I am currently reading Richard Dawkins's book 'The Greatest Show On Earth: The proof for evolution' and in the second chapter he talks very much about the evolution of dogs.

He says centuries ago there was only such dog-like creature as the wolf, but in a matter centuries the wolf has evolved into the many breeds of dog we have through artificial selection conducted by man.

This to me seemed very peculiar and quite frankly untrue, and I may be getting the wrong end of the stick and he is in fact being analogous, although I'm pretty sure he's not.

So, did wolves evolve into the many breeds of dog we have through artificial selection conducted by man?

If so, how many centuries did this take?

(Dawkins's point was that if the wolf can evolve into the vast amount of breeds of dog we have at the moment from artificial selection over a matter of centuries, then surely over many millions of years, the evolution we claim to know of through natural selection could definitely have happened).

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    $\begingroup$ What makes you think it is untrue? Domestication is the process of artificially selecting a wild species in order to benefit humans. $\endgroup$ – nico May 17 '12 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ @nico The reason it would seem quite untrue is because (to me) even through artificial selection, evolving from a wolf to the vast amount of breeds of dog we have now in centuries seems like a very short amount of time. But I do accept it's true and don't doubt him. Do you know roughly how long ago it was when only wolves were present? $\endgroup$ – ODP May 17 '12 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ Would you say my reason seems unreasonable? $\endgroup$ – ODP May 17 '12 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Olly Your reasons are in fact spot-on but if I remember correctly (but it might have been another of his books), Dakwins explicitly mentions that in order for changes to occur so fast, the variability in the genome has to be already present. $\endgroup$ – Konrad Rudolph May 18 '12 at 0:03
  • $\begingroup$ That would make perfect sense, I couldn't imagine it happening in such short time if there wasn't variability in the genome, thank you. $\endgroup$ – ODP May 18 '12 at 10:50

I just wanted to add that although we are pretty confident that domestication of wolves created domestic dogs in pretty short order. In addition to the fact that they can still interbreed and the taxonomical resemblence of dogs to wolves and finally the genome sequence, probably the most awesome evidence is the domestication of the silver fox.

Russian biologists at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics (ICG) in Novosibirsk, Russia in 1959 started with 130 foxes. Even though they can be bred in captivity and they are close to dogs, they had never been domesticated. By selecting the animals with the least aversion to human contact over 10 generations, they were able to breed foxes that were very much like domestic dogs. They follow humans around, enjoy contact with humans, and generally act friendly. In addition they also bred the most averse animals to human each generation as a control (sure enough these animals would rather nip your fingers off before letting you rub their belly!) there are videos of these animals floating around.

Ten generations of animals ended up being less than 20 years.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah I read about this, their appearance even changed dramatically! $\endgroup$ – ODP May 18 '12 at 10:47
  • $\begingroup$ @OllyPrice like dogs, their appearance change is an unexpected effect of such strong selective pressure. The fact that the coat changes color, the ears get softer and floppier. Its strange how they sort of get cuter when they are domesticated. This should be a coincidence, aggression and physical competition might be associated traits, but its a little odd when you think about it. $\endgroup$ – shigeta May 18 '12 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the fox example! This shows how few genetic polymorphisms and how fast domestication (ie, taming) can occur. Other studies have shown that a few genetic polymorphisms can lengthen snout, shorten legs, alter other characteristics which are used to distinguish a breed of dog. $\endgroup$ – Larry_Parnell May 21 '12 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ You say strange, but then surely (and this is where natural selection would no doubt come in), the genes of those dogs that were 'cuter' AND friendlier would have passed on more often than the others. $\endgroup$ – ODP May 22 '12 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ In the case of dogs, yes. In the case of the foxes the scientists were trying to be pretty clinical about it. They had a test where someone would approach the animal and they would try to rate the reaction alone. ugly but friendly foxes were a distinct possibility here. The fact we think they may be cute might come from some other interesting possibilities, including that friendlier genes may come from some arrested development in the animals which may maintain juvenile traits for instance, which are usually cuter. just a thought. $\endgroup$ – shigeta May 23 '12 at 0:16

According to Serpell, 1995 (http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=I8HU_3ycrrEC, page 8), wolf bones in association with human bones have been found from as early as the middle pleistocene (126,000–781,000 years ago). I think we're talking about more than a few centuries here :) It's still relatively little in comparison to naturally selected evolution, but that's probably the point he is trying to emphasize.

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  • $\begingroup$ If I remember correctly his argument was that the transformation (if I may use such a word) from wolf to dog did indeed occur over a much shorter time span. I’m pretty sure Dawkins was making a factual claim, and since he’s well-versed in dog-breeding and researches all his books with great care, I’d be surprised at such a blunder. $\endgroup$ – Konrad Rudolph May 18 '12 at 0:05
  • $\begingroup$ Later on in the book he does mention that it's 1million years ago that the wolves started becoming village-scavengers (which of course kicked off the domestication of them), I had asked this question before I read that part. $\endgroup$ – ODP May 18 '12 at 10:46

Many dog breeds went through genetic bottlenecks about 200 years ago. Many of today's breeds either did not exist a couple to few hundred years ago or looked rather different than the breed looks today. It doesn't take long to change the characteristics when selective breeding occurs.

One may need to consider the co-evolution of Homo sapiens and Canis familiaris. Our close friendship with dogs tipped the balance in favour of modern man over the Neanderthals, who had previously occupied present-day Europe for a staggering 250,000 years. More on how dogs helped human hunt and be watchful is explained here.

This other report, just out, states that modern dog breeds are genetically disconnected from ancient ancestors. Cross-breeding of dogs over thousands of years has made it extremely difficult to trace the ancient genetic roots of today's pets, according to a new study.

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  • $\begingroup$ Pat Shipman's suggestion seems very unlikely, earliest evidence for a domestication event of the gray wolf is maybe 32,000 or 40,000 years ago, the last Neanderthals died out 42,000 years ago in Gibraltar & 44,000 years ago in the rest of Europe, the math doesn't stack for dogs to have any involvement in the Neanderthals demise. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Dec 20 '19 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ Hmm.. on the other hand (sorry, I think I was sitting on it earlier) the common ancestor of wolves & dogs obviously predates those domestication event dates (which come from genetic evidence rather than fossil record iirc), obviously those animals may have been extant as partners used by humans for some time b4 the (probably not so deliberate) selective breeding diverged them from the wild ones that evolved into wolves, that may push the association with humans back far enough it is possible. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Dec 20 '19 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ A couple more links to compliment your one: National Geographic / The Guardian $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Dec 20 '19 at 14:39

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