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The Wolf Within—The Truth About Why We Fear the Wolf

Our love-hate relationship with the wolf, the animal sharing a 15 thousand years ancestry with man’s best friend, the dog, suggests a deep conflict, one that is well hidden and maybe closer to each of us than we dare to admit. Are we hiding a skeleton in the closet? Why do we take great pains to understand and be good to our dogs while hunting the wolf mercilessly?

Back in time, there were no wolves or dogs, only Canis lupus perantiquus (my name), the common ancestor of Canis lupus lupusCanis lupus familiars, and 37 other subspecies. Humans, by then Homo sapiens sapiens, developed, not surprisingly, a particularly healthy relationship with this Canis lupus perantiquus. Both shared common interests, and humans were still just one of many species. The association was mutually beneficial and resulted in some humans favoring certain perantiquus and some perantiquus finding human company particularly rewarding.

Natural selection favors the fittest, and, as usual, species change over time. These changes can be so extensive that some species turn into new ones; others only into new subspecies. The Canis lupus perantiquus changed under the selective pressure from humans and their environment and became Canis lupus familiaris. In a sense, we created this subspecies and all its variations to serve and protect us.

Some species react strongly to stimuli they have not experienced for thousands of years, such as the scent of a predator. These alarming and life-saving key-stimuli remain in the species’ gene pool, a kind of genetic memory. It is unlikely that our fear of wolves stems from this kind of genetic memory; if we were that afraid of the wolf, we would never have gotten as close to it as we did. 

We were probably scared of the wolf in primitive times. Still, thousands of years of proximity and cooperation certainly changed that, as the least fearful members of both species found mutual benefits in the relationship. Back then, we can presume the wolves that were least afraid of humans and capable of cooperating had better chances of survival and propagating (and ultimately turned into dogs). Conversely, the humans that were least afraid of wolves and were better at cooperating were more successful hunters, therefore survived and propagated (and ultimately turned into dog owners). Thus, any modern excessive fear and hatred of the wolf make no sense from an evolutionary perspective, though they might from a psychological one. After all, we seem to fear what most resembles us—the enemy within!

Our fear and hatred of the wolf began long after the domestication, when humans took the first steps to distance themselves from nature, to enslave and exploit it—it happened when we invented agriculture. In the beginning, there was no war, only small-scale feuds provoked by a wolf occasionally capturing a domestic animal. The large-scale extermination of the wolf is not due to a single factor but to an intermingled combination of factors that include mythology, religious zeal, environmental changes, economic incentives, and a deep psychological scar, as we shall see.

Mythology, such as Grimm’s fairytales and Aesop’s fables, evokes the wolf as evil, untrustworthy, conniving, and cowardly, a greedy thief that will go to great lengths to devour a poor, little lamb, child, or older person. Tales of werewolves also exacerbated our fear and hatred of the wolf.

Religious convictions support our hatred of the wolf. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1:26-29). European farmers and American settlers were devout Christians, and they needed no more explicit incentive to declare war on all that crept upon the Earth. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-29)—and the wolf became the ultimate target and symbol of their mission.

There is a clear association between the wolf and the wild, the wilderness and the untamed. As Burbank puts it, “The New World wilderness, where the Pilgrims found themselves, was a sinister adversary, home of tribal savages who practiced evil. The Puritans regarded the wilderness itself as a howling beast, a wolf inspired by the Devil. In their desolation, they sojourned and their journey reminded them that believers wandered in a world of sin, a spiritual wilderness replete with Godless enemies and insane beasts that wanted only to consume the righteous.” (Burbank 1990:80)

Farming and keeping domestic animals in enclosures combined with the wolf’s natural prey’s decimation forced the wolf to get closer to human settlements and feed upon the occasional livestock. Today, most wolves avoid livestock when they have enough wild prey, but the wolves of the 1800s faced extreme food shortages and preyed upon cattle and sheep. That wasn’t a problem for wealthy farmers. Even the smaller family farms could have survived the subsequent economic loss. Nevertheless, governments attempted to solve the supposed problem by creating bounties in return for a wolf’s head. Besides shooting them, wolf hunters used traps, poison, denning (excavating a den and killing the cubs), and biological warfare (infecting captive wolves with sarcoptic mange and releasing them into the wild)—so wolfing became a lucrative business.

Mythology, religious zeal, and the economy go a long way towards explaining the hatred but don’t explain everything. One thing is to control competition (it happens all the time in nature). Another is to embark on radical extermination and, what’s more, find pleasure in the practice of torture (such as setting wolves on fire, skinning them alive, hanging them, etc.). Such barbarism suggests the real reason for our hatred is well hidden and maybe closer to our hearts than we care to believe or dare to face.

As with all organisms, human evolution happens quietly and slowly unless some sudden, drastic environmental change prompts the selection of unusual traits. The human brain was the sudden, single, dramatic cause that provoked a major leap in the evolution of the species—and it was not an external cause; it came indeed from deep within us. The human brain enabled man to devise farming, science and technology, and ultimately an anthropocentric religion. Agriculture enabled us to multiply far beyond the average rate until then and colonize the entire world. Advancements in science and technology gave us the tools to subdue virtually all life on the planet—except perhaps for some bacteria and viruses. Religious convictions provided us with motive and momentum beyond all rationality.

