Publish date:


When it comes to animal writing, the publishing Establishment too often seems to believe that for a book to become popular, otters, lions, quail or whatever must be portrayed as odd humans in beastly drag who cut up in anthropomorphic ways that readers will find clever or heartwarming. On the other hand, there also is a strong academic tradition that, in order to be scientific, reports on species other than Homo sapiens must be turgid, jargon-encrusted and no more than semiliterate. Almost any issue of the Journal of Mammalogy will yield splendid, so to speak, examples of this style.

Fortunately for both art and science, there are iconoclasts who do not find it necessary to debase their information with either Late Lassie or Dissertation Gothic. Laurence Klauber on rattlesnakes, George Schaller on gorillas, Konrad Lorenz on animal behavior are among recent authors who have produced popular and yet substantive books in this field. And now, The Order of Wolves (Bobbs-Merrill, $13.95), by Richard Fiennes, a prominent British mammalogist, deserves to be included in this category.

Fiennes' book is a lucid, accurate review of much of our current knowledge and speculation about the wolf and wolflike animals. Its scope is much broader than the title suggests; the author regards all doggish mammals as descendants of wolves.

An especially strong and thoughtful section deals with the physical and behavioral evolution of the canids from the wolflike prototype of the Pliocene. In it Fiennes emphasizes the enormous effect that man has had on the development of these animals and, to a degree, the effect of wolves on men. He feels that we and they are the two greatest hunting clans ever to evolve and that both of us became what we are largely because of our experiences in the glacial tundra—which in that sense might be called "the true cradle of civilization." During the long, cold course of things, the wolves opted in an evolutionary sense for physical ability, while man became the thinker and tool user. The latter has proved to be the more successful alternative.

Depending chiefly on wit, man became the only true predator who could bring down any other creature no matter how large, swift or ferocious. In contrast, the wolves, despite their marvelous physical endowments (which incidentally are beautifully illustrated in this volume), could not advance beyond being very effective scavengers. Whereas a man can take the biggest, sleekest individual—the trophy specimen—from a herd of caribou, wolves can generally only cull the herd, that is, bring down infirm, old or young animals. It is an instructive point, well worth remembering not only in connection with the wolves but also in regard to all other "predators."

Though these two premier social hunters, wolves and men, obviously were in competition for prey at times, there were also circumstances, Fiennes believes, in which cooperation could and did occur. For example, baying wolves might alert hunting men to the presence of game and even unintentionally hold it until the slow-footed men arrived with their weapons. Wolves, on the other hand, might benefit by scavenging on the remains of kills made by men. From these beginnings, the long association between wolf and mankind commenced. Beyond its practical aspects, it flourished because there are similarities in the essential nature of the two creatures that provide for a subtle kind of mutual understanding. Both, at least at the start, were opportunistic hunters, social animals in whom there developed an acceptance of hierarchical arrangements, a loyalty to hunting companions and obedience to authority. Furthermore, as man began to understand the value of having wolf-dogs at his side he embarked on the most prolonged of all selective-breeding projects. It is reasonable to assume that when early man took wolflike pups to raise he selected those most useful or appealing, i.e., the swiftest, smartest or those whose color or shape most pleased him. Assuredly, he saved out the pups which were the most responsive to him. This process continued through the ages and eventually produced the extraordinary rapport that exists between men and dogs, the once-upon-a-time wolves.

In considering how modern domestic dogs have descended from wild canids, Fiennes disagrees with, among others, Lorenz, who once had suggested that the ancestor of many breeds was the jackal. Fiennes thinks otherwise and makes a strong case that our contemporary dogs can be traced back to four broad wolf types. From the dingos (Asian wolves) came Chows, Samoyeds, Basenjis and a good many of the toy breeds. Huskies, collies, Alsatians and terriers are descendants of Northern wolves. Greyhounds, wolfhounds and deerhounds are derived from North African wolves, while the mastiffs, bulldogs, retrievers and field dogs come from species of wolves that inhabited mountain forests and gave most of this group of dogs their good noses. (Tundra and plains wolves are largely sight hunters because the flat terrain makes their prey easy to spot.)

The Order of Wolves is an authoritative, thoughtful and engaging book about animals which for thousands of years have been closer to us physically, socially, emotionally—and perhaps even intellectually, as Fiennes suggests—than any other creatures.