Professor Bryan.

The Wolf Within: The Astonishing Evolution of the Wolf into Mans Best Friend


William Collins

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This eBook first published in Great Britain by William Collins in 2018

Text Bryan Sykes 2018

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Cover images

Cover design by Jack Smyth

Bryan Sykes asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

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Source ISBN: 9780008244415

Ebook Edition November 2018 ISBN: 9780008244439

Version: 2018-10-01


To Sergio and Ulla

Illustration courtesy of Richard Sykes. This illustration depicts the tomb of Liliana Crociati de Szaszak in La Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is known for its unusual neo-gothic design. Liliana was twenty-six years old when she was killed by an avalanche, and after his death several years later, her beloved dog, Sab? was added to her memorial. The text under the dogs statue reads Sab?, faithful friend of Liliana.



Title Page




1 Lupa

2 Darwins Dilemma

3 I Met a Traveller from an Antique Land

4 On the Origin of Wolves

5 The Living Fossil

6 Let the Bones Speak

7 The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

8 Hunting with Wolves

9 Why Didnt Shaun Ellis Get Eaten by Wolves?

10 Friend or Foe?

11 A Touch of Evil

12 The Basic Framework

13 We See the First Dogs

14 The Studbook of Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks

15 The Emergence of Modern Breeds

16 The Dog Genome

17 The Genetics of Pedigree Breeds

18 The Dance of Life

19 At the Heart of the Matter

20 In the Lab

21 The Scientist who Came in from the Cold

22 The Autumn Muster

23 The Girl who Talks with Dogs

24 Born Again: Cloning your Dog

25 Beyond the Reach of Reason




About the Author

About the Publisher


This book is about how wolves became dogs.

A remarkable transition, it ranks as one of the most important yet least appreciated events in the long history of not one but two species. The wolf changed from a highly successful and independent carnivore into a highly successful yet completely dependent vassal with a bewildering array of different forms. The second species is, of course, ourselves.

All the evidence, which we will examine in this book, traces the start of the transition to about 40,000 years ago somewhere in Eastern Europe. Wolves had been living there and in all of the worlds circum-polar regions for millions of years. Our Homo sapiens ancestors were much more recent players, having newly arrived from Africa only a few tens of thousands of years ago. The scene was set for the encounter that changed the world.

The location was a steep-sided river gorge in the Carpathian Mountains in what is now Romania. There is abundant evidence of human occupation in the region from the time of the Neanderthals to the arrival of our Homo sapiens ancestors, and there is a good fossil record of the fauna to colour in the details.1

I hardly need add that the narrative of this meeting, found in chapter 1, is embellished with a generous helping of my own imagination, which I hesitated to include until I read Man Meets Dog by Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist. He imagined a similar scene, though in a different location and with different players.2 I hope you find it evocative.

In 2009 the charismatic actor, Mickey Rourke, was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of over-the-hill fighter Randy The Ram Robinson attempting to make a comeback in the film The Wrestler. The striking parallel between Rourke, the fading actor, and his character, so its said, was the reason behind the popularity of his nominations. In an interview with television host Barbara Walters to coincide with the films release, Rourke said of his own past:

I sort of self-destructed and everything came out about fourteen years ago or so the wife had left, the career was over, the money was not an ounce. The dogs were there when no one else was there.

Asked by Walters if he had considered suicide, he responded:

Yeah, I didnt want to be here, but I didnt want to kill myself. I just wanted to push a button and disappear I think I hadnt left the house for four or five months, and I was sitting in the closet, sleeping in the closet for some reason. I was in a bad place, and I just remember I was thinking, Oh, man, if I do this, [and] then I looked at my dog, Beau Jack, and he made a sound, like a little almost human sound. I dont have kids. The dogs became everything to me. The dog was looking at me going, Whos going to take care of me?

There are tens of thousands of stories like this. Of grown men, and women, lost in the world, who are saved by their dogs.

I am a scientist, a geneticist whose research has concentrated on the human past and our own evolution from upright ape to master of the universe, or so we like to think. It was a natural step for me to wonder at the equally remarkable parallel evolution of the dog that has been so closely tied to our own.

