Self-domestication

cat by melody newcomb

Self-domestication refers to the process of adaptation of wild animals to humans, without direct human selective breeding of the animals. The term is also used to refer to biological processes in the evolution of humans and human culture. Wild animals may self-domesticate when tame behavior enhances their survival near humans.

Tolerating or even enjoying the close approach of humans in order to feed near them, and a lessening of natural adult aggression, are two aspects of tameness. An environment that supports the survival of tame animals can lead to other changes in behavior and appearance as well. Smaller skulls on tame animals have been noticed in other species.

Noticing that a dog’s skull looks like that of a juvenile wolf, British primatologist Richard Wrangham goes on to say that ‘this leads to the thought that species can self-domesticate.’ Other characteristics that are associated with juvenility – barking and meowing (sounds used by wolf cubs and kittens of large felines, respectively, to communicate with their parents), more playful and less aggressive, and more eager to learn – are seen in tame animals. Self-domestication is described by Wrangham as being in an environment where lessening of aggression was beneficial for survival. As grain plants and livestock became domesticated 9,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, wild cats adapted to living with humans, hunting rodents in grain stores and ‘abandoning their aggressive wild-born behaviors,’ which led to today’s house cats.

The distance an animal will allow a human to approach before it runs away, or ‘flight distance,’ is a measure of tameness. Wild wolves are both aggressive and quick to flee from humans, but they are the ancestors of dogs. Biologist Raymond Coppinger, in work with wild wolves, finds that directly taming a wild wolf is very difficult, and must begin before the animal is nineteen days old. He finds it far more likely that ‘the wolves domesticated themselves’ (self-domesticated) into dogs over time, when wolves that could tolerate the closeness of humans were better able to find food in human village waste, and therefore those wolves’ survival was enhanced.

Research beginning in 1959 by the Soviet geneticist Dmitri Belyaev on silver foxes selectively bred only for tameness revealed that a whole range of other physical and behavioral features, such as neoteny (also called juvenilization), also appeared along with the tameness, characteristics that were not specifically the result of selective breeding by humans. White spots on their fur, floppy ears, rolled tails and smaller skulls were seen in the tame foxes. Belyaev and his successors also selectively bred wild rats for tameness, with similar results. These results with selective breeding suggest that the natural process of self-domestication can occur within a single human generation.

Self-domestication describes theories of how humans developed and evolved. The idea of self-domestication was used by early Social Darwinism which, according to psychiatrist Martin Brüne in an article ‘On human self-domestication,’ developed from the idea that humans could perfect themselves biologically. ‘Contemporary reproductive technologies such as selective abortion and genetic screening are typical examples where our self-domestication is most directly apparent,’ writes philosopher Masahiro Morioka, who also says that ‘Through domesticating ourselves like cattle, people began civilization.’ Gregory Stock, director of the UCLA School of Medicine’s Program of Medicine, Technology and Society, describes self-domestication as a process which ‘… mirrors our domestication [of animals] … we have transformed ourselves through a similar process of self-selection … our transformation has been primarily cultural, but it has almost certainly had a biological component.’

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