Book Review: The First Domestication

The First Domestication:How Wolves and Humans Coevolvedby Raymond Pierotti & Brandy R. FoggYale University Press, 2017New from Yale University Press is an in-depth and extremely satisfying study of one of the oldest subjects of human society: the millennia-old partnership of Homo sapiens and Canis familiaris. Like most such studies, The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved, takes as one of its starting points that Canis familiaris in this case is effectively synonymous with Canis lupus, although some of the book's assertions are, to be generous, less than convincing:

One key point that it is important for readers to keep in mind throughout this book is that whether or not an animal is considered to be a dog or a wolf is not determined by the way it acts. Despite statements made by Coppinger and Feinstein (2015) and other “dog experts,” there are today, and probably always have been, nondomestic wolves that behaved in a social and companionable manner toward humans. There are also many more fully domesticated dogs that are unfriendly and aggressive toward humans. These dogs may or may not superficially resemble nondomestic wolves, but it is not their “aggressive nature” that makes them “wolflike.”

It's unlikely that any readers of The First Domestication have ever encountered an aggressive domestic dog that wasn't made that way by humans, and it's borderline impossible that any of those same readers have ever petted a wolf in the wild, but the larger point, the primacy of natures, is almost certainly central to many aspects of the ancient alliance between humans and dogs. Pierotti and Fogg do excellent, cogent work in detailing how ancient that alliance is – indeed, one of the unusual and welcome chapters of their book deals with what it means, in cultural and biological terms, to be human, as a necessary adjunct to what it means to be human in tandem with a nonhuman species.The larger picture painted here of that tandem development is a familiar one, with two satellite species standing out:

Human relationships with the two species of carnivores currently domesticated by humans – dogs and cats – are clearly different than relationships humans have established with domesticated ungulates because the carnivores were cooperating with humans rather than being raised for food. Although dogs and cats are clearly domesticated today, in both cases the relationship almost certainly began as commensalism, in which individual wild wolves and wildcats established close, but highly variable, social dynamics with individual humans.

The most basic tenet of this larger picture – that we're talking about wolves in the first place, that somehow proto-human groups would ever have allowed a huge, competitive wild species such close and sustained proximity to their settlements that the offspring of that species could undergo domestication – has received some challenges in recent years (Janice Koler-Matznik's excellent 2016 book Dawn of the Dog being one particular example), but whichever scenario turns out to be true, the paleolithic mechanics of that first partnership are fleshed out in The First Domestication with erudition and bracing clarity. Even if you don't believe this is how it all started, this is certainly how it could have.