Jon Franklin discusses The Wolf in the Parlor

Since you weren’t a dog lover to start with, how did you get so deeply involved with this?

Well, as so often in the course of history, a woman was my undoing. I was minding my own business, driving my girlfriend Lynn up to Pittsburgh to see her folks, when all of a sudden I blurted out a marriage proposal. I mean, it was strictly spontaneous.

I remember she just sat there for the longest time, until finally she said, “Does this mean I can have a puppy?

I was aghast, of course. A wife, I wanted (as long as it was Lynn), but the last thing I needed was a dog to complicate my life, get hair on my clothes, hair on the furniture, hair in my refrigerator. There was a lot of negotiation but I lost ground bit by bit until finally there it was, a standard poodle puppy, sitting in my living and exerting more than a little control over my life. There are two modes of existence, I found: With dog, and Without dog.

What do you mean? What’s the difference?

A dog has the ability to direct your attention. It sharpens your perceptions; when the puppy sees its first snow you get to have that innocent first experience yourself, again. And of course when you have a dog you have to walk it (how’s that for a euphemism?) and in the process you find other people – LOTS of other people – walking dogs as well. You meet them and their dogs, and you learn things. Pretty soon you have a lot of dog friends—dogs and dog owners. They live in a different world, a homier world I guess I’d have to say. Less formal. You’d be surprised how many big executives and government officials come home and the minute they’re in the door they’re down on on fours, wrestling Fido, necktie and all.

You learn more about nature, too. When you’re walking the dog the dog is investigating, and a dog’s nose is better in some ways than our eyes. My first poodle, Charlie, would find snakes, turtles, strange insects . . . I learned very quickly to watch where his nose was pointing.

The lesson is that a dog will change your life. That’s so obvious that I assume it’s what people want when they acquire a dog. Actually, though, that’s not the case. Most people don’t think that far ahead. Me, I didn’t think at all.

You make a point in the book that being a science writer influenced the way you looked at your new dog. Why is that?

Being a science writer makes me at least a fringe member of a subculture with a lot of powerful tools, including tools of observations. Over time I’ve come to look at things the way a scientist does. I always ask “why”? Since one of my specialties is anthropology – the human animal –I’m always on the outlook for humans doing strange things. I am doubly interested when they build fortresses of patently absurd explanations around their actions, as they do with the dog. Everyone seems to have an easy answer about why the dog is here, and such a part of our lives, which is why the question never gets asked seriously.

So when we got Charlie I began noticing dogs. How could I not, he was right in my face. Suddenly I realized how many there are — there are dogs everywhere. They are loved, ignored, laughed at. People carry poop bags when they walk their dogs. City councils have incredible fights over what to do with the dogs – politicians cower when leash laws are introduced.

And it isn’t just here in the U.S. Dogs are everywhere. During the Cultural Revolution, one way Mao tried to control the population was to ban dogs. The idea was that dogs ate food that people could eat. People who defied orders and kept dogs were killed. Yet that didn’t stop people from hiding their pets. The same thing happened in Japan during the war. People were willing to risk their lives for their dogs.

As a science writer I wanted to know what was going on. Clearly dogs are more than just companions. They represent something about people. When I first started looking, it had the feel of something hidden in plain sight. That’s something that always attracts me and focuses my mind.

How exactly did wolves metamorphose into dogs?

That’s a complicated question, one that took me ten years and 100,000 words to make sense of. But one thing is certain: It didn’t happen like most people assume it did. It can’t be done by taming, because taming is not genetic. It wasn’t be done by bringing wolf cubs home, because wolf cubs grow up into wolves and wolves are dangerous. People tried that experiment in recent years and many were attacked by the animals they bred. Wolf-dog mixes are only slightly less dangerous. Wolves are wolves and dogs are dogs.

If you think about it, it’s abundantly clear that people didn’t deliberately turn wolves into dogs. For one thing, thousands of years ago, people were just another sort of animal. What precedent did they have in taking another animal and making it a servant? What would make them think of it at all and, if they had, it would have seemed impossible and quite possibly heresy. No, whatever turned the wolf into the dog was a much more powerful force than that exerted by Pleistocene man. Nature, which is to say the changing ecology, somehow slammed the two creatures together so hard that they stuck.

It’s also important that the dog appeared many generations before any other animal joined the human menagerie. It was almost as if it took people two or three thousand years to absorb what had happened, and that they might do it again with animals like pigs and goats.

You mentioned in your book a photo of an old man in a grave reaching for a puppy. What was that all about?

At some point early on, and I don’t remember when, I got an archaeological press release with a excavation photograph of an old man and a puppy. Well, their bones, anyway, because they were buried together 12,000 years ago.

I was interested mainly in the time frame, because 12,000 years ago was a pretty important moment in the evolution of both human and dog. Something happened then that made us what we are. Honestly, I wasn’t much interested at first in the puppy. After we got Charlie, though, I came across the picture again and was shocked at the poignant way the old man seemed to be reaching for the puppy.

