February 25, 2022 | Jerry Bergman

Did Nice Dogs Evolve from Mean Wolves?

Yet Another Evolution Story Falters: Dog Domestication Tale
Fails to Support Another Tale: How Wild Apes Became Civilized Humans



by Dr Jerry Bergman, PhD

One of the most widely accepted evolution stories—told by both creationists and evolutionists—is the domestication of wolves. It is commonly believed that wolves evolved into dogs. Dogs are thought to be less aggressive than wolves, judging from the family pets we all love. But how does a wild-type Canis familiaris mongrel behave in the wild?

Creationists have long argued that wolf ‘evolution’ into modern dogs is due to selection of existing traits (i.e., microevolution), not ‘evolution’ from one Genesis kind to another kind (i.e., macroevolution). This process is no different, they say, than breeding (i.e., artificial selection), for example, breeding tame, docile porcupines from wild porcupines, or tame skunks from wild skunks, as was done by experimenters a few decades ago. Dog breeders have created very diverse dog varieties depending on the traits they valued as useful. Clearly a toy poodle is as far from a wolf as one can get. For the wolf-to-dog story, however, one needs to consider what kind of “evolution” occurred between a wild wolf and the first domestic dog.

The wolf domestication story embeds the belief that domestication made wolves less aggressive, and also significantly enhanced their socio-cognitive abilities.[1] Evolutionists reject the Genesis account of variation within a kind, of course. They interpret the domestication of dogs as a case of macroevolution from a wolf to a new species of canine.[2] Furthermore, instead of referring to dogs as domesticated wolves, evolutionists consider the many small microevolutionary changes as evidence of Darwinian evolution by accumulation of slight variations. In this case, they claim that the domesticated dog, Canis familiaris, descended from the gray wolf, Canis lupus and evolved over time into a new species with different traits and behaviors due to ‘selective pressure’ by humans.

The Just-So Story

The story often goes like this. Somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago, Canis lupus began its evolutionary journey when some wolves began visiting human hunter-gatherers’ camps prowling about for discarded food. In the cold of winter, they also were seeking warmth near their campfires. Over the years, these rendezvous eventually became part of daily life for both the humans and wolves. The wolves’ pups grew less fearful of man and were less frightening to their human hosts. Meanwhile, what the humans judged as the cuter canids were more likely to be nurtured and nourished. Eventually, over thousands of years of evolution, when human settlements developed into larger villages, these canids moved into human homes. The wolves’ characteristics were also molded by evolution to a human-made environment, thereby equipping them with more sophisticated socio-cognitive skills compared with their wolf relatives. The result was, what was once a wild wolf has now become a domesticated dog.

This tale has been amplified by portrayals of wolves as ravenous beasts that hunt down and attack people, whereas dogs are “man’s best friend.” But raised in the wild, are the two really that different? They can look almost the same (see photos below); what about their “evolved” behaviors? Is the evolutionary angle supported by the evidence?

Applying the Tale to Humans

As we shall see, a new study undermines the tale. The authors say that because of “claims that dogs are less aggressive and show more sophisticated socio-cognitive skills compared with wolves, dog domestication has been invoked to support the idea that humans underwent a similar ‘self-domestication’ process.”[3] Specifically, they add, “the most important selective pressure shaping modern humans [from our ape ancestors] included a decrease in aggression, leading to higher sociability. In turn, these changes in temperament have allowed aspects of social cognition to evolve that are hallmarks of human abilities.”[4]

The hypothesis claims that selective pressure operating during human evolution from apes is similar to the shaping of traits of other domesticated species like dogs.[5] This hypotheses is attractive because of the power it has to “explain the appearance of multiple traits in different domains (morphology, physiology, behavior, and cognition) invoking a single process: selection against aggression.”[6]

Gray Wolf

Problems With the Story

A new experiment has questioned the entire ‘Canis familiaris evolved from Canis lupus’ scenario. Fredericke Range and Sarah Marshall-Pescini raised wolves and dogs in a controlled environment from birth to adulthood. They then evaluated how the animals reacted to, and cooperated with, humans.  They published their results in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