However, and it is best that I come clean right from the start, I am not a dog person. I lay the blame for this unfortunate disposition squarely on the muscled shoulders of the Hound of the Baskervilles, a huge Boxer living down the road from my childhood home in south-east London. From the age of seven, my route to school took me unavoidably past its house, and every day without fail the huge beast flew at the gate, ears flat back on its enormous head, snarling and gnashing its teeth. It was as if the Hell Hound itself had materialised in the London suburbs.

Many decades later, when it was suggested I write a book about the evolution of dogs, the memory of the hound came flooding back. I cant possibly, I answered feebly. But as the weeks passed and I began to do a little research I realised just how fascinating a subject it was and how extraordinary is the everyday sight of a person walking his or her dog. Here was a highly evolved primate and a savage carnivore, whose ancestors were once mortal enemies, living side by side as if it were the most natural thing in the world. My re-education has only gone so far, so please, dear reader, dont expect childhood recollections of playful puppies racing across sunlit beaches or heart-wrenching accounts of how, had it not been for little Bella, I would have been unable to get over the loss of my favourite aunt. My starting point does at least allow me to be objective, even though I feel a little uneasy in being the only author of a dog book that I have come across who is not hopelessly in love with them.

The Wolf Within is primarily a book about the evolution of dogs and the forces that drove this astonishing transformation from a fierce and wild carnivore to the huge range of comparatively docile animals that is the domesticated dog. It is also about the other side of the equation, how it was that our own species Homo sapiens, an equally aggressive carnivore, formed such a special relationship with what, on the face of it, is a most unlikely ally. The Wolf Within contends that this is more than just a story of the subjugation of one species by another but a shining example of the co-evolution of two species to each others mutual benefit. Indeed, I conclude that this co-evolution was one of the vital steps in helping Homo sapiens gain the upper hand in the competition with other human species, such as Neanderthals, and to expand in numbers from relative obscurity towards the overwhelming numerical superiority and influence that we enjoy today.

The scientific substance of the book draws on the rich detail of the genomes of both dog and human that has accumulated over the past two decades. Thanks to these advances we are able to make out clear patterns in the distant origins of both species, resolving questions that have puzzled scientists for over two centuries. I also explore the history and practice of breeding and its influence on the health and the welfare of pedigree dogs. In parallel, I explore the breadth of this special relationship between man and dog, including interviews with the owners of many different breeds, as well as the lengths some will go to immortalise their favourite pet through cloning.

As I mentioned a few pages back, we think nothing of seeing a dog and its owner walking together along the street, yet how did this everyday scene ever come about? We have long suspected that dogs descend from wolves. We know that the distant ancestors of todays dogs formed close bonds with us a long time ago and there is a multitude of theories to account for our compatible social organisations. To a geneticist like myself, none of these is anywhere near enough to explain this most peculiar situation. In the harsh world of natural selection, only advantageous traits are conserved from one generation to the next.

Many owners who were interviewed for this book are fulsome in praise of their dogs loyalty and companionship. That may well be true today, but it is grossly inadequate to explain the rise of the dog at a time in our evolution when we were living on the edge of starvation with no time for luxuries. No, there must have been a compelling evolutionary advantage in keeping a dog, not least to offset the extra demands of feeding it.

There is another question that requires an answer. Domestication (a wholly inaccurate phrase in my opinion but which will do for now) occurred at a time when all humans were both hunters and gatherers, but mainly hunters. In this respect their way of life had not changed a great deal for at least 200,000 years. There were plenty of wolves, hyenas, jackals and foxes about which could have formed the ancestral stock for the dog and yet there is no evidence of domestication until 50,000 years ago at the outside.

Many theories seek to explain what it was that propelled Homo sapiens from a scarce, medium-sized primate to the position of complete domination that we enjoy today. The ability to control fire, the evolution of language and the invention of agriculture are three prominent examples. I would add a fourth: the transformation of the wolf into the multi-purpose helpmate and companion that is the dog. We owe our survival to the dog. And they owe theirs to us.



