CO-EVOLVING WITH THE WOLVES: ANY IMPLICATIONS FOR SUSTAINABILITY?

Ecological science confirms the interdependence of all life, what some spiritual traditions call “inter-being”. And the belief that humans are somehow ordained to do as we please with nature will be our ultimate folly. So we are going to need all the help we can get to create a new human self-image that is compatible with sustainability.

Perhaps we don’t have to look very far. In his latest book Jeffrey Masson points out that “our relationship with dogs predates all other domesticated species by tens of thousands of years.” Dogs, as domesticated wolves, came into the lives of humans far before we raised animals for agriculture; you will find dogs in all hunting and gathering societies.

This suggests that something mutual has been occurring ever since human children first adopted abandoned or orphaned wolf cubs. And, as Masson points out, at that time “humans themselves were still in the throes of domestication.” The human encampment became part of the domesticated wolf’s territory and, with its superior hearing and sense of smell, the wolf became an ally in human hunting. The bond worked pragmatically and socially and gradually the capacity for inter-species intimacy, what we have with dogs today, took shape.

Masson suggests that though humans are closer to primates “the closest approximation to human mortality is that of the Grey Wolf.” In this sense we were both “pre-adapted for domestication”. Our gregariousness made a perfect fit and something new emerged. Masson talks of “the egalitarianism of pure affection” between us and even wonders whether we humans learned some “traits inherent in wolf society from dogs?”

DOMESTICATION AND CO-EVOLUTION

Conventional wisdom has humans domesticating wolves about 15,000 years ago, but recent genetic research suggests it could be much longer, perhaps 40,000 years or longer. (It’s unlikely that any other animal was domesticated before 8,500 years ago.) This would bring intimate wolf contact into the same period when humans were greatly enhancing their capacity to communicate. Masson notes that “both dogs and humans are intensely sociable species” and even speculates that “through association with dogs we went from primitive humans to Homosapiens.” He continues, “that far back humans did not have sophisticated language… so the disparity between humans and wolves would have been even less than it was to become.” Masson suggests the bond may have been “more like communion than order-giving”, which is how I have experienced our dogs. We seem to read each other more than me being in charge.

“Co-evolution” could explain this outcome. Many theories are suggested. Did a reduction in human brain size come with growing interdependence with wolf-dogs? Did our reduced need for smell allow us to develop more language? Did this shift accelerate civilization? Did our closeness to dogs strengthen our capacity for friendship? Did we learn cross-species empathy from this intimacy?

WOLF-LIKE DOGS

The most wolf-like dogs are Malamute, Samoyed, Siberian husky and Akita. And it is that they are not easily made into “obedience dogs” that makes them such mentors for us. Our last dog, Sooke, an Akita mix, taught me the most of any dog. He had a mind of his own and immediately set up territory in the Qu’Appelle Valley coulee where we live. He was always mapping the world through smell and sound and stood ready to immediately act when a coyote, deer or fox came over the crest of the hill. I am sure the wild life also misses him; certainly their trails all changed after his death.

During a summer of severe drought when a female cougar settled in an adjacent coulee I realized how intimately I was connected to Sooke. The cougar had a pervasive presence for several weeks; her ritual of wailing in the evening raised the hair on my neck. Seeing this splendid creature leaping down the crest of the hill just after sunrise, remains a most memorable experience.

That summer Sooke completely stopped going into the cougar’s coulee, and instead patrolled the hillside adjacent to our orchard and garden. When I left the house to work outside or to walk the trails I looked to Sooke for cues about my safety. And though Sooke still roamed he stayed closer and repeatedly circled back to check in. That summer we became connected in more primordial ways; I could more vividly imagine human-wolf interdependency.

A SPECIAL BOND

Masson contrasts this kind of bond to that occurring between humans and wild animals. He compares dogs being able “to read love in our eyes” to the mountain gorilla, Digit, that reached out to touch the hand of Dian Fossey, who was later martyred for standing up for this much misunderstood and habitat-threatened primate relative. Masson reminds us that what happened with the gorilla “is not love; it is trust”. And the nature of the trust is noteworthy; we won’t soon be invited to midwife a birthing gorilla, while midwifery is quite common when our dogs have litters.

Masson also notes that many domesticated animals will go feral if not physically restrained. Horses often “go wild”. So, too, can pigs. But dogs stay with us even if they have free range to huge tracks of land, as did our last dog. After his long sojourns into “the wild” he would return to the greetings and affection of his home base. Masson admits there is great potential for deep inter-species bonding with other domesticated animals, such as pigs, noting that because we eat pigs we are “reluctant to recognize their intelligence” and to allow them to be with us the way he claims “they would like to be.”

What about stray dogs? Surely they show that dogs remain semi-wild without domestication. I’m not sure. When I visited Istanbul in 2005 to appear at a Tribunal on the war on Iraq I regularly encountered stray dogs lying on the small patches of soil around the trees planted along the cobblestone walkways. These dogs were mostly disinterested and never aggressive, and I knew not to treat them as pets. It was a form of peaceful co-existence. Though no one’s pet, these dogs weren’t feral. They lived within the human settlement where people shared scraps, space and encouraging words. A deep even if somewhat impersonal bond indeed!

Species are always co-evolving. An insect co-evolves with a particular flower; grasslands co-evolves with gargantuan bison herds. And the human connection to domesticated wolves got stronger over thousands of years. As a species we desperately need a shift in perspective which sees our ecological interdependence as the fundamental reality. The domination of nature is only possible within a culture that places humans on a different plane of existence and our anthropocentric, go-it-alone, self image has clearly gotten us and the biosphere into serious trouble. Doing-to-nature will have to be replaced with being-of-nature.

Can our dogs help us along this path? They and their wolf kin may have been with us all along on this ever-so-vital journey towards inter-species communion.

Next time I’ll look at the importance of preserving heritage for our sustainability.

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