Adapting to Challenges in the Klondike
“So that was the way. No fair play. Once down, that was the end of you.”
― Jack London, The Call of the Wild (Chapter 2)
The wild wolf advanced, but Buck held his ground and their two noses made contact. As the wind whistled through the trees, the wolf tilted his head to the sky and howled. Other pack members sat down and howled and Buck joined their shrill call. The wolves were neither friend nor enemy. Suddenly, the leader of the pack dashed into the woods and the others followed. Buck followed and now the pack was complete. Charles Darwin once said, “it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” In the book, The Call of The Wild, Jack London presents several examples of both humans and dogs who have suffered in the wilderness from the consequences of not adapting. Buck, the story’s main character, quickly learns that not only do adaptors survive, but that his own survival will require him to adapt to an even greater extreme by devolving from a domesticated dog to a wild beast.
Of all of the humans and dogs in The Call of the Wild, Buck, a half St. Bernard half Scotch-shepherd mix, understands best the role of natural selection and adaptation. Kidnapped and sold by dog traders, Buck is taken from his gentle life as a domesticated pet and thrown into the life of a working sled dog in the harsh Klondike – a role he is initially unprepared for. Used and traded by several masters and working with different dogs, Buck witnesses examples where humans like Hal, Charles and Mercedes and dogs like Curly die because they have not adapted the skills to survive. Buck learns from their deaths. At the end of Chapter Two, Buck is famished due to a shortage of food for the sled dogs. Starving, Buck realizes that he has to adapt new behaviors to survive in the pack:
“He swiftly lost the fastidiousness which had characterized his old life…While he was fighting off two or three (dogs); he ate as fast as they; and, so greatly did hunger compel him, he was not above taking what did not belong to him… This first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death.” (Chapter 2)
This simple scene around feeding time shows how Buck has adapted to his new life in the traces. In his past, Buck is mindful of being respectful and polite. In the Klondike, however, Buck recognizes that to have the energy he needs to pull the sled and fight off other dogs, he needs to aggressively and quickly eat while at the same time maintaining a watchful eye on other dogs that might attack him. This multitasking proves to be important for Buck’s survival. In addition, Buck is now willing to steal food from other dogs. While this is likely outside the morals of a domesticated dog, it is what is required of Buck to survive in the wilderness. This scene is just one example of small but effective adaptations Buck makes to both his behavior and his mindset to survive life in the wilderness.
By Chapter Seven, Buck moves past minor adaptations in his behavior to a more significant decision to devolve into a wild beast to survive. While at first Buck’s greatest threats were his masters’ “club” and the “fang” of other sled dogs, it becomes clear that the greatest danger to Buck is the wolves outside of his camp. In response, Buck physically gets stronger and tougher and emotionally he develops instincts of the wild wolves he once feared and devolves into a killing beast:
“The blood-longing became stronger than ever before. He was a killer, a thing that preyed, living on things that lived…surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strong survived.” (Chapter 7)
Now the stakes are higher. It is no longer about being a messy eater, or stealing from another dog to survive. Now it is about killing to survive. At this point in the story, Buck doesn’t just think he needs to make changes, he is “longing” to be a killer. This shift in Buck, from recognizing that he needs to adapt to devolving to the point that he instinctively and deeply needs to prey as a “killer”, shows he has moved from consciously making changes around how he eats amongst the dogs to instinctively acting and thinking like a wolf.
The Call of the Wild should be a required reading for all high school students because it is not only suspenseful, but it provides important lessons on survival that humans that can learn from. Most stories need a challenge or conflict that characters face to move the story along. The themes of survival of the fittest and devolution to survive provide this focus to The Call of the Wild. These themes are important to the book because without them this would be a somewhat boring book on sled-dogs and their masters' long trip across Alaska. The need to adapt or die and the decision by Buck to devolve to a wild beast are responses to conflict that make the story interesting. The theme of survival of the fittest and the importance of evolving, or in Buck’s case devolving, provide important lessons for humans who must adapt like Buck. Buck’s example is extreme, but it demonstrates the importance of being flexible and adjusting to meet the situation one has been faced with. The theme of survival of the fittest is right from Darwin’s textbook. The only difference is that here, in a little over 100 pages, London is able to teach the reader this concept subtly and in a way that is more interesting than a textbook by providing examples of how characters’ decisions around adaptation and evolution impact them over time.
By the end of the story, the change in Buck is significant. He has adapted to his environment. His strategy has been to devolve into a wolf. The reader is left to wonder how Buck has changed so much and what will happen to him. The author reassures the reader in his last few words of the book that there is no question that Buck’s adaptation and devolution were exactly what he needed to do and that all is right because of it:
“He may be seen running at the head of the pack, through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.” (Chapter 7 )
London, Jack, et al. The Call of the Wild. Puffin, 2013.