogs are unique among our “domesticates” because there was no true domestication in the usual sense. Humans and canids co-evolved. Schleidt and Shalter make a strong argument to see the human social structure of the band or tribe, and even our defining emphasis on community and cooperation, as things we learned from dogs. Others have pointed out that our relationship has even had physiological impacts.
“Dogs acted as humans’ alarm systems, trackers and hunting aids, garbage disposal facilities, hot-water bottles and children’s guardians and playmates. Humans provided dogs with food and security. This symbiotic relationship was stable over 100,000 years and intensified in the Holocene [Period] into mutual domestication,” said Dr Groves. “Humans domesticated dogs and dogs domesticated humans.”4
As a result, the human brain has a much reduced olfactory bulb; we came to rely on dogs to essentially provide us with our sense of smell. Humans and canids co-evolved. What we share with dogs is unique—true symbiosis. Of course, even that relationship was changed forever by the innovation of agriculture, and the age of true domestication. As David Abram illustrates, in the wild, humans communicate with other kinds of life and essentially turn them into an extended set of senses. The co-evolution of humans and dogs is only a particularly strong example; removing humans from their ecological context is removing the human brain from the prompts and senses it relies upon. In short, domestication, for humans, is a kind of brain damage.
One of the most recognizable signs of domestication is a reduction in brain size—domestication makes a population stupid.
In nearly all species of domestic mammals, in which it has been measured, it has been found that the brain is smaller in size relative to the size of the body than it is in the wild progenitor. … Hemmer discussed how brain size differs in geographically separate species of wild mammals, for example wolves and wild cats, and he believes that the domestic form is descended from the wild subspecies with the smallest cranial capacity. For the dog this is the wolf from western Asia, while for the domestic cat it is the wild cat from north-east Africa and western Asia. This fits with the archaeological evidence for the earliest finds of domestic cat, and for dogs from around 14,000 years ago.5
It is the populations with the smallest cranial capacity that are best suited to domestication. Naturally, we would not expect this to be a matter of domestication reducing the brain size of an individual, but a question of natural selection—and that is precisely what we find.
Reproductive failure includes the failure to mate, failure to produce normal-sized litters, and failure to rear young successfully.
Reproductive failure is common in wild and early generation animals in captivity. Only 49% of first-generation wild Norway rats copulate successfully in captivity. Of rats who do give birth, only 43% successfully raised some offspring to weaning age—the rest were cannibalized or abandoned. Trut found that only 14% of field-trapped Norway rats produced offspring that survived to adulthood.
Litters are generally smaller (averaging 6 offspring) in these first-generation wild rats. In contrast, wild rats in the wild, and domestic rats in captivity, produced similarly-sized large litters, averaging about 10 offspring. It takes about 20 generations in captivity for rat litter sizes to come back to normal. Of course, other changes are happening (e.g. reduction in brain size) that are not found in the wild stock…
Sometimes, the animals who die or fail to breed are the very individuals who would be most successful in the wild: the flighty, active individuals with low tolerance for humans. It is the passive, less reactive, less fearful, calm individuals who survive and breed best in captivity. These individuals form the foundation of the domestic stock and their offspring carry on those traits.6
What is the mechanism behind this? What is it in domestication that selects for the most docile, the most calm—the most stupid—individuals in a population? Primarily, it is a question of stress.
Wild animals can be extremely stressed by the captive environment. Compared to the wild, the captive environment is extremely confined, provides few hiding places, is full of bright lights, and is surrounded by human “predators” who approach and handle the animal. These stressful conditions frequently lead to death or reproductive failure in captive wild animals.7
It takes an exceptionally stupid specimen of its species to calmly accept captivity and enslavement to another. Over sufficient generational iterations, cranial capacity is greatly reduced, as only the most stupid are calm enough in such a situation to efficiently reproduce. What comes of that process is a population of calm, docile, stupid creatures that are far easier to control than their wild ancestors.
And what of humans? Green anarchists often speak of humans as having domesticated ourselves in the same process. We are subjected to very similar stresses by the civilized system we live in, stresses which are fundamentally antagonistic to our human nature, the product of our co-evolution with canids. Physiologically, we show the very same trend.
