Survival of the Friendliest

Why survival might have more to do with being friendly than being fit

By Brian Reynolds

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When we think of evolution, the notion of survival of the fittest always comes to mind. The fierce competition spurred by scarce resources, the ability to adapt as your environment changes, being stronger and smarter than everything else that’s trying to eat you or your food. The popular conception of evolution is basically The Lord of the Flies spread over millions of years. But while this brutal version of evolution might be considered true for humans and most other species, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, in their book, The Genius of Dogs, present a different evolutionary path for our canine companions.

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We know that dogs are descendants of wolves and there are many theories on how they split apart on their evolutionary journey. Pre-historic humans would hunt and gather food and their leftover refuse would be consumed by nearby wolves. If these proto-dogs (wolves) were aggressive they would be killed off by the humans, resulting in a selection against aggression. By removing aggressive proto-dogs from the gene pool, each successive generation became increasingly friendly towards humans. Eventually humans learned the benefits of having these dogs around. Dogs are naturally keen to alerting their companions to the proximity of raiders and other predators as well as finding and chasing prey. Therefore having a dog around could give a particular tribe of humans an invaluable advantage, allowing them to be more efficient at hunting and giving them greater quantities of meat to consume and share.

In times of hardship, dogs could also have been used as an emergency food supply. It sounds horrible, but we’re speaking of a time well before refrigeration, when humans couldn’t preserve food and store crops. The least efficient dogs could have been harvested, leaving the better hunting and herding dogs to work. Hare and Woods speculate that the realization of having dogs nearby as an emergency food supply could also have led to the realization that plants and other animals could be managed to their benefit.

The book notes that 50,000 years ago the human brain was approximately 10-30% larger than it is now, and the bones and frames of these early humans were also bigger. But what these humans had in strength, they lacked in cooperative capacity, and this is what ultimately led to their failure. Meanwhile, modern humans have smaller craniums and are more adept at working with others, including their canine companions, whose frames and craniums are shrinking right alongside our own. So perhaps it is no small leap to say that the survival of the friendliest is why dogs and humans work so well together—and perhaps this lifelong partnership even allowed for civilization as we know it to exist.