Book Review

Weanée Kimblewood

Mark Derr:
How the Dog Became the Dog: From Wolves to Our Best Friends.

Hardcover 288 pages
Publisher: Overlook Hardcover; 1 edition (October 27, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1590207009
ASIN: B00B1L308G
Price: 21.00 EUR

Man’s Best Friend

Giant George, the world’s Biggest Dog until 2013. Photo:

Some 10,000 years ago, in the late Stone Age, art entered the archeological record (bone engravings, cave paintings and Venus figurines). Our ancestors started fishing, designed a variety of sophisticated stone tools, and got a new friend, the dog. Here’s his story.

Dogs are – besides cockroaches, plastic bags, nuclear waste and iPhones – the most resilient species on our planet. Dogs have accompanied the careers of prehistoric bear hunters and those of U.S. presidents (remember Bill Clinton’s famous Labrador retriever, Buddy?); dogs were the first animals to orbit the Earth in a spaceship (Soviet dog Laika in 1957) and dogs are the last animals we will meet, when entering the gates of the Underworld, guarded by the three-headed hellhound Kerberos.

Dogs such as Afghan hound Snuppy, the world’s first cloned dog, belong to the immortal heroes of science, while Lassie, Idefix, Pluto, Rantanplan and all the rest are among the immortal heroes of the imagination. And there are quite a lot of them. Until the development of agriculture and grazing, old grandfather wolf was the most common predator on the planet. But dogs have long since outpaced their ancestor in number. The current wolf population has shrunk to approximately 150,000, while the total number of living dogs is estimated to be up to 1,000,000,000.

Where are dogs from...

There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the dog’s prehistoric domestication. In his classic 1949/54 book, Man Meets Dog, the great ethologist Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) assumed that nearly all modern dogs were once domesticated from the golden jackal (Canis aureus). According to DNA analyses, however, Lorenz’ theory is incorrect. Now we know that domestic dogs, from six pound Chihuahuas to 111 kilogram monster Giant George (see above) are all descended from the wolf (Canis lupus). Nonetheless, Man Meets Dog is still an entertaining read.

When did the wolf’s transition into dog start? First studies comparing the mitochondrial DNA of wolves and dogs in the 1990s came to the conclusion that it began more than 100,000 years ago and has repeatedly taken place independently. But the domestication(s) of modern dogs must have happened far more recently, even though experts disagree over time and details.

...and how old are they?

Why not 100,000 or more years ago? Well, the oldest known fossils of wolves showing features of domestication are only up to about 40,000 years old. And all molecular genetic studies – whether of wolf/dog fossils or of today’s breeds – point to a timescale of no more than approximately 35,000 years ago (the last, critical domestication probably occurred as recently as 15,000 to 8,500 years ago).

There is less disagreement regarding the number of events, since most lineages seem to have died out later. Thus all recent or “modern” dogs are likely the offspring of just a handful of domestication events with a small number of founding females. After the decisive separation from the wolf happened (most probably anywhere in East Asia), domesticated dogs quickly migrated throughout the world.

Let’s restate that there’s much speculation and little certainty about the dog’s ancestry. And that is one of the great problems with Mark Derr’s book How the Dog Became the Dog. Although Derr beats around the bush, he finally comes to a single answer to nearly every open question (even though this clear answer is often lost in the thicket of his ramblings). But the problem is that his answers are mostly based on his personal view alone, not on objective assessment of the facts.

Just one possible view of things

Just an example: Derr repeatedly describes a hypothesised scenario in which wolves gather around the campsites of paleo­lithic camps to scavenge refuse. Those wolves which were less frightened by humans and more keen to approach them might have been reproductively more successful – and thus evolved into domesticated animals in the long-term. Nice theory, but only a theory – the “gathering around the campsite” scenario is purely imaginary. Derr, however, describes it as if it really happened.

Another annoyance was Derr’s habit of constant repetition without distinguishing the important from the unimportant and without differentiating fact from uncertain speculation. There’s a lot of opinion but little hard fact in the book. Some might call Derr’s writing style “eloquent”, but your reviewer calls it long-winded.

Poor editing, annoying style

Sadly, the book also contains numerous errors. The aurochs didn’t become extinct at the end of the Pleistocene era, as Derr maintains on page 68 (the last recorded aurochs lived in Poland until 1627). And, amongst many other mistakes, “giant rhinos” never lived in North America during the Pleistocene – they were endemic to Eurasia (and therefore couldn’t fall, “to the arrows and spears of New World paleohunters”, as Derr pictures on page 196). Some of Derr’s other stories about dogs sound more like romantic babble than actual fact, too.

Even worse than factual sloppiness is the book’s poor editing (was there any editing at all?) Nearly every page contains mistakes, including unintelligible sentences, typos and incorrect technical terms. Homo “ergastser” (page 77) should be spelled ergaster, for example, while H. “neanderthalis” should be called neanderthalensis. And so on.

Derr has written a repetitious book, stating the same claims over and over again, usually without evidence. He lacks clarity and moves nervously, almost chaotically, forwards and backwards in time. Reading this book was hard graft that brought little pleasure and left many questions unanswered. Idefix, Rantanplan and their comrades deserve better.

Letzte Änderungen: 07.08.2013