Katja Pettinen

Emergence is a concept that highlights how certain changes, effects, and behaviours cannot be reduced to their mechanical components.

Katja Pettinen works at the intersection of cultural and linguistic anthropology. Her current research examines the nature of embodied learning, sensoriality, and human-canid relations through the theoretical framework of Peircean semiotics.

Knowing the First Dogs

Dogs are everywhere—everywhere there are humans, to be more precise. It is estimated that close to a billion dogs exist in the world. Some of these dogs are attached to particular people—the family poodle, for example, napping on a couch—while others live at the margins of human settlements, surviving by scavenging through garbage, only occasionally being fed directly by humans. Even free, roaming street dogs look and behave quite differently from their ancestors, the wolves, whose numbers are far fewer: only an estimated 400,000 remain.

Compared to contemporary dogs, wolves are a rather homogenous group; individuals do not vary drastically from each other. In contrast, a Chihuahua and a Great Dane appear to be highly distinct, but, along with many other breeds, they belong to one and the same species: Canis familiaris.

But how and when did the first members of this somewhat recent species come into existence? The initial cross-species interactions that led to the existence of dogs reaches back 40,000 years, when all humans lived as foragers, acquiring their food without agriculture or money. This era is called the Upper Paleolithic, and it is evidenced by archeological findings that demonstrate the presence of complex cultures, including early proto-dogs that were buried side-by-side with humans. It is clear that by 20,000 years ago, creatures that we now call dogs existed; the emotional bonds and notions of the afterlife were deep enough for intentional burials.

In comparison to wolves, these first dogs were smaller in size. They had shorter and wider snouts, shorter skulls, and also, because of this, more crowded teeth. In essence, these changes came about because of a lifestyle change: from running in the wild and hunting for food, to being fed by humans. As the new relationship between these first proto-dogs and humans developed further, the physical and behavioral patterns of the dogs also developed further afield from their closest ancestor, the grey wolf.

Today, we have no problem identifying the numerous differences between wolves and dogs; one is a domesticated species, adapted to life with humans; the other is a member of the wild, not adaptable to being a pet, even if raised by humans since being a cub.

The real scientific challenge, as problematic for the geneticist as it is for the archeologist, is to be able to identify the moment in time at which those early proto-dogs really became ‘dogs.’ From a scientific point of view, it would be handy if there were a clear physical marker of this change that could be identified in order to say how long dogs have existed.

Yet everything we know about evolution and domestication points toward the fact that no such singular, readily recognizable physical marker exists—certainly not one that all experts agree upon.

There is another way to approach this problem, however, via a concept that initially came from attempts to develop the first computers after World War II. The overall problem that these early systems thinkers dealt with was complexity, including how to understand it through science. Can complex phenomena be reduced to physical factors and straightforward, cause-and-effect relationships? The concept of emergence came to be used as a way of saying no, and that reducing each phenomenon to ever smaller physical variables isn’t always required (or even particularly useful). For example, if we look at how the human eye works and try to understand what the experience of watching a truly enjoyable movie is, we really cannot understand why some people prefer horror while others hate it. That preference is not based solely on the structures of the eye and the optical nerves.

When I walk with my dog in the Rocky Mountains where I live, I enjoy many small moments of emergence: discoveries or unexpected experiences that give rise, in turn, to other experiences. We stroll together through the woods, and when we come across the bones of a deer or a moose, we stop and inspect them together. I might crack a bone in half in order to expose the marrow inside, while my dog observes every step closely. He then eagerly enjoys the marrow, a nutritious and fatty treat from the wild. As I reflect on longer arcs of emergence—the evolutionary paths that led us to such moments—I think about those early proto-dogs that became domesticated in part through small exchanges like this one. Staying close to humans, who offered out morsels of food, enabled close connections that—over time—began to shape the bodies and behaviors of the proto-dogs’ descendants.

It is the way in which humans and dogs came to interact with each other that most centrally demonstrates the concept of emergence. When pre-agricultural humans hunted with the first dogs during the late Paleolithic, they interacted as a kind of cross-species unit: dogs bringing in sharper senses of smell and hearing, and humans bringing in better visual capacities (in part due to height), as well as tools and technologies (like fire, spears, bows, and arrows).

