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What Dogs Can Teach Us About Survival of the Friendliest

Theological insight and ethical guidance can come from many places, but I didn’t expect it from a book titled “The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think” by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods.
Early chapters talk about the domestication of dogs from wolves and counter the theory that humans adopted wolf puppies, tamed them, bred them and over time they became the domesticated dog.

Since this pattern was demonstrated in the mid-1900s in Siberia with silver foxes, it was assumed that something similar happened years ago with wolves, but Hare and Woods assert that this doesn’t make sense. 

Wolves are shy around humans; they will run at any contact. When captured, they are hostile and aggressive, and this is true even for generations bred in captivity. They never lose their aversion to or hostility toward humans.

Hare and Woods convincingly argue that humans didn’t domesticate the wolf; it was the other way around. Once humans became more sedentary, we inadvertently provided a food source for wolves in the form of garbage.

Most wolves, being shy and wary of humans, would not take advantage of this new food source. Only a few would approach the garbage on the outer edges of human settlements, undoubtedly under cover of night.

As these wolves bred with each other, the genetic predisposition to be less shy and less wary was passed on and amplified. Over the course of many generations, these wolves began to look and act differently than most wolves.

Gradually, humans became more tolerant of them, eventually accepting them into their villages and their homes as pets that became the ancestors of the domesticated dog.

What does this have to do with theology and ethics?

It is accepted wisdom that strength, power, aggression and even a certain level of hostility give an individual, group, nation or empire a survival advantage; and in a survival of the fittest world, that’s a good thing.

But Hare and Woods’ book reveals that the few wolves who were just a little less wary of humans and took a less aggressive posture toward humans were the ones that had a survival advantage.

The largest killer of predators is starvation, and the less aggressive wolves could take advantage of human garbage to supplement their dwindling food supply.

Hare and Woods call this “survival of the friendliest.” 

In the wild, aggressiveness may be advantageous for survival in the short run, but, in a world dominated by humans, aggressiveness became a disadvantage for wolves. Friendliness, the ability to be a part of and contribute to a peaceful society, became the greatest advantage.

When we think of “survival of the fittest,” we think this means that the biggest, strongest, meanest and most likely to win a fight is the one who has the survival advantage.

“Top dog” wins in a “dog-eat-dog” world. But, in fact, “dog-eat-dog” is a lie.

The ancestors of the domesticated dog survived, not because they fought each other, but because they formed community with each other and with humans.

We think that turn-the-other-cheek is unrealistic in the real world – that it only works in a perfect world and is only possible in the future Kingdom of God.

In the meantime, in the face of evil, you have to be willing to fight, kill and be aggressive. But, as Hare and Woods’ book on the domestication of the dog reveals, nature teaches us differently.

Predators struggle to survive. Those that learn to live peacefully with each other and with humans thrive.

Yes, nature teaches us differently. And so does Jesus. 

Today, we are the supreme predator who needs to be domesticated, and that is what Jesus came to teach us. Aggressiveness doesn’t lead to survival; it will, in fact, lead to extinction.

So, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, pray for our enemies, make peace with them and have supper with them. And he didn’t tell us to do this only when the Kingdom of God finally arrives in full. 

He said these things to people surrounded by Roman soldiers, people who wanted God’s blessing to raise an army, go to war and kill the Romans. It was into this hostile setting that Jesus said these things. 

If it sounds unrealistic now, it really sounded unrealistic then. 

It wasn’t that Jesus’ fellow Israelites, including his disciples, didn’t understand what he was telling him; they just didn’t want to do it. They didn’t believe it and didn’t believe him. 

And we still don’t. We understand what he is saying, but we won’t listen. 

So, maybe we’ll listen to our dogs. They understand what Jesus is saying. Will we?

Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Md. A longer version of this column first appeared on his blog, While My Muse Gently Weeps, and is used with permission.