Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dogs are Biological Freeloaders

A couple of nights back I watched a very interesting NOVA special on the genetic and phenotypic evolution of the dog. I am not a dog owner, but the relationship we share with animals fascinates me to no end and has inspired a good deal of my work. My Domesticated series touches on many aspects of human and animal development and how cycles of direct and indirect dependence and conflict shape our evolutionary paths.

The show explained the hows and whys behind the myriad of sizes, colors, behaviors, and degrees of cuteness seen in the modern dog, but the most revelatory nugget was the prevailing theory of how dogs initially became domesticated. The premise they proffered is that "wolves essentially 'chose' domestication when they began to forage for food near prehistoric dumps. There, tameness was an advantage." We often think of ecological and sexual selection being driven by aggressive adaptation traits like being faster, stronger, or more intelligent than the competition, but for the dog timidity and opportunism have been the paths to evolutionary success. As Steven Budiansky puts it, dogs have excelled where wolves have failed by being "biological freeloaders."

The Trasheaters
© Amy Stein 2006
As civilization continues to intrude on and alter habitat, it's interesting to consider the constancy and malleability of the natural world. Our encroachment and the externalities of our existence are clearly challenging and changing the dynamics of survival. Equally clear is that life will continue to adapt, evolve, and survive. And the most amazing part is that this epic struggle for survival is playing out in real time in your backyard. I hope to explore this idea a little more in future Domesticated work.
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