Domestication and the new mythology of human “perfectibility”

In 2007, a psychiatrist, Martin Brüne, wrote an essay “On human self-domestication, psychiatry, and eugenics” published in the journal Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine, in which he declared:
In the biological literature following Darwin, the term “domestication” became increasingly poorly defined. The criterion of intentional and goal-directed selection, which according to Darwin’s definition was critical for domestication, was largely replaced, at least with respect to humans, by the equation of culture and civilization with domestication.”

I want to begin with a symptom of this enchantment, an idea that has been kicking around in anthropology for a long time: the idea that humans domesticated themselves.

This is often tacked on jokingly to men’s laments that they are domesticated versions of the men of another imagining: the free bachelors and heroic adventurers; the wild and willful male who eludes housework and babysitting, who escapes until ensnared by romance. Thereafter he remains manly only as long as he rises to the task of impregnating, supporting, and protecting… but fails if he gets domesticated to the point of wearing an apron with flowers on it.

Charles Darwin bred pigeons, and was thoroughly familiar with the husbandry paradigm: eliminate all animals exhibiting undesirable traits. The deliberate breeding of animals to a certain standard was a particular preoccupation then with the well-to-do in Victorian times. For example, the Victorian obsession with standardization lead to the formation of the first kennel club for dogs, as well as to similar organizations for poultry, rabbits, sheep, goats, cattle, and horses that were established all over the industrial world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Regular shows featured competitions among breeders, and gave rise to the authority of breed judges as well as organizations dedicated to the official recognition and publication of strict standards to assess the quality of exhibited animals and to determine their suitability for breeding.

Concepts of purity and ideal type pervade these activities. Fanciers have high regard for pedigreed animal produced by reputable breeders, and often see “mutts,” or crossbreeds, as relatively worthless.

Such paradigms appear to have deep antiquity. Breeders of Arab horses throughout the Middle East speak of the Azil, or pure horses, and even believe that a mare who has been bred to a non-pure stallion is ruined for future breeding.

This belief—completely refuted by science today—is symptomatic of current cultural beliefs about the breeding of domestic livestock, whether it be of horses, pigs, cattle, dogs, rabbits, or pigeons. Such ideas were merely elaborated upon, not originated by, the Victorians and their industrial contemporaries. They are symptomatic of the folk ideas developed during the process of domestication, ideas developed during a time when it was aimed at improving their utility. Even today, “pure” breeding is taken as axiomatic.

I find it interesting, therefore, that we see cross-over between these ideas, not only among the early adherents of Darwin’s “dangerous idea”, but also among people working in evolutionary theory today.

We all know the pitfalls inherent in this cross-over, especially when such thinking is applied to human evolution. This is the wind that lifted the sails of Social Darwinism. Eugenics takes more of its metaphors and assumptions from animal breeding than it does from anything calling itself evolutionary theory, as did the ultimate manifestations of these popular cultural paradigms early in the last century.

That Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” has been so misinterpreted is hardly surprising.

The cultural assumptions of plant and animal breeding have been developing and critical for around 7000 years, despite what the Bible and many other religious mythologies may say about the perfection of divine creations.

People have even created mythologies attributing divine motives to creation of specific breeds, so that the task of keeping them “pure” has blinded people to their own activities.

Gelding or culling excess males and any females not meeting a certain behavioral and physical standard reflects a commitment to keep an animal to an ideal standard, as explained in the mythology. Everyone regarding the Arabian horse glorious finds it easy to forget the fate of the dozens of desperately thirsty mares who, as the story goes, did NOT turn back from water at Mohammad’s call, and focus instead on the brave and obedient nature of the five mares who did, founding the five major Arab mare lines still bred today.

All this would simply be a charming illustration of how certain cultural ideas persist, were it not for the fact that they also color narratives of human evolution as well. We can overlook Aristotle saying that some men are only suited for slavery: that was a long time ago. We can put it into context: slavery was the fate of many of the captives taken in border expansion of Greek city-states, and this appears to have been justified by unflattering assessments of the worth and capabilities of non-Greeks. Aristotle was not alone. Prophets of the Old Testament makes no bones about who God’s chosen people are.

This appears to justify killing inconvenient others, and even to obliterate their – no doubt inferior – livestock. This pattern is so ubiquitous throughout the history of all civilizations that we take them to be normal human reactions to “out-groups”.

All of these ideas, and even the prejudices of livestock breeders, ought to have come crashing down in an intellectual universe revamped by Darwin’s grand view of life. But no. I doubt that even Darwin managed all that much revamping in his own mind, really, or he would not have entitled his next book The Descent of Man, and would not have resorted to sexual selection to explain human variation.

The ideas of perfectibility and the creation of ideal types through careful application of selective breeding survived Darwin, probably because these ideas were incorporated into the model without much examination of the differences between natural selection and what humans do with domesticated animals.

The greatest insight Darwin had was that natural selection was purposeless, in sense that it was not directed towards the goal of developing towards any ideal type, whether it be humans, or any creature. The fitness of an individual organism was measured solely in the relative number of descendants it left behind. Fitness thus has no ultimate purpose beyond the continuation of the pattern of shape and function that made that organism adapted to its environment long enough to reproduce.

