We see ourselves as standing above the rest of creation, but could animals be shaping us just as we are shaping them?
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It is well understood how we have shaped these wolves: our ancestors would have favoured those that were friendly and useful to humans, so eventually creating the domestic dog of today. But less well studied is how this relationship changed us. Shipman argues that those humans who showed the right skills and sensitivity to manage wolves outlived and out-bred those who tried to go it alone; the result is a world of dog-lovers. Domestication runs two ways.
She claims that three giant leaps in human development were all about this animal connection: our mastery of stone tools (to kill or cut up these animals); our development of language and eventually writing (to communicate information about animal habits and habitats); and our domestication of other species. Together these laid the foundation for modern societies.
This is a bold hypothesis, and among the evidence she presents is also a great deal of speculation. But there are at least some cases where the results of these connections are clear – such as our alliance with the cow. DNA profiles suggest that 10,000 years ago, the vast majority of humans were lactose intolerant – genetically incapable of digesting milk beyond infancy. Yet in Europe and those areas colonised by Europeans, 95 per cent of the population now can (and do) happily consume dairy products into their dotage. So in these cow-rearing lands, humans with the ability to digest milk spread at the expense of their fussier cousins. In effect, just as we have bred cows for high milk yield, so they have “bred” us to digest this milk (and therefore to have a reason to care for them). And if we have evolved lactose tolerance through our interaction with the bovine, it is not crazy to think we might also have evolved a fondness for dogs, or a predilection for observing the behaviour of predators.