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Apologetics Press :: Sensible Science

The Evolutionary Tale Wagging the Dog
by Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

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The headline for the January 2002 cover story of National Geographic was “Evolution of Dogs: Wolf to Woof.” That particular article could more accurately be rendered as little more than an artist’s concept of dog evolution rather than a scientist’s—big on pictures, sparse on words. The scientific data offered in support of the theory on dog origins was basically nonexistent (see additional review at: However, the affection many people hold for dogs, and the vast differences we see among various breeds, have focused a great deal of attention on canine origins. In the November 22 issue of Science, three separate research teams reported their findings regarding the evolution of dogs. Time staff writer Michael Lemonick summarized these three papers, with the help of an evolutionary schematic listing the Leptocyon, Tomarctus, Hesperocyon, and Miacis genera as the earliest canine ancestors—dating back 54 million years ago (2002, 160[23]:78). What evidence did Lemonick offer for these alleged evolutionary ancestors? Aside from the eye-catching schematic, they are never mentioned again. In a separate editorial comment in Science, Elizabeth Pennisi summarized the three papers by saying that the reactions varied from enthusiasm to skepticism (2002). Count me in as one of the skeptics.

The first paper, written by Peter Savolainen and his colleagues, tried to resolve where and when the domestication of dogs actually occurred (2002, 298:1610-1613). The very first line of their abstract asserts dogmatically (no pun intended): “The origin of the domestic dog from wolves has been established, but the number of founding events, as well as where and when these occurred, is not known” (p. 1610). In order to address these questions, Savolainen’s team examined the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of 654 domestic dogs, looking for variations. They were, in essence, trying to determine whether dogs were domesticated in one or several places, and then attempting to identify the place and time that such domestication occurred. Their results indicated that our common domestic dog population originated from at least five female wolf lines. They went on to speculate that while the archaeological record cannot define the number of geographical origins or their locations, their own data indicate “a single origin of domestic dogs in East Asia ~15,000 or 40,000 yr B.P. [years before present—BH]” (p. 1613).

The second paper addressed where the wolf-to-dog transformation took place. In this study, Jennifer Leonard, of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, and her colleagues studied a clade of dogs buried in North, Central, and South America before Columbus made his famous journey. This study also involved the use of mtDNA in order to trace the origin of these American dogs. Leonard reasoned that if these dogs had arisen locally, then their mtDNA would be similar to American wolves. Their results, however, showed that these animals were closest to modern Eurasian dogs. Thus, Leonard concluded that the transition from dog-to-wolf occurred exclusively in Eurasia.

Lest anyone be confused by all of this evolutionary mumbo-jumbo, let’s set straight one fact from the outset: changes in dogs do not represent macroevolution. Evolutionists like to muddy the waters by pointing out the differences in dogs and then asserting that we are seeing “evolution in action.” They commonly use these vast differences between breeds in an effort to support their theory of macroevolution. However, macroevolution refers to major evolutionary changes over time—the origin of new types of organisms from previously existing, but different, ancestral types (i.e., cows evolving from fish). The plethora of breeds we now observe in domestic dogs can be explained quite easily by selective breeding. To confuse the populace further, evolutionists have drawn lines of distinction between dogs, wolves, jackals, etc.—classifying them as separate species. However, we know that all of these animals can (and frequently do) interbreed—something different species are not supposed to be able to do, according to the standard scientific definition of a species. In theory, a dog of any breed can be crossed to a dog of any other breed and produce viable and fertile offspring. [Practically speaking, things are a little different when you consider the possibility of a German shepherd attempting to mate with, say, a Chihuahua.] Changes occur among varieties, but the descendant is clearly of the same type as the ancestor. Simply put, if you mate two canine animals you can change hair color, stature, or traits—but you still are left with a dog!

The real weakness of these studies is that both teams are putting all of their eggs in one basket—a basket that we now know has been flipped completely upside down. The August 22, 2002 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine contained a report titled “Paternal Inheritance of Mitochondiral DNA” (see Schwartz and Vissing). While brief and to the point, this scientific study is a nuclear bombshell for evolutionary geneticists who have been trying to map the origin of life by using mtDNA. This report points out that mammalian mitochondrial DNA was thought to be “strictly maternally inherited.” The actual experimental results prove otherwise, however. In fact, in this study, paternal mtDNA accounted for 90% of one patient’s muscle mtDNA (347[8]:576). And this is not an isolated case. As recently as the year 2000, scientists were questioning whether paternal mtDNA could be inherited, and if so, whether or not men with mtDNA disorders should be worried about passing it on to their offspring (see Morris and Lightowlers). In their short communication, the authors pointed out: “Several recent papers, however, have suggested that elements of mtDNA may sometimes be inherited from the father” (355:1290). In fact, we now know that men are capable of contributing to the mtDNA of their offspring.

