Wednesday 4 March 2015

Hunting With Wolves - To Catch Creationists

Artists impression: Wolves hunting mamoths in the Upper Pleistocene Epoch
Photo: Alamy
How hunting with wolves helped humans outsmart the Neanderthals | Science | The Guardian

In a book, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, to be published this month, US Anthropologist, Pat Shipman, of Pennsylvania State University, puts forward the idea that domestication of wolves played a key role in the conquest of Europe by modern humans, and may have given us the edge over Neanderthals, so driving them to extinction. I haven't read this book so what I know of it is second hand.

Her argument is that wolves, Neanderthals and modern humans were all top predators hunting the same large herbivores and all experiencing the same problems, especially that of defending their kill against lions and leopards. Neanderthals had lived in Europe for some 200,000 years before modern humans came out of Africa. They and their Denisovan cousins, as well as probably one or more other hominid species had evolved in Euro-Asia probably from Homo habilis, H. antecessor or H. heidelbergensis while H. sapiens was evolving in Africa. What modern humans brought with them was probably a more advanced technology. In addition, we were able to domesticate wolves which were to go on to evolve into domestic dogs, and for the two species to work together rather than to compete.

At that time, modern humans, Neanderthals and wolves were all top predators and competed to kill mammoths and other huge herbivores, but then we formed an alliance with the wolf and that would have been the end for the Neanderthal.

Professor Pat Shipman, Pennsylvania State University.
For instance, wolves can run down a large herbivore to exhaustion but have to move in close for the kill. Humans, on the other hand, can kill from a position of relative safety using spears, bows and arrows and stones. Wolves can then help defend the kill by harassing other predators. Sharing the kill would have kept the dogs rewarded. In addition, dogs around the encampment would have acted as guards.

Humans are the only great ape to have the whites of their eyes, or sclera, showing. This is believed to have evolved to make silent communication possible because we can see where others are looking and follow their gaze. In a stalking situation this is invaluable. Wolves also have a visible sclera probably for the same reason, so the two species are able to communicate silently with one another.

The main advantage of having white sclera is that it is very easy to work out what another person is gazing at. It provides a very useful form of non-verbal communication and would have been of immense help to early hunters. They would been able to communicate silently but very effectively.

Pat Shipman
There are a few problems with this hypothesis, however. One is that it pushed the domestication of wolves back from the 10-15,000 years currently assumed, coinciding with the rise of agriculture, to some 25,000 years ago. Shipman points to the fossil evidence that domestication may have been underway from 33,000 year-old fossils found in Belgium and Siberia which show evidence of foreshortening of the muzzle. There is also the problem of the dingo, a wild Australian dog believed to be descended from domestic dogs taken to Australia by the first inhabitants some 40,000 years ago. Is this from a different domestication event in Southeast Asia?

There is also the problem of why Neanderthals didn't domesticate wolves having had 200,000 years of coexistence to do it, whereas it only took modern humans a few thousand years. This also raises the question of why Neanderthals don't appear to have domesticated any animals.

As someone pointed out in the comments to the above Guardian article, to describe the extinction of Neanderthals as 'sudden' when it took some 6,000 years, would be like describing the entire history of European culture, from the Stone Age to the present as 'sudden'. Extinction of Neanderthals was not sudden, and we know we co-existed and interbred at least occasionally. In addition to modern humans competing for space and territory, there were also climate changes going on which may have worked against Ice-Age specialist adaptations that Neanderthals had undergone in order to survive.

But, from an evolutionary biologists point of view, whether the precise details proposed by Pat Shipman are correct or not, we know that at some point in our mutual evolutionary history, wolves and humans formed an alliance which has been mutually beneficial to both species. This of course is an example of sets of 'selfish' genes giving rise to cooperation and mutuality just as sets of genes succeeded best in alliance with other genes to form successful genomes, giving the lie to creationist claims that the gene-centred view of evolution which recognises that adaptive evolution only occurs if it's in the 'selfish' interests of the gene, will always result in selfish individuals motivated by greed and having no morals.

In fact, of course, it's in the interests of 'selfish' genes to form cooperative alliances, just as it was in the interests of wolf genes to form alliances with human genes. The simple fact is that this alliance resulted in more descendants of the carriers of those genes and so the genes which facilitated it increased in both the human and the wolf genepool in the local population.

The curious thing is that the very same creationist conservative Christians of the extreme political right who misrepresent science to argue that materialist evolution theory must be wrong and that a society founded on acceptance of it would be an undesirable, amoral, greedy and selfish society, also try to present the greed and selfishness which places all the economic and political power, and all the wealth in the hands of a small number of selfish individuals, as the highest of human motives and the height of human cultural development.

On the other hand, those who accept what science shows, such as the above example of interspecies cooperation and the evidence that evolution creates cooperative alliances because cooperative alliances work best, advocate for Humanist egalitarianism, collective social responsibility and mutual respect and tolerance.

Strange, that. It's almost as though the Christian conservatives are ashamed of their own greed and selfishness and are pretending to be against it to fool those decent people who are genuinely against it, the better to get away with it and present it as a moral crusade. But then why would anyone trust people who need to misrepresent science and lie about evidence in the first place? It's almost as though they have no morals.

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