Where Philip truly embraces the history, the very long history of man and dog.
I left Chapter Five with the lead character, Philip, having been given a detailed introduction into the social order of dogs, especially the roles and attributes of the three teaching dogs: Mentor, Minder and Nannie and realising that his German Shepherd dog, Pharaoh, was a Minder teaching dog (as he is in real life!).
One of our friends from our Payson days, dear MaryA, has been reading the chapters as they have been published in this place. Her comment in a subsequent telephone conversation was that she found it a bit too intricate, a bit too drawn-out. That accorded with Jeannie’s view.
It’s clear that much of the so-called fictional writing is highly auto-biographical. I have no idea whether or not the ‘novel’ gets rejected because of that, or even if rejection is even part of what follows when the 50,000 words are achieved.
But anyone who knows my real life story will not have too much trouble reading between the lines of the fictional account of Philip’s life.
The consequence of this is that, at times, the words flow very easily because it’s very real in my own mind. Thus too much detail, too much minutia, is a valid criticism. Then again, the pressure of writing an average of 1,667 words a day, day in and day out, makes ‘dumping’ lots of detail feel rewarding because one is keeping up. Just as an aside, at the time of writing this post, 3:30pm yesterday, Pacific Time, the NaNoWriMo counter shows that 21,720 words have been written against a requirement by the end of today, Day 13, for 21,677! I have written for about three hours today. I’m 43 words ahead!
OK, enough of that. Here’s Chapter Six.
Learning from Dogs
Yet again his return to Harberton had him describing to Maggie outcomes so very different to what he had been expecting when he had left the house. It was starting to be an expectation. That, try as hard as he could to predict what he and Pharaoh were off to do, within a few hours of leaving home he would be returning with a report of events totally unanticipated.
However, these serendipitous and surprising events shared one common journey. That journey of Philip better understanding the reality of his relationship with dogs in general, and with Pharaoh in particular. The visit to Angela earlier in the morning being outstanding in this regard; he would forever look at Pharaoh with different eyes.
He spent the afternoon pottering about the house and after supper settled down in front of the fire and picked up the article that Angela had given him as he and Pharaoh left her place.
Twenty minutes later, having read the article, he looked across to Maggie, who had settled down in an easy chair just opposite him, the fire creating a mood of comfort and contentment all around, and said, “Wow, Maggie, I had absolutely no idea that the relationship of humans with dogs went so far back in time. This article is mind-blowing. It’s by a Dr. George Johnson who, according to his bio, is Professor Emeritus of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis.”
Philip went on to say, a smile across his face, in a more-or-less throwaway manner, “You know some day I must really understand what an emeritus professor means. Ah well!”
“Why don’t you read the article to me,” came Maggie’s reply.
“Alright, that would be nice. Let me skip the opening paragraph and go straight to the heart of what Johnson writes.”
He ran his eye down the page.
“Apparently, the author had a dog called Boswell who died from choking on a chicken bone, which sort of raises some questions, but anyway then Johnson writes in his second paragraph.
This week I found myself wondering about Boswell’s origins. From what creature did the domestic dog arise? Darwin suggested that wolves, coyotes, and jackals — all of which can interbreed and produce fertile offspring — may all have played a role, producing a complex dog ancestry that would be impossible to unravel. In the 1950s, Nobel Prize-winning behaviourist Konrad Lorenz suggested some dog breeds derive from jackals, others from wolves.
Based on anatomy, most biologists have put their money on the wolf, but until recently there was little hard evidence, and, as you might expect if you know scientists, lots of opinions.”
Philip looked up. “Is this OK for you? Am I reading clearly?”
“Yes, of course,” Maggie replied.
Philip again looked down at the paper, continuing, “The issue was finally settled in 1997 by an international team of scientists led by Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles. To sort out the evolutionary origin of the family dog, Wayne and his colleagues used the techniques of molecular biology to compare the genes of dogs with those of wolves, coyotes and jackals.
Wayne’s team collected blood, tissue, or hair from 140 dogs of sixty-seven breeds, and 162 wolves from North America, Europe, Asia, and Arabia. From each sample they extracted DNA from the tiny organelles within cells called mitochondria.”
Philip paused, took a couple of breaths, and carried on.
“While the chromosome DNA of an animal cell derives from both parents, the mitochondrial DNA comes entirely from the mother. Biologists love to study mitochondrial DNA because of this simple line of descent, female-to-female-to-female. As changes called mutations occur due to copying mistakes or DNA damage, the mitochondrial DNA of two diverging lines becomes more and more different. Ancestors can be clearly identified when you are studying mitochondrial DNA, because clusters of mutations are not shuffled into new combinations like the genes on chromosomes are. They remain together as a particular sequence, a signature of that line of descent.”