At its narrowest point, the mighty Danube thunders through a narrow gorge, the Gate of Trajan,* cut by the river into the limestone bastions of the Carpathian Alps. Lupa, the she-wolf, stood at the edge of the gorge gazing down at the small figures making their way up the banks of the river a hundred metres below. They did not provoke in her any particular reaction. Humans had been using the river in this way for as long as she could remember. She and her pack did not have anything to do with the humans, but all the same she liked to keep an eye on them when they were in her territory. She knew the humans as brave hunters but they moved far too slowly to be very effective. They would eat anything that moved, including her fellow wolves if they could catch one. But that very rarely happened, and only if a wolf was sick or injured in some way. Earlier in the year, Lupa had watched the humans ambush and kill a young mammoth by driving it over the edge of the cliff, though this was unusual and most of the time they seemed barely able to scrape a living. For Lupa the main thing was to leave them alone and avoid unnecessary confrontations.

As the river mist lifted with the first rays of morning sun, Lupa could see the humans more clearly and, with her acute awareness of every detail of her surroundings, she sensed that they were a bit different from usual. They were a little taller, a little slimmer perhaps and moved a little more, how would she put it, a little more gracefully. Probably nothing in it, she thought to herself. Even so, Ill keep a close eye on them. She turned away and trotted effortlessly back across the undulating grassland, dusted by an early frost, to join the rest of the pack. It was October and winter was well on the way. The river had begun to freeze over and the last of the reindeer had already moved down from the high plateau to their wintering grounds on the river estuary. It was time for Lupa and her pack to follow them, and next day she led them on the long trek downstream towards the Great Black Sea.

Along with Lupa and her mate of two seasons there were four young wolves in Lupas pack, two from this years litter and two from the year before. The pups, born in June, were just old enough to learn to hunt. Before that the pack was too small to be viable for long and it had been hard work getting enough food over the summer. As always, it was Lupa who organised the hunting. She decided what prey to target, even which animal to go for. She planned the chase to take advantage of any variation in the contours of the landscape and decided where to set any ambushes. The pack was completely dependent on her skill and leadership.

Meanwhile, the humans at the bottom of the gorge were not aware that they were being watched. They knew about wolves, of course. They occasionally came across one in the forests and were familiar with the eerie howling that kept pack members in touch with one another. But in general humans and wolves kept themselves to themselves. The new type of human, Homo sapiens, that Lupa had seen from her vantage point at the lip of the gorge had other things on their mind. The first of these was that the gorge was also home to Neanderthals. They were noticeably different in appearance, being much heavier set and therefore stronger, but at the same time were less agile. Neanderthals and moderns tolerated each other and, in fact, occasionally interbred. The biggest difference between the two human species was invisible. The Neanderthals were not as smart or inventive. They hadnt changed their hunting methods or equipment for at least 200,000 years and showed little sign of ever doing so. The moderns on the other hand were always thinking of new ways of doing things. New designs of stone tools, of bows and arrows, the invention of the atlatl, or spear-thrower, and of all sorts of personal adornments. In time, these improvements would spell the end of the Neanderthals, and now there was one other innovation that was about to make an impact, a coalition between wolf and human, something the Neanderthals had never even contemplated.

The caves lining the Gate of Trajan were a favourite hibernation site for one of the most feared animals of the Upper Palaeolithic, the cave bear Ursus spelaeus, half as big again as the brown bear and with a voracious, omnivorous appetite for food which, from time to time, included humans, both Neanderthal and modern. Whereas Neanderthals abandoned the shelter of the caves as soon as they heard or smelled a bear nosing around, moderns had learned to leave the caves in the autumn and return a few weeks later when the bears were hibernating and kill them where they slept. This gave them vacant possession and enough meat to help them through the winter, should they wish to stay.

By early March the days were getting longer, although not appreciably warmer, and Lupa knew it was time to make a start for the high ground. The wolf pack had survived the winter by feeding off the herds of reindeer and wild horse which overwintered on the delta. But first there was the business of mating. Lupa was only receptive to the alpha male for five days every year. That was enough for her to get pregnant once again. She wanted to be sure to reach her traditional denning site in the hills in good time for the birth of her cubs. Very early one morning, with the frost decorating the dried stems of last years reeds, she led her pack away from the delta and headed west for the mountains.

