How the dog became the dog

Derr - How dog became dogPUBLISHING YEAR: 2012

SUMMARY: (Non-systematic) review of the various theories behind the dog’s evolution.

AUDIENCE: The book fits most comfortably in the science popularization section if you scrap the popularization part. It reads more like a textbook without peer review or citations. Try it if you’re comfortable with quite a bit of evolutionary biology jargon.

03 Academic


The work is ambitious, drops exhilarating intellectual bombs, and (rightly) questions prevailing academic opinions on dog evolution. It could also be dense, long-winded and confusing. Infuriatingly so at times.

Pearls of wisdom

Many passages deeply resonated with me. His criticisms of the accepted views on dog domestication, for example, were well worthy of serious consideration. Not even Trut’s paper on Belyaev foxes or Coppinger’s dump dog hypothesis were immune to his sharp, no-nonsense scrutiny.

At times, he gave me highly re-usable nuggets: great turns of phrases for big concepts. Enjoy these examples:

  • p. 60: (about roaming dog management policies) “The policy […] is a direct reflection of the absolute divide many people, academics among them, draw between the wild and the natural, the domesticated and the human-built”
  • p. 258: “Official breeds are cultural and biological entities born of acts of imagination grounded in a few facts about the origin of a particular breed”
  • p. 264: (talking of the dog straggling the human and animal world) “The dog roams there with one eye looking forward, the other back, one on each world.”

The book was sprinkled with these gems.

Nice touches

The author showed a breath-taking grasp of a variety of fields. He seemed equally at ease discussing genetics, paleontology and evolutionary biology; Babylonian mythology, epistemology and Shakespeare; oh, and neuroscience of course.

While it’s not a-laugh-a-minute book, it did have me in stitches with its uber-nerdy humour on occasion. Take page 101 (discussing meat-eating neanderthals) “… as close to being a total carnivore as any human species has come, late-twentieth-century American beef eaters notwithstanding.”

The breadth of the book was gigantic, covering evolution and domestication of course, but also nomenclature, the dog-human relationship, dog breeds and working dogs. After reading these passages, I can tackle the topics with important new facts or a greater understanding of the underlying logic. The chapter on dog breeds was one of the most illuminating in my opinion.

The reference section left me feeling small. The guy really did his homework. And then some. Reading the book I felt lucky that I could benefit from all his research as it would take me five lifetimes to read as much as he did.

Suggestions for improvement

It took long, dreary, detailed chapters about, say, the geographic movements of ancient humans and canids, to come to the conclusion that the established theories don’t hold water. This level of detail detracted me from getting to the meat of his idea at times.

I expected systematic in-text citations from someone writing in such exacting details. The work is so richly researched that I could see myself quoting it when writing formally on the topic. Only I can’t because it does not systematically quote its sources in the relevant passages.

On many occasions, the author proposes arguments that don’t necessarily hold water. It would be arrogant of me to question his logic but hey, science is a game of criticism, right? I spotted a few wobbly arguments of the form: X is true, Y is true therefore Z is true; when neither X nor Y was established and the ‘therefore’ was a biiiig stretch.

Some passages were so speculative I wondered why they’d been written in the first place. I respect that he warned the reader but he lost me in chapters crippled with “perhaps,” “in all likelihood,” “seems to” and “probably.” I thank you for your honesty but you will lose my interest when it becomes unadulterated speculation.

Too many sentences were… half a page long! Here’s an example (p. 127). Hold on to your horses: “I think it is safe to say that among the changes in the brains of wolves and humans that the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution triggered or was triggered by were several that expanded their ability to recognize and accept “the other” as a unique and independent being, while at the same time showing fealty–even occasionally fawning devotion–to him or her.” The whole strategy of “Why say it in 10 words when I can say it in 100,000,000?” got pretty tiresome at times.

It’s a tall order, but I would love to see next editions of this book resolve the pop science vs. textbook identity crisis. If pop science, then please slash the jargon or systematically explain it in children’s terms. Either that, or the audience will be restricted to zoology-trained readers who don’t need citable work. Not a common breed.

I would have loved to see one final chapter integrating all his ideas together concretely and condensely. Instead, I was left with a million strands of ideas that, as arresting as they are, didn’t necessarily inter-mesh.


If you’re after a beach read, walk on by. I had to be on five-espresso mode to get much of it. And not without one or two headaches. If you want to enrich your knowledge about dog evolution and are ready for some tough passages, it might be your baby.

So, it was infuriating. It was intriguing. It was puzzling. It was tiring. It was enriching. It was humbling.

I am SO glad I’ve gone through it but I’ll never do it again.

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Author: Derr Mark
Genre: pop science
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