The horse experienced a 16 per cent reduction in brain size after domestication while pigs’ brains shrank by as much as 34 per cent. The estimated brain-size reduction in domesticated dogs varies from 30 per cent to 10 per cent.
Only in the last decade have archaeologists uncovered enough fossil evidence to establish that cranial capacity in Homo sapiens declined in Europe and Africa by at least 10 per cent beginning in the Holocene Period, about 10,000 years ago.8
If we consider the process by which hunter-gatherer populations are absorbed into civilization, this makes even more sense.
So basically, populations of wild animals are not domesticated over time. Its a selective process. Only certain individuals can withstand the sensory deprivation, the confinement, the close quarters, the handling. Only these individuals are able to reproduce.
In an application to humans, whole populations of hunter gatherers are not transformed into modern civilized humans. Most of them are killed by western diseases and genocidal warfare. Many commit suicide and infanticide. Only a few remain to enter civilized society at the bottom rung of social stratification.9
In the Seventies, when I was Executive Director of a residential treatment facility for disturbed children, I developed a metaphor to explain ADHD to children, a metaphor which I subsequently published in 1991. The metaphor was that hyperactive kids were actually “good hunters,” whereas the very steady, stable, classroom-capable kids were “good farmers.” The hunters, I suggested, would do great in the forest or battlefield: their constant scanning (”distractibility”) would ensure they wouldn’t miss anything; their ability to make instant decisions and to act on them (”impulsivity”) would guarantee they’d be able to react to high-stress and response-demanding situations; and their love of stimulation (”need for high levels of stimulation”) would cause them to enjoy the hunting world in the first place. (At its core, ADHD is diagnosed by evaluating the intensity and persistence of these three behaviors.) I told these kids, however, that they needed to learn the basic “farmer skills,” because the world has been taken over by the farmers. Even our schools were organized by the farmers: schools let kids out in the summer so they can help bring in the crops. And factories and cubicles, of course, are just an Industrial/Technological Age extension of the skill-set useful in agriculture.
The evidence that ADHD may be genetic, and my own experiences over the years visiting with indigenous agricultural and hunter/gatherer people on five continents caused me to even think it possible that my metaphor might also prove to be “good science,” although I have little certainty about whether it’s genetics, culture, or both which so often causes indigenous people to fail when put into European-style classrooms. (I suspect both.) …
Isn’t it interesting that we have no diagnostic categories for “musically disordered,” or “painting deficit disorder,” or “creative thinking deficit”? These abilities do not produce good, compliant workers for our corporations and institutions, which are the leaders and definers of our culture. Therefore we don’t even bother to measure or try to remediate deficiencies in them. …
If only we could get rid of those rabble-rousers, the neo-Darwinians suggest, then the rest of us could have a civilized life! Get rid of those who couldn’t make it in school (Thomas Edison was thrown out of school in the third grade, as was Ben Franklin); get rid of those who are incompetent at factory or office work (Vincent Van Gogh never held a job for more than two months); clear our gene pool of those who have no respect for legal authority (George Washington was sentenced to death by the King of England for treason).10
Children with ADHD may well have a slightly less domesticated brain; they show us what humans are like when they’re not bred for stupidity and captivity. Hartmann’s parenthetical examples in the last quoted paragraph illustrate that the least domesticated of us are the very best of us—they tower over us like giants, one-eyed men in the kingdom of the blind, the Harrison Bergerons. Not all humans are equally domesticated; some of us are more domesticated than others.
The same goes for dogs. Since the Holocene began, we have bred some very domesticated dogs—how far is a wild gray wolf from a miniature poodle show dog? The most domesticated breeds are also the most prone to many different kinds of diseases.11 They are the most frail; the most sickly; the least capable of doing anything for themselves. They are bred for dependence. But of course, it is not a simple binary relationship, either; “primitive” breeds like the akitas, huskies, malamutes, basenjis, and cannan dogs, are much closer to their lupine ancestors. Ted Heistman described his experience with Canadian Inuit sled dogs as such:
Just a few pure Canadian Inuit dogs survive. They are big, have thick wolf like coats, pointy ears, bushy tails. They pull hard and are really strong, and they like to fight. They howl at night just like a wolf and the dynamics of their dog team is very much like the dynamics of a wolf pack. There is an alpha male that is the strongest fighter and he rules for a while and eventually he is killed off by a stronger dog coming up the ranks.
