Friday, September 6, 2013

Dogs don't exist (naturally)






This is one of those irrelevant and yet surprising facts that leave you wondering when you learn about them. Dogs do not exist naturally. Dogs are entirely a product of artificial selection (which in itself is arguably a form of natural selection).

When you look at Wikipedia's page about dogs, you can look at the species and read "canis lupus". That's right! Dogs are wolves. All dogs are wolves. If you want to make a distinction between dogs and wolves, you'll talk about "subspecies" or race. But these terms are not objective denominations. They are just arbitrary distinctions like saying "dark dogs" and "light dogs".

So, in nature, wolves appeared through natural selection and at some time of humanity's history we bred them and selected them for tameness. Strange fact: when we selected wolves for tameness, the body shape of the animals selected also evolved. Wolves have a pointy nose while dogs have a rather flat nose. Wolves have pointy ears while dogs have falling ears. Of course, since dogs' domestication happened thousands of years ago, nobody cared to make these scientific observations. But we've observed the similar phenomenon happening when foxes were selected for tameness by Dmitry Belyaev in USSR (now Russia). The selection was based on objective criteria of tameness, and not at all on physical characteristics... but still, a physical change was observed (ears, nose...) as well as behavioral changes like wagging the tail.

Reversely, it's been observed in Russia again that stray dogs living in Moscow's subway tunnels had started regaining feral behaviors and physical traits. These are called "metro dogs" and they have learned to use the subway system for transport.


Conclusion

While the word "nature" can have several distinct meanings, there is at least one meaning that excludes dogs. We have a habit of associating animals with nature but if we take the time to think about it, it's a bit more complicated.

And of course, it doesn't matter that dogs do not exist in nature. We love them (or not) regardless.

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