Self-domestication

November 26, 2014

This op-ed by one Razib Khan in Tuesday’s NY Times, on the evolution of domesticity in cats and humans, reminded me of a train of thought I’ve taken from time to time over the past few years, so now I feel like posting something on it.

It started for me in 2006 when another Times article introduced me to Dmitri Belyaev, a Soviet geneticist who boldly defended modern evolutionary theory in the age of Stalin and Lysenko, and went on to begin a long-range experiment with Siberian foxes and other wildlife. His goal was to establish and study the heritability of characteristics tending towards domestication, and his method was the classic method of animal breeders throughout time, such as those who inspired Darwin: collecting a batch of animals, selecting and separating out for breeding those with at least some trace of the trait desired – docility in this case, or (for the sake of contrast) aggression – and repeating the process for each generation so as to create in the end two distinct populations: one with the temperament of house pets, the other so aggressive it cannot be handled at all.

More recently, the work of Belyaev was referenced by Harry Turtledove, the Byzantine historian turned alternate-history writer, in a short story called It’s the End of the World As We Know It, And We Feel Fine (Analog, March, 2013). Turtledove describes a future in which humankind has finally dealt with the danger of totally destructive warfare by deliberately breeding all the aggression, nastiness and egotism out of itself. In this world almost everybody is compulsively nice; also rather plump, and with other physical markers that go with domestication (I don’t recall whether they have floppy ears as well). The reader may well sense (at least I did) a certain authorial dyspepsia, an attempt to communicate that there’s something’s wrong with this picture and that something essentially human has been lost, but the story is well-enough written to avoid excessive heavy-handedness; the future is presented fairly on its own terms.

(Just a day or two before I read “End of the World” I had been leafing through a book in the self-help and business management category, suggesting among other things that we can improve both our mood and our effectiveness by toning down the words we use to think of and describe situations; dialing back from “catastrophe” and “disaster” to maybe “misfortune, problem, unpleasantness.” So I was delighted to find that Turteldove’s characters call the near-total war that led to their Belyaevization “The Big Fracas.”)

But what I have been thinking on and off since 2006 is more along the lines of the Razib Khan op-ed – a kind of long-term natural Belyaevization, going back to the first human societies and intensifying as communities have grown larger and more complex. With each stage in our history, reproductive advantage has shifted away from the wilder and tougher among us, in favor of those who are best able to get along and follow the rules of their community. It can’t be helped; this is how we are, for better or for worse; probably for better, as the alternative would be for us not to have made it this far.

It is perfectly possible – as demonstrated with lactose tolerance – for significant differences in heritable traits to have developed among human populations within the relatively short span of human history. Maybe some of the alleged differences in personality and aptitude that have been taken (disparagingly) to correlate with primordial “races” might in fact really exist at some level, but only as a fairly recent development, depending on whether or not a given population has within the past couple of millennia gone through the Belyaev pressure-cooker of agriculture and urbanization.

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