The Larger Meaning of Domestication

A domesticated animal

A domesticated animal

As a child I remember feeling guilty when I learned that my dog had been domesticated. Later, I remember friends and I worrying that marriage would domesticate us. Being domesticated sounded a little like being neutered: it was something others did to you, something that made you less wild and free so that you’d better serve their purposes.

This opinion isn’t far from the conventional definition. Wikipedia’s page describes domestication as “the process whereby a population of animals or plants is changed at the genetic level through a process of selection, in order to accentuate traits that benefit humans.”  The word itself comes from the Latin, domesticus, and means those things belonging to the household.

Notice that on the standard view domestication is something done to other organisms by humans. There’s a problem, however. For it turns out that a variety of species have domesticated themselves. Thus, far from being restricted to what we humans have accomplished through our artifice, “domestication” appears to be a natural adaptive strategy by which animals make themselves more friendly. In short, domestication is a strategy that encourages cooperation among organisms.

I first learned about self-domesticating species while researching my book about friendship and dogs. As I discuss there and here, the common belief that we domesticated the dog turns out to be pure fantasy: dogs domesticated themselves because of the advantages of becoming tolerant and friendly toward humans. (I wish I’d known this when I was a kid; it would have saved me some grief.)  Scientists are also finding evidence that our great-ape relatives, the bonobos, domesticated themselves. In addition, there is evidence that we modern humans are also the result of self-domestication.  What does this mean?

It’s common to contrast domesticated organisms with natural ones.  But to become domesticated is not to be removed from nature or made unnatural. From a properly scientific perspective, anyway, we humans and what belongs to our households have always stood within the frame of nature, despite what our vanity likes to tell us. (I discuss why this is, here.) Well, then, if a domestic species is natural, what, exactly, does it mean to be domesticated? What do dogs, bonobos, and humans have in common, in contrast to the ancestral wolves, chimpanzees, and Archaic humans from which each of these species split off?

They’re all more cooperative than their ancestors. The idea is that dogs, bonobos and modern humans split off from their forebears partly as a result of natural selection favoring friendliness, or disfavoring aggression. Functionally speaking, dogs, bonobos and—it’s also speculated—modern humans appear friendlier, more playful, are better communicators, and are better at sharing than the ancestors from which they descended. Selecting for friendliness resulted in new species with greater social resourcefulness and intelligence.

Paradoxically, however, structurally speaking “smaller craniums made for holding smaller brains are a telltale sign of domestication,” as researchers Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods put it in their book, The Genius of Dogs (from which I’ve gathered some of the information I’m presenting here). That’s right, in comparison with our Archaic ancestor who lived from two- to three-hundred-thousand years ago, we have smaller heads, thinner bones, smaller and more crowded teeth, and a shortened face. Our craniums have shrunk by 10-30% over the past fifty thousand years, at precisely the same time as the first fruits of our social genius in the form of culture and its artifacts began to appear. Analogous structural changes can be found in bonobos (which used to be called “dwarf” or “pygmy” chimps) and dogs. Brain size was diminishing as we got socially smarter.

The relation between the functional social powers and the host of structural changes underlying them is an interesting and controversial subject in its own right. I’ll observe just two points. The first is that some hypothesize that smaller brain size reflects the reduction in perceptual powers, which by extension diminishes an animal’s reactivity and thus makes it more tolerant of others. As Hare and Woods say, “Before humans [as well as dogs and bonobos] could become ultra-cooperative, we had to become ultra-tolerant.” As an aside, there’s an interesting parallel here with the Buddhist teaching that lovingkindness and compassion towards others emerge naturally from meditation because it trains you to be less reactive (i.e., to stop reacting out of animal instinct, habit, conditioning) and more mindful of what’s going on around you and how it’s all connected.

The second point is that here again (as in the recent discovery about proteins) researchers are finding that of an old dogma of modern science, that structure determines function, is not necessarily true. The most famous example in research on domestication comes from the Soviet scientist Belyaev’s groundbreaking work with silver foxes. By selecting for the functional trait of “friendliness”, Belyaev found that many unlooked for structural changes are produced. By breeding the friendliest foxes of each generation, over time the population so bred started looking and acting more like dogs! In an inversion of the usual thought, selecting for the functional behavior of friendliness determined the structure needed to support it. Roughly speaking, what Belyaev did with foxes natural selection appears to have done in the case of self-domesticating species such as ourselves.

This gives just a taste of the fascinating ideas and consequences that surround this enlarged meaning of domestication. It seems to me that a vital feature of domestication, whether artificially or naturally induced, is an increased capacity for cooperation, broadly conceived. Until recently, life has largely been framed as a competitive struggle, but a growing body of evidence is revealing that cooperation is at least as important a part of life. Indeed, it’s likely to be the more important factor.

In my book I offer an account of the evolution of friendliness and the significance of the cooperative powers it unleashes. Cultivating this power often requires that species like humans and dogs leash, master, or—as we’ve seen—diminish those reactions that otherwise may interfere with cooperation. But of course it’s just this requirement of holding ourselves back, of compromising, even apparently of diminishing ourselves, that makes people contemplating marriage—or owners contemplating training their dogs—reluctant to embrace the project of domestication. Why not just let ourselves and our dogs remain wild and free spirits instead?

Alas, it’s too late! We’re domesticated species by nature, so the reluctance to embrace the arts of cooperation (also called “training” and “education”) makes us less powerful and free than our natural potential allows. Humans and dogs, among others, are made for interacting and cooperating. It’s wonderful that the very traits scientists describe as typical of self-domesticated species—sharing, playing, communicating, and cooperating—are the stuff of the deepest and most free of our relations: friendship.

Moreover, by engaging one another cooperatively, we have generated society, culture, and everything that comes with these, including philosophy, art, science, and religion. It may be that the most powerful force evolutionary processes have yet produced is that which domestication supports: cooperative relations among organisms. Organisms themselves have been cobbled together from the symbiotic cooperation of formerly independent organisms.

So, contrary to the old line that ‘nature is red in tooth and claw’, the idea of life as the ruthless independent-minded Machiavellian struggle to preserve and promote oneself is by no means the rule, nor is it necessarily a smarter and more effective strategy than cooperation. Consider what you’re engaged with right now.  Arguably the most powerful and transformative tool we have yet invented is the computer and related internet technologies. Yet their power owes precisely to their domestic virtues, which prize connection, communication, and sharing. As with brains, it is not the size of the computers so much as the way we’re wiring and connecting them and sharing stuff through them that makes them so powerful.

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