There is a high price to pay when evolution equals revolution. The (relatively) fast adoption of dualism and a mechanistic view of the world forced us to part with holism and animism and left us with deep scars. To obey God, conquer the world and subdue all that crept upon our planet, we had to sever our connection with the natural, unruly, uncivilized world. To live up to the moral laws of Christianity, we had to go against our nature, denying who we were and our origins. We had to cover our tracks, oppress, suppress, forget all that reminded us of our holistic past. The wilderness in general and the wolf, in particular, reminded us of our true nature, the very same nature we despised. It became them and us. They were symbols of the unruly, the untamed, and we, the purveyors of God’s wishes and civilized order. They symbolized what we were, not what we wanted to be. We had to subdue our own wild side, a legacy from our ancestors for millions of years, which had proved highly efficient for survival, yet was despised and denied by the Holy Church. We were imprinted with religious zeal, which elicited the need to stifle the symbolic wild wolf inside each one of us—and we denied our origins, a strategy that was always only going to work on a short-term basis. A conflict of identity was inevitable, and the werewolf represents perhaps our struggle to switch from an organic to a mechanistic worldview.

While the dog represents what we aspire to be, the wolf stands for what we refuse to acknowledge as part of us. The dog symbolizes control, reminds us of our power, and is testimony to our ability to tame the wild. The wolf is our guilty conscience, for it reminds us of our humble origins, represents the freedom we gave up, the togetherness we abandoned.

Through his fables, Aesop created many myths detrimental to the wolf by depicting it with all the characteristics we despise most. Unknowingly, hence most ironically, in one uncharacteristic fable, he epitomizes our age-old conflict. In “The Dog and the Wolf,” the dog invites the starving wolf to live with him and his master, but when the wolf discovers that it involves being chained, the wolf replies, “Then good-bye to you Master Dog. Better starve free than be a fat slave.”

We became fat slaves by our own choice—and the wolf poignantly reminds us that there was a time when we had other options—and herein, the dog (wolf) lies buried.*

“Looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy was in us,” says Private Chris Taylor in Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon from 1986. Echoing Taylor, I’d say: we never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us. As long as we will remain in denial of our inheritance, the scar won’t heal, and the enemy will stay well entrenched within us—and so will we keep fighting the wolf.

Keep howling!

 

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* “That’s where the dog lies buried,” means “that’s what lies behind.” This idiomatic expression exists in many languages, e.g. “da liegt der Hund begraben” (German), “siinä on koira haudattuna,” (Finish), “där är en hund begraven” (Swedish), but not in English. Most interestingly, the Swedish expression “att ana ugglor i mossen” (to suspect owls in the bog), meaning almost the same, comes from the Danish expression “der er ugler i mosen.” Originally, it wasn’t ugler, but ulver (wolves), which makes more sense since an owl in the bog is nothing scary. Since the two words in some spoken Danish dialects are difficult to distinguish from one another, it was mistranslated into Swedish, and the expression was re-introduced in Denmark with owls substituting wolves. The expression and its history were too good for me not to use in this article’s context. I hope native English speakers will regard it as a language enrichment rather than a nuisance.

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References

Aesop’s Fables. https://www.aesopfables.com.

Bible, Genesis 1:26-29. https://biblia.com/bible/esv/genesis/1/26-29.

Burbank, J.C. (1990). Vanishing Lobo: The Mexican Wolf and the Southwest. Johnson Books. ASIN: B01K2KGV14. ‎

Fogleman, V.M. (1989). “American Attitudes Towards Wolves: A History of Misperception.” Environmental Review: ER, vol. 13, no. 1, 1989, pp. 63–94. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3984536.

Griffin, E. (2007). Blood sport: hunting in Britain since 1066. Yale University Press. p. 65. ISBN: 978-0-300-11628-1.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales. https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~spok/grimmtmp/.

McIntire, R. (1995). War Against the Wolf: America’s Campaign to Exterminate the Wolf. Voyageur Press. ISBN-10: 0896582647.

Westermarck, E.A. (2013). Christianity and Morals. Routledge. ISBN 9780203534472.

Woodward, I. (1979). The Werewolf Delusion. Paddington Press Ltd. ISBN: 0-448-23170-0.

The Wolf: Myth, Legend and Misconception”. Abundant Wildlife Society of North America. Archived from the original on 2013-09-25.

The Fear of Wolves: A Review of Wolf Attacks on Humans” (PDF). Norsk Institutt for Naturforskning.

Featured image: “The wilderness in general and the wolf in particular reminded us of our true nature, the very same nature we despised. So we never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us” (photo by Monty Sloan).


Roger Abrantes

Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology and Ethology, BA in Philosophy. Author to 27 books, speaks seven languages. Retired in 2016, lectured on Ethology, Evolutionary Biology, and Epistemology. Currently writing articles and blogs and occasionally sailing and diving in Thailand.

View all articles by Roger Abrantes