The Human Instinct Phenomenon: Self-domestication

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The Human Instinct Phenomenon: Self-domestication

Photo By JuliusKielaitis via Shutterstock


Human instinct is a bio-sociological phenomenon that we use on a daily basis, but it differs in many ways from the instincts of other animals simply because we’ve arguably domesticated ourselves. That’s the hypothesis, at least, posited by Spanish experts on pro-social behavior and human evolution from Universidad de Barcelona.

Threat assessment is an instinct that every animal has seemingly no matter what their circumstances or position on the food chain. It’s an animalistic imperative for self-preservation and for the protection of our young, but as we’ve evolved and created increasingly sophisticated civilizations, we now have different uses for that instinct. This is partly because things that used to threaten us on a regular basis rarely threaten us anymore, and there are also new threats (or newly perceived threats, at least) that we never used to consider. Perhaps one of the most basic examples is the threat of other animals.

Most animals have to worry about this because they’re wild, but part of what the Barcelona study calls “self-domestication” and what we also sometimes just call civility is seclusion from the wild. We don’t often find ourselves at the mercy of lions, hyenas, and bears anymore, and that can be attributed to our removal from the wild. We worry more about the harm one of our own species might do to us than what some crocodile we’d likely have to go on safari to see can do. In many developed countries like the US or the UK, it can even be considered newsworthy that a crocodile infiltrated city streets and attacked a human being, yet it’s entirely unremarkable that someone should attack your computer with malware and make off with personal information unless this is done on a notably broad scale.

The way we hunt and forage today is completely different. In essence, most human beings do neither in the literal sense; we only hunt and forage figuratively. We work on farms, cultivate the foods we’re looking for right in our backyards, domesticate the animals we’d otherwise have hunted right on those farms, and that’s a minority really. The majority of us work on construction sites or in offices or on oilrigs — the so-called “salt mines” that have no meaning to other animals—and we earn paper and digital currencies that are representative of the chickens, fish, and cabbage heads we risked comparatively little to get.

ICREA professor Cedric Boeckx at Universidad de Barcelona led a team that found genetic support for the hypothesis, which they published in PLoS One. They compared modern human genomes to those of other domesticated species as well as the wild counterparts of those animals. Without any feral humans to add to the comparison, this is the best triangulation of the hypothesis that could be managed.

The study looked for overlapping genes that correlate with domestication traits like general docility or a naturally more slender build than the physiognomy of wild counterparts. They found statistically meaningful quantities of genes correlating with domestication through these comparisons, and there was overlap between these characteristics and those of modern humans. What the researchers attempted to do was to make comparisons with the genomes of so-called “wild humans” based on ancient humans like Neanderthals, but they found no correlation in the comparison between our genomes and Neanderthal genomes.

This is one facet of the study’s methodology that might not reach far enough due to inherent limitations. One has to wonder if Neanderthals even qualify as “wild” in the first place, especially considering how much research has been published just in the last couple of years regarding how much more intellectual and advanced they were than we initially theorized. They performed primitive dental work, forged a much larger set of stone tools and weapons than we thought, drew pictures and verbally communicated. Granted, they’re as close to wild as we can imagine humans being, but we also know that they’re hardly the actual beginning for mankind. For that matter, they’re also of a different species altogether anyway and further removed in their relation to us than, say, Homo erectus.

Even so, the study did take the genomes of other extinct, ancient relatives into consideration like those of Denisovans. The x-factor in studying this became the fact that, unlike with other domesticated animals today, human ancestors wouldn’t have had any other animal to domesticate them, which means they would’ve had to domesticate themselves in some way. “One reason that made scientists claim that humans are self-domesticated [lay] within our behavior: modern humans are docile and tolerant, like domesticated species, our cooperative abilities and pro-social behavior are key features of our cooperative abilities and pro-social behavior are key features of our modern cognition,” according to Boeckx.

“The second reason is that modern humans, when compared to Neanderthals, present a more gracile phenotype that resembles the one seen in domesticates when compared to their wild-type cousins,” he adds. The question that this presents and that the study can’t really broach is whether or not this extends even to instincts the way it seems to do. Take parenting instincts for example. We obsess over getting it right because it seems so easy to screw up our kids even when they’re still infants, and protecting them is more than a notion despite all the risks from which we’ve already secluded ourselves.

In spite of this, lifestyle writer Jacqueline Burt Cote whose written for The New York Post, Salon, Romper and others wrote a whole piece on how to adapt parenting instincts from dogs. Granted, they’re domesticated, but in most cases, a human adapting behaviors from a dog would seem to be the first wild human being to grace the earth in thousands of years. The instincts she lists that humans could learn to adapt from dogs seem simple but are easier said than done, especially for pro-social parents. “Don’t waste your energy trying to please anyone (besides your baby),” she suggests, which is bizarrely difficult for some of us.

“Know when to go free-range,” she adds, which is infinitely harder than the previous suggestion. This is the instinct that mother dogs seem to have inherently. “Mother dogs might be all about helicopter parenting in the early days, but after those first weeks pass, she switches right over into free-range mode.” They know, ostensibly better than we do, when to start giving their babies varying measures of independence.



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