The Mutual Evolution of Dogs and Humans

Chung-I Wu, PhD

Most of us know that dogs descended from their more fearsome relatives, wolves. It’s still not quite clear how that happened though, whether humans domesticated wolves until they became the docile and friendly pets we all love, or whether wolves domesticated themselves by tagging along with humans. In the New York Times, Carl Zimmer looks at two recent studies on how dogs evolved from wolves, including one by Dr. Chung-I Wu from the Department of Ecology and Evolution. The results, Zimmer said, actually show that some of the genes that evolved in dogs as they domesticated also evolved in humans:

The results offer some tantalizing hints about how wolves first turned doglike. “The conventional view is that the hunter-gatherers go out and get a puppy,” said Chung-I Wu of the University of Chicago, an author of the Nature Communications study. If humans actually did breed early dogs this way, then dogs would have descended from a very small population.

That’s not what Dr. Wu and his colleagues have found, though. Instead, it appears that a large population of wolves started lingering around humans — perhaps scavenging the carcasses that hunters left behind.

In this situation, aggressive wolves would have fared badly, because humans would kill them off. Mellower wolves, by contrast, would thrive. If this notion turns out to be true, it means that we didn’t domesticate wolves — they domesticated themselves.

Dr. Wu’s study was published in the May issue of Nature Communications, and was also covered in National Geographic.

About Matt Wood (531 Articles)
Matt Wood is a senior science writer and manager of communications at the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Division.
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