Philip again paused, looked up at Maggie. “Have to say I’m not completely clear just what the author is explaining here but, as you will hear, the crux of the findings is unmistakable.”
Turning back to the article, he continued, “When Wayne looked at his canine mitochondrial DNA samples, he found that wolves and coyotes differ by about 6% in their mitochondrial DNA, while wolves and dogs differ by only 1%. Already it smelled like the wolf was the ancestor.
Wayne’s team then focused their attention on one small portion of the mitochondrial DNA called the control region, because it was known to vary a lot among mammals. Among the sixty seven breeds of dogs, Wayne’s team found a total of 26 different sequences in the control region, each differing from the others at one or a few sites. No one breed had a characteristic sequence — rather, the breeds of dogs share a common pool of genetic diversity.”
Philip again looked up at Maggie.
“This is where it gets fascinating,” and looking back down, went on to read, “Wolves had 27 different sequences in the control region, none of them exactly the same as any dog sequence, but all very similar to the dog sequences, differing from them at most at 12 sites along the DNA, and usually fewer.
Coyote and jackal were a lot more different from dogs than wolves were. Every coyote and jackal sequence differed from any dog sequence by at least 20 sites, and many by far more.
That settled it. Dogs are domesticated wolves.”
The dog’s origin is the wolf. Philip paused, wanting the significance of this to settle over the two of them. Or, perhaps, better said, settle over the three of them, for Pharaoh was laying prone on his tummy with his head resting between both outstretched front paws. He was far from sleeping. One could almost imagine that he was as engrossed in the findings of Dr. George Johnson as Maggie appeared to be.
Philip continued, “Using statistical methods to compare the relative similarity of the sequences, Wayne found that all the dog sequences fell into four distinct groups. The largest, containing 19 of the 26 sequences and representing 3/4 of modern dogs, resulted from a single female wolf lineage. The three smaller groups seem to represent later events when other wolves mated with the now-domesticated dogs. Domestication, it seems, didn’t happen very often, and perhaps only once.”
Again, Philip looked up, “Maggie, just listen to this last paragraph.
The large number of different dog sequences, and the fact that no wolf sequences are found among them, suggests that dogs must have been separated from wolves for a long time. The oldest clear fossil evidence for dogs is 12,000 – 14,000 years ago, about when farming arose. But that’s not enough time to accumulate such a large amount of mitochondrial DNA difference. Perhaps dogs before then just didn’t look much different from wolves, and so didn’t leave dog-like fossils. Our species first developed speech and left Africa about 50,000 years ago. I bet that’s when dogs came aboard, when our hunter-gatherer ancestors first encountered them. They would have been great hunting companions.”
Philip put the article down on the low wooden table in front of the settee. Pharaoh rolled over on to his side and closed his eyes.
“Just think, Maggie, humans have had a relationship with dogs for fifty thousand years. It really does feel that we humans were only able to evolve from the life-style of hunter-gatherer to that of farmer because of dogs. By that I mean that dogs helped us to be such successful hunters; that we became so well nourished that we weren’t living hand-to-mouth, as it were. Plus that dogs could protect us as we cleared the lands and became farmers of nature’s bounty.”
There was a silence in the living room. A silence that flowed from both Maggie and Philip letting the enormity of these findings work their way into their consciousnesses. Fifty thousand years. It was almost beyond grasp. Surely no other animal has been so bound to the fortunes of humans as the dog. Philip had no intellectual or educational background, no objective means, to embrace this finding in anything other than a deeply subjective, emotional way. He couldn’t articulate what it surely had to mean for the animal species, dog, to have been living, and dying, in such close association to the human species, man, for fifty thousand years. “Phew!” was the only sound to escape his lips.
“Just going to step outside, Maggie.”
“OK,” she replied. “Oh, looks as though Pharaoh’s coming out with you.”
Philip and Pharaoh stood on that gravelly front level just down from the front door. It was a crystal clear night. In the cul-de-sac where they lived, the glow of room-lights from many other homes was shining out through drawn curtains in numerous windows.
Overhead, the scale of the night sky spoke to him. Those twinkling stars seemed to offer the same feelings of time and distance as those years of the relationship between man and dog. That distant starlight that had been journeying for inconceivable amounts of time arriving here, at this very moment, this very instance, shining down on man and dog that, likewise, had been on an incredible journey; shining down on Philip and Pharaoh.
1,580 words. Copyright © 2013 Paul Handover