One result demonstrated that many

free-ranging domestic dogs are often more aggressive than wolves. Moreover, studies find that wolves raised by humans cooperate as well with their caretakers as do pet dogs. This suggests that domestication didn’t lead to less aggression or enhanced cognitive abilities in dogs. Rather, domestication simply may have made dogs less fearful and more subservient.[7]

The wolf-to-dog story falls apart for other reasons as well. Behavioral differences between wolves and dogs do not support the evolutionary claim:

dogs do not show increased socio-cognitive skills and they are not less aggressive than wolves. Rather, compared with wolves, dogs seek to avoid conflicts, specifically with higher ranking conspecifics and humans, and might have an increased inclination to follow rules, making them amenable social partners. These conclusions challenge the suitability of dog domestication as a model for human social evolution and suggest that dogs need to be acknowledged as animals adapted to a specific socio-ecological niche as well as being shaped by human selection for specific traits.[8]

The researchers also looked into the dynamics of wolf packs and the behavior of free-ranging domestic dogs (which constitute over 70 percent of the domestic dogs living today, surprisingly). They determined that wolf packs exhibit less aggression. Human-raised wolves often can match, or even beat, dogs in a variety of tasks, a finding that does not surprise persons who raise wolves for a living or as pets. Furthermore, dogs are not less aggressive and do not show more advanced social thinking abilities than modern-day wolves. The authors say that, in

contrast to earlier results, recent studies showed that both wolves and dogs are capable of forming attachment bonds with their human caregivers  and, while wolf puppies exhibit greater interest toward human strangers than do dogs, this curiosity disappears in adult wolves, and both species prefer to seek and accept physical contact from caregivers rather than from strangers and/or merely familiar people.[9]

Additionally, in contrast to the belief that greater socio-cognitive skills exist

in dogs than in wolves, human-socialized wolves outperform dogs in following human gaze and perform similarly when begging from an attentive versus inattentive human. Furthermore, when the confounds of the greater persistence of wolves are removed, wolves communicate similarly to dogs when attempting to obtain an out-of-reach food reward from a collaborative human partner. Wolves are also as apt as dogs are to cooperate with humans in the loose-string paradigm, although the style of cooperation differs.[10]

A pet Seppala Siberian Sleddog that looks very much like a wolf.


In an attempt to explain how our claimed aggressive, untamed ape ancestors evolved into modern civilized humans, a theory based on assumptions about dogs has been exploited. The new research has determined that common beliefs about how wild wolves became domesticated dogs are basically wrong. This finding has not only disproved the wolf-to-dog theory, but has also demolished the theoretical foundation for the belief that wild apes evolved into humans exhibiting less aggression and more cooperation.

Along the way to demolishing the myth of wolves by turning assumptions on their head, the researchers demonstrated that, as pets and work animals, wolves reared in captivity are in some areas more tame and compliant than dogs.



[1] Perri, Angela, et al. 2021. Dog domestication and the dual dispersal of people and dogs into the Americas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118(6): e2010083118, February 9, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2010083118.

[2] Leathlobhair, M., et al. 2018. The evolutionary history of dogs in the Americas. Science 361(6397): 81–85.

[3] Range, Friederike, and Marshall-Pescini, Sarah. 2022. Comparing wolves and dogs: Current status and implications for human ‘self-domestication.’ Trends in Cognitive Sciences, February 7 (bold added). https://www.cell.com/action/showPdf?pii=S1364-6613%2822%2900018-3.

[4] Range, et al., 2022.

[5] Sánchez-Villagra, M.R., and Schaik, C.P. van. 2019. Evaluating the self-domestication hypothesis of human evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology 28(3): 133–143; Wrangham, R.W. 2019. Hypotheses for the evolution of reduced reactive aggression in the context of human self- domestication. Frontiers in Psychology, August 20, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01914/full.

[6] Range and Marshall-Pescini, 2022.

[7] Pomeroy, Ross. 2022. The “mean wolf to friendly dog” domestication story might be wrong:

The story of dog domestication is one of converting the wild wolf into man’s nicer, smarter, best friend. It might be all wrong. Big Think, February 16, http://The%20“mean%20wolf%20to%20friendly%20dog”%20domestication%20story%20might%20be%20wrong.

[8] Range and Marshall-Pescini, 2022. Bold added.

[9] Range and Marshall-Pescini, 2022.

[10] Range and Marshall-Pescini, 2022.

Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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