It was fascinating to me to think that the two creatures had the same kind of relationship we have with our dogs today, and that the old man was so dependent on his dog that they were buried together. We know now that puppies have a great ability to dampen pain, especially psychic pain. That makes them great companions for children and old people. Today therapy dogs are commonly used by psychiatrists and nursing homes.

You said the old man lived 12,000 years ago. Why is that date important?

On their way to becoming the lords of the earth, our ancestors went through countless disasters and cataclysms. Many times they had to change or die. But the last great critical event was the end of the ice age. Almost everything in the environment changed, and changed fast. That was the date of the appearance of the first true humans, or at least that’s what my research led me to believe.

Consider, for example, the matter of the brain. The big human brain is the hallmark of our kind. It seems to be unique in nature. And the whole rise of the human race, if you want to call it a rise, involved incremental changes in the size of our brains. But at no point did evolution remove humans from the natural environment. We were just one of the animals. Talented, yes, but one of the animals.

Then, twelve thousand years ago, humans lost between five and ten percent of their brain mass. This is a little known fact. I’ve found that even most archaeologists don’t know about it, but it’s a solid fact. A few years ago an Australian scientist was asked to look at the totality of the evidence, the collected measurements of the skulls of ancient humans and their predecessors, and there was no doubt. Remarkably, the human animal lost significant brain mass at the Holocene horizon. Maybe as much as ten percent.

No one knows why, but it was a dramatic change in direction from past evolution. For a million years and more we were made increasingly remarkable by the growth of the size of our brain. And then, suddenly, we lost a significant chunk of that brain and at the same time we stepped out and began to take command of the earth.

This is quite a scenario. We lost brain mass . . . and we got smarter?

Let’s go back a step. What was a “follower wolf”.

That’s what I call the wolves who began following humans some 50,000 years or more. Why did they follow us? Because we were pigs. We evolved high in the trees, where our offal simply disappeared into the foliage below. You don’t have to do any housekeeping if you live in the trees, the stuff gets drops to the ground. Even the dead just disappeard.

Let’s say a wolf was injured, sick, or cast out of the band for some reason, it could subsist on human leavings. Inevitably, wandering humans would collect a tagalong pack of wolves.

Over time, benefits would accrue to the humans as well as to the wolves. Probably most important is that the band of follower wolves were the first watchdogs. If the human encampment was approached by marauding animals (or worse, humans intent on stealing food and wives), they’d make a ruckus. With the wolves around, in short, people would not find it necessary to stand watch, and watchstanding can significantly subtract from the energy of a small group. Ask any soldier or sailor how well they function the day after pulling a midwatch.

As time passed and the association became more familiar to both species, the follower wolves also added to the humans’ emergency supply. Let’s say mama decides she would like to have puppy for dinner. She grabs a club and wades into the pack of cubs. The cubs varied in personality, as all creatures do, and so I ask you: Is mama going to smash the skull of the cub who tries to lick her hand or the cub who tries to bite her? At this point, the evolution of the follower wolf would be increasingly shaped by human whim. A few thousand years of this behavior, as you can imagine, would result in the pack of follower wolves being much friendlier to humans.

They’re still wolves, though. They’re not dogs. You might give a wolf cub to a child or a sick adult to play with, but as the animal grew it’d become dangerous and it’d either get a one-way ticket back to the pack or end up in the cooking pot.

Had they become dogs, then?

No. That change happened with a thousand small steps that began far back in the ice age. Both modern human and dog appeared at the end of the ice age, about 12,000 years ago.

At that moment, dogs actually became dogs as opposed to tame wolves. There’d been what I call those follower wolves for 50,000 years or more. But at about the time the old man was buried with the puppy, dogs had begun to play a crucial role in our daily lives, and in our survival.

It’s important to note that, in becoming dogs, wolves lost about 20 percent of their brain mass. It makes sense, when you think about it. Nature is conservative, the brain uses a lot of energy, and if parts weren’t needed they are inevitably dropped from the design. Twelve thousand years ago, as the ice age was closing and the environment was changing rapidly and the dog was becoming man’s best friend, man himself lost five to ten percent of his brain mass. This had never happened before, at least as far as archaeology could show.

So, here’s the scenario: The dog loses brain circuits, the human loses brain circuits . . . and then they stepped out together to take possession of the earth and all its creatures. On the face of it, it looks like losing brain made us smarter.

This is the kind of thing that made my journey to the dogs so complex and take so long. I finally figured out what happened, I think, but it took a book to explain it. You have to follow it, step by unlikely step, until you get there. When you finally turn that last corner, though, it’s obvious.

When I was reading The Wolf in the Parlor, I was surprised at how gripping it was. It doesn’t read like a typical nonfiction book. It’s more like a mystery. Why is that?

I belong to a movement called literary nonfiction, which is devoted to telling true stories about things like this. We’re trying to leap that literary chasm between nonfiction and fiction. Traditionally, nonfiction is considered good for you but more often than not it’ll bore you to tears. Fiction, on the other hand, is fun to read but it’ll rot your metaphorical teeth. We don’t think it has to be this way.

So The Wolf in the Parlor is more than a book about the origin of the dog-human bond. It is a yarn. That being the case, I wouldn’t tell you the ending even if I could. To find out whether or not the butler did it, you have to read the book.