Thursday, March 03, 2011


The March 2011 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC contains two fascinating articles related to the construction of societies and creatures. The cover story, "Taming the Wild" (labeled "Designing the Perfect Pet" on the cover) deals with a Russian experiment you may have heard about. Over several decades, experimenters have selectively transformed caged foxes by breeding the animals least reluctant to accept human contact. In surprisingly few generations, they ended up with foxes that act like dogs, running to the front of the cage, wagging and whining for attention, letting themselves be petted and picked up. Even more intriguing, the project confirms that genes for tame behavior are linked to genes that change the animal's physical structure and coloring. In short, these Russian scientists have created domesticated foxes.

Domestication and taming aren't the same thing. Many animals can be tamed, if caught and socialized young enough. Very few species can be domesticated, meaning bred in captivity for enough generations that their actual genetic makeup changes for human convenience. Read Jared Diamond's GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL for an extended discussion of this difference and how domestication of plants and animals shaped human history.

I was surprised the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC article didn't say much, if anything, about neoteny, the retention of infantile traits into adulthood. It did mention how domestication can not only alter an animal's behavior but change its appearance to be more appealing to us. Many breeds of dogs, for instance, have the round faces and big eyes we associate with babies—and therefore with "cuteness." One provocative suggestion in the article: In the process of becoming human, our species, too, became "domesticated." And neoteny definitely plays a role there; adult human beings retain the playfulness and curiosity of juvenile chimps. As I read somewhere years ago, just as a dog is a fetal wolf, Homo sapiens is a fetal ape.

The other article I want to mention is "A New Geologic Epoch: The Age of Man," about our species' massive effect on our planet. The issue includes a poster illustrating the Earth's current population. You can read the article and view a graphic illustrating the most typical person on Earth here:

Age of Man

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. Interesting, Margaret. But, if we became domesticated, who domesticated us?

  2. I can't stop thinking about this. The more highly evolved we become, the more fetal also?!

  3. "The more highly evolved we become, the more fetal also?!"

    I'm not sure if that's how it works, but it would fit with the widespread image of ETs as looking rather like deformed babies.

    As for who domesticated us, the idea seems to be that evolution did it -- or we unconsciously domesticated ourselves in order to be able to cooperate better as members of a social group.

    Nevertheless, it's interesting in a creepy way to imagine some highly advanced alien species directing our development.