Since being domesticated by our ancestors, dogs have stood by our side as humanity spread across the world. Evolving from the wild predator, the grey wolf, our furry friends have stood by our side and evolved into the soft, loyal and friendly dogs so many enjoy living with today.
Dogs were actually the first animals that humankind domesticated. The evolution from terrifying fanged grey wolf to companion is many millennia in the making, with estimates ranging from anything from 15,000 to 100,000 years ago. Whatever the research, it is agreed that domestic dogs were a firm favourite in ancient society by 10,000 years ago.
One National Geographic study suggests that maybe we give ourselves too much credit in the relationship we’ve cultured with dogs. It suggests that in fact wolves may have searched us out, rather than the other way round, as they approached the edges of human society to scavenge from garbage.
Whatever the beginning of the relationship, dogs have gone with us, from Australia to the Arctic, as we have roved, settled, conquered, and escaped. And that bond runs deep.
A recently released new study suggests that the bond between us runs so deep that it is, in fact, a matter of genetic evolution.
Many humans developed immunity to various bacteria, viruses and parasites as they spread across the world. In Europe the population became resilient to the common cold, something that was completely catastrophic when European colonisers travelled to the Caribbean, where the native peoples, like the Taino, Arawaks and Caribs, were almost completely wiped out. What’s interesting is that man’s best friend also developed a resistance to a similar range of various bugs and nasties.
A recent study has shown that ancient dogs taken to tropical regions with their owners all those years ago developed immunity to diseases just as their owners did, for example the deadly malaria parasite.
University of Chicago researchers, alongside researchers from other institutions, have discovered that several gene groups in both humans and dogs, such as those related to digestion and diet, disease and neurological processes, have evolved together in both dogs and people, across millennia. That means, simply, that our brains and our bellies have evolved in very similar ways!
Although the selection of the same gene in these two different species (called convergent evolution) is actually very rare in nature, perhaps it shouldn’t be so completely surprising – after all, the two species have lived together throughout this evolutionary period too. Why else are dogs called ‘man’s best friend’?
It isn’t all good news, though. Dogs also share some of our genetic vices and diseases, including epilepsy, obesity, obsessive compulsive disorder and some cancers. Some of these problems are probably due to their reliance on, and proximity to, their human owners. A human who wants to treat their beloved dog is likely to feed them, in a rewards process that we use upon ourselves. Thus dogs and their owners can take a spiral into obesity.
We really have become the beasts we are today in conjunction with our furry friends.