With “Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men” still elusive, let’s reflect on the latest news about the dog and the wolf.
Why do dogs want to pal around with humans but wolves don’t? Princeton University geneticist Bridgett vonHoldt thinks she’s found the answer.
On chromosome six in the dog genome, she’s found a mutation that diverges from that of the wolf. The “friendliness mutation,” she calls it.
Thousands of years ago, wolves with some of this mutation already underway apparently made a strategic, or inadvertent, decision. They became human camp followers, feeding on our ancestors’ garbage.
They in turn assisted human hunters by spotting and tracking prey, researchers theorize. Man and beast established enough mutual trust, or at least tolerance, that they could successfully cooperate in pursuit of a common goal: finding food.
On our conflict-prone planet, such inter-species cooperation seems worthy of our intra-species attention.
These “friendly” wolves presumably were neither fear-ridden nor as suspicious of humans as other wolves. To survive, they were up for the risk of trying something new. They weren’t xenophobic.
Instead, dogs are xenophilic, says Duke University evolutionary biologist Brian Hare, who has studied them for 25 years. “They are attracted to new things and new people.” But wolves, even human-raised, well-fed ones? Not so much.
Anyone living with a dog today is deeply schooled in how profitable this ancient transaction turned out to be for our very astute canine companions. Of course, human life too has been greatly enriched thanks to this ancient bonding of species. A win-win.
“I think what really summarizes the link between dogs and human evolution is survival of the friendliest,” says Hare.
Cooperation and survival
Survival of the friendliest? Hello? Could “survival of the fittest” really mean survival of the friendliest?
In answer, Hare poses a question. Four or five other humanoid species lived on this planet 100,000 years ago, he says. “Why are we the only ones left?”
His theory? Because our species, like the dog, evolved to become open to new things and friendly to new people. This genetic trait allowed our human ancestors to cooperate, Hare says. Cooperation has been the foundation of our success as a species, he reminds. It’s also been key to the dog’s phenomenal worldwide success.
“We were the friendliest species that ever evolved among humans and we succeeded because we are friendly,” Hare recently told CBS 60 Minutes’ Anderson Cooper.
But here we must ask: If homo sapiens is such a friendly, cooperative species, why do we spend so much time on warfare?
After millennia of proving the theory right, it would seem our species, like the dog, should inherently intuit that friendship and cooperation are the best paths to all manner of success, including peace. The supporting historical evidence is overwhelming.
Even so, too many of us seem to have missed the memo. My own suspicion is that humans don’t necessarily come equipped with the intuitive bandwidth to avoid repeating even the most spectacular of mistakes made by humans who lived much more than, say, 70 years ago — that is, within living memory. A cognitive design flaw, perhaps.
World War II ended 78 years ago. Those of us who, like myself, lived through that cataclysmic disaster thought it had forever discredited despots and their authoritarian ilk.
We were wrong. There’s been plenty of deadly conflict since, and an unthinkable reprise of authoritarian misrule. But no world war. Thanks to cooperation, we’ve lived three generations in comparative peace.
Now, though, after Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine, democratic nations once again face a wretched choice: appease a cruel, duplicitous aggressor or — possibly — another world war.
The last time democratic nations faced this choice, they did not call Hitler’s bluff. Initially, they chose appeasement. This, naturally enough, encouraged Hitler to press on. Bottom line? Their initial appeasement dramatically raised the awful price democratic nations paid in blood and treasure to stop a heedless aggressor.
The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded this month, in formerly Nazi-occupied Norway, to people in countries caught up in Russia’s latest criminal invasion of Ukraine: Oleksandra Matvijtsjuk of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, Jan Ratsjinskij of the Russian human rights organization Memorial and imprisoned human rights advocate Aljes Bjaljatski of Belarus.
“Peace is not achieved by having a nation under attack lay down its weapons,” Ukraine’s Matvijtsjuk bluntly warned assembled dignitaries as she accepted the peace prize. “This is not a war between two states, this is a war between two systems — authoritarianism and democracy.”
She echoed President Barack Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. The price of peace sometimes must be fighting a war, he reminded — though no widespread war happened after Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea.
After getting away with that, Matvijtsjuk said, “Russia thought it could do whatever it wanted.” So here we are, poised to repeat a mistake.
She warned against forgetting history. “Those who survived World War II are no longer among us, and new generations have begun to take rights and freedoms for granted.”
But despots do remember Hitler’s successful deployment of preposterous “black is white” lies. Aping Nazi Big Lie tactics and indifference to human rights, “Russia has ruined its own civil society,” Matvijtsjuk rightly observed.
What’s next is unclear.
But not this: Putin lacks not only the human equivalent of the chromosome six “friendliness” mutation but the bandwidth to learn from history.
Solveig Torvik lives near Winthrop.