These packs are very close knit. They have a hard time tolerating strange dogs. They will turn on a strange dog and kill it. Once you have a pack of these dogs its hard to mix and match them around with other packs, because they will fight. The whole social structure of the pack has to be worked out again. …
If you go up to Alaska next march and watch the iditarod, you aren’t going to see dogs like this. You won’t see big hairy hundred lb. dogs snarling at each other. You may not even see one dog fight. There will be all these teams in close proximity, and they won’t be fighting. The dogs are all around 40 lbs, and have rather short coats, often floppy ears. Many of them don’t look like what people think of as a sled dog. They are highly specialized animals. They are bred to be able ideally to run 1000 miles in nine days, usually traveling four to six hours at a time and resting an equal amount of time, traveling as close as possible to 12 mph or faster. During this time they will consume up to 9000 calories a day. They have hound blood in them and other breeds added in over the years. They are kind of ugly and scrawny looking for the most part. Many of them have kind of a vacant look in their eyes. …
This is intensification. The races get more and more competitive, the sport gets more and more complex and the dogs get more and more domesticated, untill, eventually you have these little floppy eared hound dogs, wearing hats and coats and booties, that basically do whatever you tell them to do. They don’t fight. They don’t form packs, new dogs coming and going all the time.
There is no room for pack mentality. There are a hundred dogs in a yard. Some still howl, but there is no point to that really. Of all the racing sled dogs, iditarod dogs, are the most husky like, but the sprint teams are more likely to be a mix of pointer and greyhound with hardly any husky characteristics at all.12
Our civilization has given us a strange sense of universal ideals—we aspire to a global commuity united in love and fellowship. Of course, the human brain simply can’t handle a society on that scale.13 Human tribes, inspired and patterned on the wolf pack, are extremely close-knit societies ruled by fellowship, egalitarianism, consensus, and reciprocity. Recently, Michael wrote on civilized horror stories about wolves.
So how did the wolf become nature’s bogeyman, especially given the list of possible representatives including animals that actually have posed a serious danger to humans and our evolutionary ancestors?
The answer may lie in the aforementioned closeness between humans and canines. Dogs, especially wild dogs such as wolves, present us with a link to our prehistoric past. Thus, the wolf is a symbol of humanity’s shadow. Especially to the civilized man who has often struggled to break free of his animal nature, the wolf is a chaotic figure that represents the beast within.14
This picture is made all the more salient when we accept the role that canid pack relationships played in the formation of human tribes. The werewolf is very visibly “the beast within,” and aptly chosen—the wolf was quite literally the animal that taught us how to live. In these European stories that demonize the wolf, the wolf becomes the incarnation of the Jungian Shadow—”It is everything in us that is unconscious, repressed, undeveloped and denied. These are dark rejected aspects of our being as well as light, so there is positive undeveloped potential in the Shadow that we don’t know about because anything that is unconscious, we don’t know about.”15
Civilization’s “Shadow” is its own humanity. Civilization teaches us that humans are fallen, even while glorifying us as the pinnacle of Creation—because we alone have the capacity to transcend our mere humanity. Every natural inclination is suppressed; every natural desire is repressed; our emotions and impulses are demonized; our human nature is villified, and we are told to be “better” than we were born. What we hate in ourselves is that we’re human, and so of course, when we look for a symbol of what we hate in ourselves, we turn to the most human of animals, the animals that taught us how to be human.
But Heistman has focused on the other side of that equation—how tribes relate to outsiders.
But really though I am thinking that the view of wolves in “enlightened” circles, you know, liberal educated types, is a bit skewed the other way. Wolves are painted as harmless fuzz balls, wise and noble. They only kill what they need and then only the old and the sick and defective animals, that way in their wisdom, they will strengthen the herd like good caretakers of the earth.