In past seasons Lupa had arrived in the gorge ahead of the Neanderthals, who had also spent the winter on lower ground. This year she was surprised to see humans were already living around the gorge when she arrived with the other wolves. She made her way to her usual birthing den in a small cave hidden behind a patch of eroded scree high up on the side of the gorge. Ten days before the cubs were due, she settled down and waited for the births. For the period of her confinement the alpha male ran the pack. All the wolves brought food to Lupa which they left outside her den.

In due course Lupa gave birth to four blind cubs. One, the weakest, died almost immediately, but the other three developed quickly. Their eyes opened at two weeks and a week later they were beginning to feed on regurgitated meat. The following week, Lupa led her pups outside the den for the first time where they played under her supervision. The other wolves who had kept Lupa supplied with meat during her confinement now began to do their share of babysitting, giving Lupa a well-deserved break.

The first thing she did was to walk to her favourite lookout at the edge of the gorge to see what the humans were up to. She could see a small group paddling in the river, overturning stones and occasionally plunging their hands into the icy water to pull out a crayfish. This is something the Neanderthals never did. But the biggest surprise was still to come. On her way back to the den she saw not far away on the plateau a group of humans who appeared to be hunting. The Neanderthals never came up to the top of the gorge. These strange new humans were the same slimmer version she had seen the year before. Unsure what to make of them, she kept low to the ground out of sight behind a clump of dwarf willow.

Over the rest of the summer Lupa and her pack saw more and more of the humans up on the plateau.

She saw them ambush a wild horse they had deliberately separated from the herd. They had it cornered in a patch of marshy ground below a low bluff where it became trapped in the mud. Two of the humans there were six in all climbed the bluff with spears in hand. While the others spread their arms and shouted to confine the horse and prevent it from escaping, the two on the bluff raised their spears and hurled them into the struggling animal. It shuddered and dropped to the ground. All six humans crowded round the stricken beast and drove their spears deep into its chest. Once it was dead they took out stone knives, opened the abdomen and shared the liver between them. They then butchered the rest of the carcass and made their way back down the gorge. Not all their hunts were as successful as this, and more than once over the summer Lupa watched as the exhausted humans made their way home empty-handed.

The first flurries of winter snow fell on the high plateau in August and the reindeer were once again on the move to lower ground. The first snows heralded the best months hunting of the year for the wolves. Calves born in May were now almost fully grown but were inexperienced. The wolves knew which routes the animals would take across the undulating plateau and planned to intercept them in the pockets of soggy ground that lay in their path. Lupa led her pack, now nine strong, towards the ambush zone, many kilometres from their home near the top of the gorge. But something was troubling her. She stopped and sniffed the air. There it was again, the same scent she had first encountered at the site where the humans had killed and butchered the wild horse a few weeks earlier. Not only was Lupas olfactory sense very acute, she was also able to remember smells for months or even years. She knew very well the pungent scent of the Neanderthals, but this was certainly different, still strong but a little sweeter. Scent always being her primary sense, from now on she would recognise the new humans using her nose rather than her eyes. She scanned the horizon. She could not see any humans. She led her pack onwards.

Suddenly from a small clump of birch trees about twenty metres away an enormous bull aurochs charged out, heading straight for Lupa. These giant beasts, the ancestors of domestic cattle, had very short tempers and were extremely aggressive towards wolves. Lone bulls like this one were worst of all. Wolves knew better than to take on an enraged aurochs. It would take a much bigger pack than Lupas to subdue and kill such a giant. Before she had time to organise the rest of the pack, the beast was on her. She just managed to dodge the deadly horns on the first pass and moved backwards out of range. Seeing her in trouble, the first instinct of the rest of the pack was to protect its leader. The alpha male rushed into the attack, attempting to sink his long canine teeth into the beasts huge neck. With a flick of the bulls head the wolf was skewered on the aurochss left horn. Another flick and the bloodied body was flung to the ground. The other wolves went to attack, still desperate to protect their leader. The thrashing bull caught one of this years cubs full in the chest with its back leg then turned and trampled the winded and mewling animal and left it dying on the moss. Lupa herself now joined in, knowing full well that if she was killed or injured the pack was finished.

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