Thursday, July 27, 2017

Human Domestication

Here's a new article on the hypothesis that the human species may have domesticated itself:

How Humans Maybe Domesticated Themselves

"Tameness" (which the article loosely equates with "domestication," although they aren't quite the same thing) is here defined as "a reduction in reactive aggression — the fly-off-the-handle temperament that makes an animal bare its teeth at the slightest challenge." By this standard, we are fairly tame. "We might show great capacity for premeditated aggression, but we don’t attack every stranger we encounter. Sometime in the last 200,000 years, humans began weeding out people with an overdose of reactive aggression" (as theorized by Richard Wrangham, a Harvard University primatologist). Did we discover being nice to each other produced better results for the group as a whole? (Go figure.) Early humans, as they developed more complex social skills, may have joined forces to throw bullies out of the tribe.

Domestication tends to have visible effects on body structure as well as personality, e.g. changes in head shape, ears, tails, and coloration. For example, we can see obvious differences between the physical traits of dogs and wolves. The foxes in the famous Russian fur-farm taming experiment evolved over multiple generations to look more puppy-dog-like. Correspondingly, modern human beings look more "domestic" than Neanderthals. Becoming tamer may also have contributed to the development of language. It's known that domesticated songbirds have more complex songs than wild birds. Also, it makes sense (I suppose) that if people get along together rather than fighting a lot, they have a greater frequency of peaceful interactions in which to evolve a complex language. The article notes that at least one other primate species, bonobos, may have tamed itself, since they are notoriously less violent among themselves than their closest relatives, chimpanzees.

Recently, it has been theorized that dogs and cats effectively domesticated themselves, dogs by hanging around garbage dumps to scavenge food, cats by prowling into our granaries to hunt the rodents that devoured the grain. Animals innately less fearful of or aggressive toward people, a little more willing to accept human approach and touch, would have become better nourished and produced more offspring. Eventually, we invited those tamer animals into our homes. That scenario sounds more plausible than the earlier notion that human beings picked up stray cubs to bring home and raise, despite how much I enjoyed similar scenes of animal taming in the "Clan of the Cave Bear" series.

The "human self-domestication" possibility fits in with Jacqueline's post this week about reason developing as an adaptation to life in social groups. I much prefer this hypothesis over the concept popular in the 1960s, that we developed intelligence through the invention of weapons for killing and hunting, as proposed in the bestselling works of Robert Ardrey (AFRICAN GENESIS) and Desmond Morris (THE NAKED APE). Now that we know chimpanzees make tools, kill for meat, and wage "war" against bands of rival males, the "man the mighty hunter" origin of our species looks far less plausible. The self-domestication myth (in the sense of an origin story, not necessarily untrue) certainly strikes me as both more appealing and more plausible than the simplistic origin myth imagined in the prehistoric segment of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, where the alien monolith sparks hominid intelligence by showing the ape-men how to make weapons.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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