Did you know wolves in Minnesota eat beavers? They eat a lot of beavers, up to 50% of their diet is beavers. I think they eat what they can catch. I don’t think they eat old sick beavers. I think they eat the beavers that are available. Just like deer. I think wolves actually are a bit savage. I mean why anthropomorphize for the good qualities but not the bad? Ok, they help the herd, by culling, less fit animals. They also often eat these animals while they are still alive. Not a pretty way to kill. Somtimes to kill a moose, they kill it over two or three days. They let it bleed for a few days and get weak and then move in to finish it off.16
This is absolutely true—and precisely the point. Part and parcel of rejecting civilization’s frame, embracing our Shadow, and learning that being human is a good thing, is also embracing our limitations. Mass society is contrary to human nature. We cannot suffer it. The vision of a global utopia where we all hold hands and sign kumbaya is a fantasy betrayed by our own nature. The good news is that it’s all right; tribes work. Packs work. It may not fulfill a liberal fantasy, but that’s all right. Wolves do not eat the old and infirm out of nobility, but out of opportunism. The nobility of the wolf is grounded in the strength of a ferocious killer. The packs they form are strong because they are exclusive—and they do not suffer strangers lightly. Likewise, tribes are fairly closed societies. They do not immediately kill strangers, of course, and most have at least some accomodations for travelers, but xenophobia and ethocentrism are the rule. They do not suffer strangers lightly. That’s OK; like wolves taking down the old, the sick and the infirm, this behavior fundamentally works.
Our idealism has driven some of the worst atrocities this world has ever seen. Missionaries are generally motivated by empathy, compassion, and perhaps even love, but what they bring is slavery, disease, death and destruction.17 While the Middle Kingdom was content to let the barbarians beyond its walls rot, Europe was as much motivated by the love of Christ as by the lust for gold to conquer the world. This idea is so obvious even to us that we have a proverb to express it, as in one of the earliest formulations by Bernard of Clairveaux, “Hell is full of good intentions or desires.”
The opposite is sometimes true. While Adam Smith’s idea of an invisible hand may not be nearly as far-reaching or infallible as it is sometimes imagined, it is a very similar force to that which makes ecology fundamentally work. Competition to the best of one’s ability keeps the ecological community healthy. If a healthy, prosperous society can ever be founded on universal ideals, it certainly has no precedent in the first billion years of life on this planet. Healthy, prosperous societies have been the norm for most of human existence, but the force that made reciprocity, egalitarianism and consensus work within the tribe was the same xenophobia and ethnocentrism we do not dare sully ourselves with now.
In other words, our domestication is complete—we revile the very foundation of life in the wild, and forget that for any animal, all life comes from another’s death, and all peace is based in strength. A commuity can never be very close if anyone is free to join it. Domesticated dogs will treat any newcomer the same; wolf packs share a special bond, a bond that one cannot simply walk into. It must be earned.
This is the ugly side of tribalism that too few are willing to countenance, but it is no less essential if we aspire to break the bonds domestication has laid on us, to stop being dogs, and become wolves again.
Of course, the past can never be undone. This time we’ve spent as dogs will always be with us—and there may be a permanent price for the things we’ve done.
Furthermore, it is a remarkable fact that the decrease in brain size, measured as the cranial capacity, remains small even in populations of feral mammals. According to Hemmer, the dingo which has lived in feral populations for thousands of years has a brain size that is much smaller than all the subspecies of wolves and is similar to that of European domestic dogs. … Colin Groves showed that the brains of domestic breeds of sheep are much reduced in size relative to those of all species of wild sheep and the brain of the European mouflon (which is an anciently feral breed originating from Corsica and Sardinia) is also reduced.18
The impact of domestication may be permanent brain damage. We may never regain what we’ve lost. This is no cause for despair, though; we may never be entirely wild again, but we can be feral. Neither are we alone—the wolves we turned into dogs go feral, too. They taught us how to live when we were wild; perhaps a proper pack of huskies can teach us how to live as we become feral, too. There’s no simple matter of “going back” to the way we were, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing, either. If there’s one last lesson in those big puppy eyes to teach us, it’s that this isn’t a journey we have to take alone.