One of the great exercises on the internet among those who wish to be taken seriously as “dog people” is to say that dogs are not wolves. In one sense, they are quite right. Dogs are not wild canids, and they are certainly not the mostly fearful and reactive wolves of the middle latitudes of Eurasia and North America.
But in another broader sense, they are dead wrong. I’ve been following this debate for some time. At one time, there was a great emphasis on the so-called Canis variabilis that were contemporaries with Homo erectus at the Zhoukoudian cave system in China. The remains date to 500,000 years ago, and it’s quite a leap to say that Homo erectus began dog domestication.
It should be noted now that Canis variabilis is no longer an accepted scientific name for these early wolves. They have since been reclassified as a subspecies of the Mosbach wolf (Canis mosbachensis). Their new name is Canis mosbachensis variabilis, and although the Mosbach wolf is ancestral to the modern gray wolf, the Chinese subspecies is now not regarded as leading to the modern one.
So this idea that these Chinese specimens are ancestral to the domestic dog is quite faulty. Even if we were to say that Canis mosbachensis were the ancestor of dogs, we would have a real problem on our hands. The Mosbach wolf disappears from the Eurasian fossil record no later than 300,000 years ago, when it was replaced by modern gray wolves. The earliest domestic dog that has been proposed dates to 33,000 years ago in the Altai Mountains.
Somehow, you have to get a species that went extinct hundreds of thousands of years before the formation of the earliest domestic dog to become its ancestor. The chronology makes no sense.
Now, we do have some ancient mitochondrial DNA of a Siberian Canis cf. variabilis that appeared to show a connection with the origins of the domestic dog. This specimen is probably a ate surviving Siberian variant of the Mosbach wolf, and it is possible that the reason for this mitochondrial DNA similarity is that domestic dogs have a mitochondrial DNA lineage that very close to this extinct wolf. The real problem with this study is it is a mitochondrial DNA study, and if we could somehow get a full genome comparison from these remain, which would not be easy, then we could get a better picture of how the Mosbach wolf relates to wolves, domestic dogs, and coyotes. Yes, the discovery that gray wolves and coyotes shared a common ancestor only around 50,000 years ago means that coyotes descend from the Mosbach wolf as well.
So when you see someone claiming that Canis variabilis is wild Canis familiaris, just understand that this person hasn’t looked at the most recent literature on these Middle Pleistocene wolves. But I’ve seen this repeated enough that I do think I need a place on this blog where I can easily link to the problems with this assertion
The real problem with all of this is that in dogs, at least in the English speaking world, there is a real problem with phylogeny denial. So many people are caught up in this “dogs are not wolves” idea that they invest lots of mental gymnastics in trying to create another wild ancestor for the domestic dog.
So many people got worked up with the discovery that no extant population of gray wolf is ancestral to the domestic dog that they had to make it about how dogs were not derived from wolves.
Again, the gray wolf species is at least 300,000 years old, and no one has found a relationship between dogs and wolves that posits their divergence as being greater than 33,000 years. There is an old mitochondrial DNA estimate that is largely not accepted that puts their split between dogs and wolves at something like 135,000 years ago, but that’s still after the gray wolf existed as a species.
So let’s talk about why saying dogs are not wolves is an exercise in phylogeny denial:
One of the implications of our modern Darwinian synthesis is monophyletic descent. All organisms derive from ancestors, and it is impossible to evolve outside one’s ancestry. If we were to go back in time to see when the most recent common ancestor of dogs and gray wolves, you would have a hard time describing that ancestor as anything other than a form of Canis lupus.
Dogs have evolved through their Canis lupus ancestor, just as modern wolves have evolved through theirs. It is accurate to say that domestic dogs are not derived from extant wolves, but it is not accurate to say that dogs did not derive from wolves. It is also not accurate to say that dogs are a different species from Canis lupus, because dogs are still part of a Canis lupus lineage.
Further, we have lots of data about the extensive gene flow between dogs and wolves in Eurasia. We know that livestock guardian dogs in the Republic of Georgia have exchanged genes fairly extensively with wolves. But we now have data that shows an extensive gene flow between domestic dogs and wolves across Eurasia.
So dogs and wolves are continuing to exchange genes. They are not becoming reproductively isolated from each other in a way that would lead to speciation, even now.
I’ve never understood why this line of thinking has ever been popular, except that wolves people have indeed abused dogs under the assumption that their social systems are much like those of captive wolves. Further, it is quackery of the worst order to assume that dogs should be fed only full raw carcasses of meat because that is what wolves eat.
But those problems are not adequately addressed by promoting another scientifically dubious prospect. Dogs do behave somewhat differently from wolves, but that is because dogs are domesticated. Wolves behave differently because they are a wild form, and as a wild form, they have undergone a selection for extreme timidity and wariness as we have tried to wipe wolves off the face of the earth.
The argument that dogs are part of Canis lupus is well-supported by science. Indeed, an analysis of gray wolf, domestic dog, and dingo genomes revealed that creating a separate species for the dog, the dingo, or for both would make the entire species polyphyletic and thus not in keeping with Neo-Darwinian principles.
So it is scientifically correct to say that dogs are wolves, but one should say that dogs are domesticated wolves. And just leave it at that.
And drop the phylogeny denial.