Once genetic codes and DNA were discovered, this understanding of evolution could be narrowed still further, as was brilliantly explained by Richard Dawkins – it was all about passing on information within a replicator: the “selfish gene.”

Animal and plant domestication—humans selecting breeding stock that is best suited the utility of these organisms within a human ecological niche—may have inspired Darwin’s revolutionary analogy, but this did not extinguish the idea of purpose.

With regard to human evolution, the application of Darwin’s ideas in anthropological work at first was deeply ensnared by these old husbandry assumptions applied to domestic stock.

Different varieties of humans, those of shades of color, or apparent “level” of culture, thus tended to be interpreted in terms more akin to those of livestock breeders. Even the scientists of the day found it hard to abandon standards steeped in an economy of agriculture.

Social Darwinism was an almost predictable outcome. It would, moreover, have been very difficult to query the implicit progressive ideology characteristic of the Enlightenment, especially during a time when society was afire with the optimistic deification of modernity characteristic of the industrial period.

Our general enchantment has not yet passed away.

The story of the unintentional domestication of the Siberian fox, on a Soviet fur farm, burst upon the world in 1996. After steady selection of only the least timid and aggressive foxes for breeding, researchers produced a domesticated fox, that acted like a dog, eager for human contact and responsive to human signals. Furthermore, these foxes became smaller, with shorter snouts and rounder heads, developed floppy ears and curly tails, as well as patches of white along the belly, tail tips, paws, and center line of the face, like those seen in many domestic dog breeds. It thus appeared that selection for reduced flight or fight response had affected regulation of a part of the genome operative in early fetal development.

The multiple effects on the phenotype indicated that the genes must regulate development of the neural crest in the early embryo, for neural crest tissues give rise not only to adrenal glands, but also to skin and fur pigment and the cartilage and bone.

This revolutionized the genetic understanding of the domestication process, set off a cascade of studies to see if similar changes in regulatory genes of the neural crest could explain how other animals had been domesticated.

These revelations now touch on human behavior as well. In looking at changes in skull morphology over human evolution. Primatologist Richard Wrangham, suggests that if bonobos are self-domesticated form of chimpanzee, then people could be a self-domesticated form of ape. In short any selection process reducing fear and aggression was now more frequently labeled self-domestication.

References to self-domestication in human now appear more frequently in the literature on human evolution. Often there are references to altered size of teeth and jaws, a feature which resembles similar changes in skull morphology in domesticated predators, dogs or cats, in comparison with wild counterparts. There is also a change in behavior: domesticated animals are characterized as easier to deal with, less aggressive and more tractable. Self-domestication has been used as more than an analogy about how humans evolved.

Recently the discovery that the overall size of humans began to be reduced sometime in the last 70,000 years led to some speculation that this was due to a drop in testosterone, which has been linked to aggression, especially in males.

The idea of self-domestication initially developed from the idea that humans are perfecting themselves biologically. Brüne shows that early evolutionary theorists like Fischer, Lorenz, and Goldschmidt clearly were influenced by political and popular, if rather, racist ideas that then took some startling turns in Germany during the latter part of the 1930s.

More extreme claims have also been made recently – self-domestication has been suggested as a biological change permitted humans to live within civilized societies within the past 10,000 years. A recent example of this genre appeared in Evolutionary Psychology in 2015, where Henry Harpending and Peter Frost penned an essay entitled “Western Europe, State Formation, and Genetic Pacification” . They suggest that state monopoly of murder led to execution of violent people at rates sufficient to explain decreasing level of violence by altering the frequency of genetic predisposition for aggression. Thus, it is implied, state societies are effectively doing to humans what they did to domesticated animals. This state-domestication hypothesis somehow manages to ignore the fact that murderers and highly aggressive people – and often even just treacherously dishonest and selfish people – are routinely ostracized and often executed in tribal and band-level societies.

However, Harpending and Frost are not alone, they are only the most recent examples. In 2003, philosopher Masahiro Morioka wrote a book in which he suggested “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.”

In a lively article published in the New York Times in 2007, Nicolas Wade reported on the research of Svante Paabo, of the Planck Institute, who with his student, Mr. Albert, now work closely with Dr. Plyusnina. Using strains of ferocious and tame rats developed in Russia, they hope to find the regulatory genes involved in domestication. These are “presumably the same in all species of domesticated mammal. That may even include humans”. Dr. Paabo, according to Nicolas Wade, has suggested that “we would also look at those genes in humans and apes to see if they might be involved in human evolution.”

So just what is problematical about confusing domestication with evolution?

I suggest starting with the two big questions I have:

1) why lack of aggression might be the focus of ideas about the behavioral genetics of humanity, and,

2) why so many people seem to think we humans with deficiencies in fear and anger responses are more likely to be civilized.

In discussions of these issues please check out one of the most brilliant presentations of the human self-domestication hypothesis, by Brian Hare. Also Note: the illustration at the beginning of this blog is from this publication:

Survival of the Friendliest: Homo sapiens Evolved via Selection for Prosociality

Annual Review of Psychology

Vol. 68:155-186 (Volume publication date January 2017) 
First published online as a Review in Advance on October 12, 2016 
https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010416-044201

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