Evolutionists no doubt will decry this new information because of the devastating effect it is bound to have on their hypothesis about the so-called “mitochondrial Eve” who allegedly descended from Africa. The reason for such disdain is obvious: these scientific data completely discredit their theory that the lineage of humans can be traced back using mtDNA, which they speculated was passed down only from females. Duke University Medical Center physician R. Sanders Williams currently serves on the scientific advisory board of Sequenom, a company that makes instruments for DNA analysis. Having reviewed the current data, he cautioned scientists:

Likewise, the possibility of paternal inheritance of mtDNA should be accommodated in statistical models that analyze sequence variations in mtDNA in different human or primate populations in order to draw inferences about human evolution or migration. The unusual case described by Schwartz and Vissing is more than a mere curiosity (2002, 347[8]:611).

So where does this leave the evolutionary dog studies? Since the research neither factored in the possibility of a paternal influence, nor used statistical models that included paternal mtDNA, their results and conclusions belong (pun intended) in the doghouse!

The third study that was featured in the same issue of Science focused on why people and dogs are such inseparable friends. This relationship may help explain why the dog has been placed high on the list of species whose genomes will soon be sequenced. The announcement was made in September by the National Human Genome Research Institute, and quite likely will draw more attention to dogs of all types. Whether you consider yourself a “dog person” or “cat person,” the fact remains that there is a vast difference in the behavior patterns of dogs and wolves. According to Brian Hare and colleagues, dogs demonstrate a cognitive skill that wolves and even nonhuman primates do not possess (2002). Researchers in this study would hide food, and then give clues and visual cues to see which animals could “take the hint”. Dogs outshined the other animals in every instance. Hare and his team even found that puppies were apt to perform better than wolves. The only problem is that this work is viewed strictly through evolutionary glasses. Hare and his colleagues are viewing canids as a part of some greater evolutionary tree—rather than separate, distinct animals with separate, distinct skills. If evolutionists are correct, and dogs have acquired this enhanced ability to read human communicative signals as a result of domestication, then we would expect that dogs would outperform not only wolves, but also primates and other animals in a battery of tests. But this is not what we find.

Over fifty years ago, the eminent evolutionist George Gaylord Simpson made an observation regarding the origin of mammals that still rings true today:

This is true of all thirty-two orders of mammals.... The earliest and most primitive known members of every order [of mammals—BH] already have the basic ordinal characters, and in no case is an approximately continuous sequence from one order to another known. In most cases the break is so sharp and the gap so large that the origin of the order is speculative and much disputed.... This regular absence of transitional forms is not confined to mammals, but is an almost universal phenomenon, as has long been noted by paleontologists. It is true of almost all classes of animals, both vertebrate and is true of the classes, and of the major animal phyla, and it is apparently also true of analogous categories of plants (1944, pp. 105,107).

And, thus, evolutionary tales continue to wag the dog as scientists try to squeeze Fido and Lassie into their evolutionary tree of life—all to no avail.


Hare, Brian, Michelle Brown, Christina Williamson, and Michael Tomasello (2002), “The Domestication of Social Cognition in Dogs,” Science, 298:1634-1636, November 22.

Lemonick, Michael (2002), “The Mother of All Dogs,” Time, 160[23]:78-79, December 2.

Leonard, Jennifer A., Robert K. Wayne, Jane Wheeler, Raul Valadez, Sonia Guillen, and Carles Vila (2002), “Ancient DNA Evidence for Old World Origins of New World Dogs,” Science, 298:1613-1616, November 22.

Morris, Andrew A. M. and Robert N. Lightowlers (2000), “Can Paternal mtDNA be Inherited?” The Lancet, 355:1290, April 15.

Pennisi, Elizabeth (2002), “A Shaggy Dog History,” Science, 298:1540-1542, November 22.

Savolainen, Peter, Ya-Ping Zhang, Jing Luo, Joakim Lundeberg, and Thomas Leitner (2002), “Genetic Evidence for an East Asian Origin of Domestic Dogs,” Science, 298:1610-1613, November 22.

Schwartz, Marianne and John Vissing (2002), “Paternal Inheritance of Mitochondrial DNA,” The New England Journal of Medicine, 347[8]:576-580, August 22.

Simpson, George Gaylord (1944), Tempo and Mode in Evolution (New York: Columbia University Press).

Williams, R. Sanders (2002), “Another Surprise from the Mitochondrial Genome,” The New England Journal of Medicine, 347[8]:609-612, August 22.

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