But this complex interactive and collaborative behavior arises as a result of the co-evolution that shaped both species. We can make sense of this collaborative existence—also present in the deep emotional bonds between dogs and humans—through the concept of emergence. None of these collaborations could have been predicted during the early Upper Paleolithic, when humans first started to interact more closely with some of the ancestral wolves. The whole process of dog domestication, in other words, was an unintentional, emergent process. It is nonetheless one that many of us greatly enjoy today, with our close bonds and collaborations with these fellow animals.


Discussion Questions

  • What is ethically at stake in reminding ourselves and others that we are animals, just like monkeys, dogs, and wolves?
  • When it comes to dogs and wolves, it can be challenging to decide what counts as a ‘dog’ and what counts as a ‘wolf’ if we only reflect on the broader shared evolutionary past of these animals. Dogs and wolves are so similar genetically that they can breed with each other and reproduce viable offspring. Why is it important to contrast their actual behaviour, when we reflect on the emergence of dogs as a distinct species? (Think carefully here about how different it is to be a wild creature, like a wolf, and to be a domesticated creature, like a dog. How would you explain this difference?).
  • We can also expand the concept of emergence and think about who and what we are ourselves, as a species, or if we are apart from such classification. Biologists classify differences into taxonomies, as a way to make sense of differences. The word “species,” for example, is part of a taxonomy: our own species, Homo sapiens, is made up of all the humans who live on the planet today, as well as those who have lived previously. And if we consider the various categories of mammals that make up the taxonomy of species, we fall inside the category of primates, alongside monkeys and apes. Even though this is scientifically accurate, why do you think it is so commonplace for people to forget that we are primates?
  • Are there any other animals that you have wondered about (coyotes, perhaps), in terms of how they evolved to become the animals that they are today? Do you think that we can explain the nature of wildlife conflicts that humans commonly have (e.g., with wolves or coyotes) based on our biological, species-level differences? Or are other variables more significant when attempting to make sense of such conflicts, so common in many regions of Canada?


Look around you, wherever you happen to be. Consider the many forms of scientific inquiry that went into creating and producing the technologies that you are making use of right in this moment. Engineers likely worked on the systems that enable the electricity, as well as the many other forms of power that are animating your space. Social scientists likely worked on the systems that enable the relationships that are also all around you: the funding that contributes to your studies in university, for example, is connected closely with the work of experts in education, public policy, sociology, anthropology, political science, and other disciplines.

Some of this research occurs through reductionist methods (i.e., when a scientist can break down all the important components of something and reverse-engineer it, basically turning the process backwards in order to recreate it). And that can be enormously useful. Some of this research, in contrast, occurs through the study of processes, which is always in some ways about emergence.

Identify an example of a product or resource, in your own space right now, that came about because of effective reductionist or mechanistic research. Then identify an example that came about through non-reductionist or emergent approach to research.

Some educational experts approach learning as a reductionist process, something that can be broken down into parts and reverse-engineered to achieve specific outcomes. Other educational experts approach learning as an emergent process, something that is closely tied to relationships and dynamics that are too complex to reverse-engineer. Reflect on your own previous studies and try to identify each approach in the courses you have taken. In your experience, what are the benefits and limits of each approach?

Additional Resources

Coppinger, R. & Feinstein, M. (2015). Emergent behavior. In How Dogs Work (pp. 135-158). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kuusisto, S. (2018). Have dog, will travel: A poet’s journey. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Marks, J. (2012). My Ancestors, Myself. Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/what-canneanderthal-dna-tell-us-about-human-ancestry

O’Connor, Timothy, “Emergent Properties”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/properties-emergent/

Pettinen, K. (2019). Will we ever know the difference between a wolf and a dog? Aeon. https://aeon.co/ideas/will-we-ever-know-the-difference-between-a-wolf-and-a-dog

Rennie, J. “How Complex Wholes Emerge From Simple Parts” Quanta Magazinehttps://www.quantamagazine.org/emergence-how-complex-wholes-emerge-from-simple-parts-20181220/

Vauhgan-Lee, L. (2021). Where the horses sing. Emergence Magazine. https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/where-the-horses-sing/


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