Day Thirty-Nine: Cross-Species Friendship

As I may have mentioned, I participate in @dorianmases Instagram photography challenges. The latest was to take a picture featuring a shadow or shadows. While playing around with the camera and the dog, I got this shot, which I entered. Part of the challenge is to put some good text with the photo, a little story about it.

Working on the challenge while re-reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens made me think about our amazing relationship with dogs. We humans like to think of ourselves as a single species, independent of all the others. In reality, we may not even be mostly human. The commonly cited statistic about a 10:1 ration of microbial cells to human cells may not be good science, or even science, period, but whatever the reality is, a large part of us isn’t actually us. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say a large part of us is what one of my professors would call a holon, something that is both a whole and a part, simultaneously. I’ve heard humans referred to as a composite species.

And that’s without even thinking of our symbiotes. Most of our symbiotic relationships are a pretty raw deal for the other party. Humans make chickens the most widespread bird in the world, an evolutionary win, but most chickens lead miserable lives.

In some cases, dogs and cats also lead miserable lives, but on the whole, our symbiotic relationship with carnivores is different than with herbivores. It is more about partnership than subjugation. Dogs and humans, in particular, have been an unbeatable team.

The earliest concrete evidence we have of domesticated dogs is 14,000 or so years old, but there is evidence that dogs and wolves split from a common wolf-like ancestor 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. I’m not sure what other selection pressure would cause this divergence, if not domestication.

Though I have no basis for it, I choose to believe that dogs teamed up with people at the early end of that range. It allows more time for what has been a process of co-evolution. It wasn’t just the dogs that changed with domestication. Both species developed a remarkable instinct for communication with one another. Dog’s profound cooperative instincts, pack hunting, territoriality, and gregariousness may have influenced human development.

In fact, it’s pretty arguable who domesticated whom. More recent theories posit that, when wolves scavenged human middens, the friendliest started to bond with humans, kicking the whole thing off.

However it happened, humans would be different creatures if we hadn’t teamed up dogs. Our partnership has had profound implications for our own development, as well as that of dogs.

My friend, Nairobi.

And what a marvel that is! Two species, so different from one another, literally creating each other down the centuries.

I’ve heard dogs and cats called parasites, who mooch off human generosity while providing little in return. Few of us hunt with our dogs any longer, or run sheep, or pull travoises and sleds. But in these times in particular, we can’t discount the oxytocin boost they give us when we look into their eyes, they vicarious joy we feel when they exuberantly chase down a ball, or the warmth we feel when they lay their heads on our knees.

People who have dogs in their lives have better physical health outcomes, and oxytocin expression and cortisol reduction provide significant mental health benefits. In these stressful times, our friends the dogs are doing us plenty of services.

So, if you’re lucky enough to have a dog, don’t take him or her for granted. You are just the most recent partners in a relationship that goes back at least 14,000 years, and is an absolutely astonishing, almost magical, story of co-evolution. Remember to be amazed.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

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