I am beginning a series of blog posts that will read much like a novel, with each blog post reading like a chapter. I call this book “Like-A-Wolf”.
The basic subject is the domestication of the dog. I regard the invention of the dog (I use the term “invention” very carefully – more on that later), as the most important single event in the evolution of human culture, for reasons which will become clear.
Sooo, why do I say “invent”?
First, many of the organisms which we consume as agricultural products are human inventions. Wheat for example. The ancestor of wheat is very different from the organism which we know today. We selective bred wheat to be what we wanted: A sweet, large seed grain with specific properties.
In a similar manner, dogs were effectively selectively bred by paleolithic humans. The mutation which makes dogs different from wolves is known as empathy. As Jeremy Rifkin points out in his post The Empathic Civilization, empathy, is the most powerful aspect of our consciousness, and really defines us as humans. We have a form of hardware in our brains which enables empathy, called mirror neurons. This causes our brain neurons to fire when we see suffering in exactly the same manner as the organism which is experiencing the suffering. Hence we “feel the pain” of an organism we observe suffering.
Other organisms on the planet do not generally have empathy. Wolves, for example, have a psychology which is very similar to what in human psychology is referred to as a psychopath: Basically an insatiable killing machine. Wolves normally have empathy during the period up to adolescence. (All mammals have some form of empathy when being suckled by their mother, as that is required in order to live effectively in a den of other cubs. An insatiable killing machine would not work in that context.) Once a wolf goes through adolescence, however, the psychopath mentality eventually takes over, and the wolf ceases to make eye contact, and becomes devoid of empathy.
Once in a while, though, a wolf is born with an interesting mutation: It is permanently capable of empathy. We refer to this as “tame”. The normal fate for this cub would be to be killed by the other wolves in the pack after it goes through puberty. Empathy is definitely not an adaptive trait for surviving in a wolf pack.
What happened then is very interesting: A woman made the choice to suckle a wolf cub. (I weave this idea into the story, in which a 19 year old girl who recently lost a baby and has full breasts finds a wolf cub and decides to suckle it.)
Hence the “invention” term: Many human inventions are not intentional, but rather accidental. What makes them inventions is the human aspect. Undoubtedly, there were wolves being born with this mutation. But a human never decided to nurture one until this point.
Once that happened, the paleolithic tribe where that occurred would quickly discover that they had a devastating weapon. Not only could a pack of domesticate wolves be used by a human hunting party against all kinds of game. (Paleolithic humans after the invention of the dog were able to bring down all kinds of big game, up to and including wooly mammoth, and at that point become the dominant species on the planet.) Dogs enabled humans to capture and domesticate the goat, sheep, horse, cow, donkey, and so forth. The dog was first, though. Effectively the neolithic experiment (i.e. the invention of agriculture) begins with the dog, which was the first domesticated animal.
Eventually, the dog was used as a weapon against neighboring tribes, with devastating effect. That resulted in the rise of the first neolithic empire, the invention of slavery, and all the rest.
We are who we are because of the domestication of the dog.