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We are not masters, we are partners in evolution

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 25, 2002

The dog Harry, a mixture of yellow Labrador and German shepherd, loves us with all of his being. He hangs his head when we leave. He wags all over and cries in a great joy-fit when we return. To all those he knows, he is a sweet and good-hearted puppy; when a stranger knocks on the front door he hurls himself against it with a terrifying bang and explodes in barks with fangs bared.

When we are happy, he is happy. When there is unhappiness in the air, he feels it too. Each morning begins for him with giddy optimism; he stands by the bed with tail whacking against the closet door. He lies at our feet during the day, half-sleeping while waiting for a cue. If the topic turns to him during these naps, even if he is not mentioned by name, he senses that he is the focus of our attention, and his tail starts thumping anew.

It is not so much of a stretch to consider the idea that it is Harry and his ancestors who have adapted us to their purposes, as much as we have domesticated them.

New scientific studies published last week suggest that dogs and humans have evolved together to our mutual benefit. Dogs might not be as smart as some animals, but they have a unique talent -- the ability to pick up cues from humans.

In turn, it is a good question as to whether dogs helped the process of natural selection among humans by helping them to hunt and track, and to defend their territory. As we chose dogs for their ability to get along with us, they chose us for our ability to get along with them. Dogs shaped the human race to be more dog-friendly.

"The big thing the dog knows about -- the subject it has mastered in the ten thousand years it has been evolving at our side -- is us: our needs and desires, our emotions and values," writes Michael Pollan, the author of a fascinating book published in 2001 titled The Botany of Desire.

That's why the dog has been a fabulous success as a species. That's why there are 50-million dogs in the U.S. alone, and about 10,000 wolves. The early wolf-dogs who screwed up the courage to get closer to the campfire were well rewarded.

(Cats, of course, consider that the pleasure of their company is compensation enough for their room and board, and apparently have found enough takers over the millennia to flourish as well.)

"We automatically think of domestication as something we do to other species," Pollan writes. "But it makes just as much sense to think of it as something certain plants and animals have done to us, a clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests."

Yes, plants, too. Their flowers lure pollinators. Their burrs stick to furry animals and travel. Their nuts provide food for squirrels. The squirrels repay the favor, Pollan notes, by taking them far away and then forgetting where they bury about one out of every three.

The honeybee, to the extent that she has an independent consciousness at all, surely considers herself to be in control of the relationship with the flower. But it is just as sensible to argue that the flower has arranged the entire transaction for its own benefit.

When you consider that this practice of plants getting animals to do their work for them has gone on for millions of years, it seems a little pretentious for a late-arriving species such as humanity to claim that it "invented agriculture."

In fact, a visitor arriving from another planet might well conclude that the dominant life forms on Earth are the grassy plants, including wheat and corn.

Just as sharks are served by cleaner-fish, these species have arranged for themselves to be lovingly tended, fed, watered and propagated by humans. The humans are deforesting more and more of the Earth's surface to make room for them. We even are helpfully jacking up the greenhouse conditions.

Does the beaver know it's creating calmer waters for fish and frogs and lilies?

Some scoff at Pollan's way of thinking. Did the turkey on our dinner plate this week agree to this deal? Maybe not -- but the species of turkey made itself desirable, and thus guaranteed its prosperity. If you still believe that high-and-mighty humanity is the master of the world, that is your right. But me, I have to rush home now to feed Harry.

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