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The self-domestication hypothesis, as investigated by Cedric Boeckx’s research team and explored in our previous installment in The Human Instinct Phenomenon, considers the likelihood that, without another animal to domesticate us, we must’ve domesticated ourselves. Domestication is marked by certain primal instincts from which we seem to have gotten away because they’re no longer relevant to how we live. Many human beings today wouldn’t survive in the wild for very long for that reason. Animalistic instincts are no longer our own, yet simultaneously, there are many contexts in which it becomes instinctive for humans to ignore our own instincts, as in the case on the battlefield.
Boeckx’s team who published the PLoS One study on human self-domestication used multiple control species to ensure that they weren’t getting any fluke results when comparing domestic animals to their wild-type counterparts. “We found that chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas do not show a significant overlap of genes under positive selection with domesticates. Therefore, it seems there is a special intersection between humans and domesticated species, and we take this to be evidence for self-domestication,” Boeckx explained.
It doesn’t necessarily mean we lack instincts we’re supposed to have so much as we use them differently because the human experience has become significantly less primal than it used to be. An excellent example of that would be that we’ve arguably repurposed the social instincts initially honed by ancient humans for hunting in groups like wolf packs — instincts evolutionists believe are responsible for the sophistication and development of human language — for social engineering in the cybersecurity sense in that we manipulate the original instinct trained by ancient humans thousands of years ago. We interact with more animals on the Internet than we do in the real world now, and obviously, those animals with whom we interact are also people.
We’re more concerned about social engineering threats as a result. We became linguistically advanced, which made us capable of cataloging all sorts of information; this led to classifying some information personal, data about ourselves. We then interconnected all the humans of the world and thereby created a means by which we can exploit each other through attacks that aren’t even physical. Social engineering is a term that, in its broadest sense, ranges from extortion to blackmail, and it technically predates its own cybersecurity context. Think about kidnappings and ransoms; these are the kinds of attacks a dog can’t really comprehend, let alone levy against another animal.
In the cybersecurity sense, we now have cyber instincts pertaining to the browsers we choose to use, which emails we choose to open, what sites we choose to visit, what things we’re willing to say while being recorded or even just the wherewithal to wonder whether or not we’re being recorded esoterically. One of the main reasons company offices have to have IT departments today is because of the social engineering threat, which is reportedly on the rise. Office computer systems are, first and foremost, intended to use various software to streamline processes and make mounting workloads more efficient via set routine tasks. Hackers can exploit these things.
The self-domestication hypothesis suggests that human evolution is partly driven by the natural selection of human beings who exhibit more pro-social behavior, yet our pro-social behavior seems like it’s being stunted by the threat of cybersecurity since our IT experts are constantly instructing us to be more socially guarded so that we aren’t vulnerable to opportunistic hackers and their social engineering. “Instincts are the most automatic and ingrained response to any scenario presented by the world to a brain-equipped organism,” according to computational psychologist Stephen Thaler. “They need to be fast and non-contemplative to successfully deal with sudden threats and opportunities in the world.”
Think about what happens when a human-being encounters a grizzly bear in the real world. The fight-or-flight response is likely to send that individual running, but a grizzly bear will outpace a human being just about every time since we can’t all be Usane Bolt, meaning we’re not all at our peak athleticism because very few of us actually need to be. In this case, anyone who’s been taught what to do when facing a bear knows that one shouldn’t actually act on that fight-or-flight response but, rather, play dead, which we’ve learned from opossums and the like; it’s not even OUR instinct, and it’s far more contemplative than what Thaler suggests.
“The most likely reason people do not follow their instincts stems from their self-image — governed by the narrative self housed in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, among other brain areas,” according to Kyra Bobinet. She’s a neuroscience designer and the CEO of engagedIN, which is a firm that deals with behavior change. She’s speaking to the problem presented by the above grizzly bear example. Many of us tend to think too highly of our own knowledge or view ourselves as being more capable than we are, which leads us to challenge our instincts more than we should. “This means that our subconscious is constantly screening every experience and action with the question, ‘Is this me or not?’ We buy clothes, eat food, or post things on social media that fits the image of ‘me’ — while rejecting anything that is ‘not me’ — including an instinct that goes against who we think we are.”
Even so, both Bobinet’s assessment and Thaler’s assessment are products of the domesticated human, and it’s not likely that the wild human, if there ever was such a thing, had this problem to anywhere near the extent that modern humans do. If this is a problem presented to us because we domesticated ourselves, is it possible that other animals might domesticate themselves in the future and incur similar problems on any scale? Self-domestication has been observed in other animals without human intervention, and a recent study that was conducted from 2002 to 2016 and subsequently published this month in Royal Society Open Science suggests this is not impossible.
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The University of Zurich’s Anna Lindholm is an evolutionary biologist, and she led the study of an accident that occurred starting in 2002 back in an Illnau barn in Switzerland. A dozen wild mice were semi-trapped in a barn and allowed to do as they pleased, including mate and nest. They were safe from predators, and their doorways were so small, no cats or birds could get inside the barn. They had plenty of food and water supplied all the time, and researchers visited every few weeks to see to this, which some of the mice never minded while others did. Those that didn’t mind from the beginning are the ones that stayed, and the others promptly escaped to never return.
Those who stayed grew a population of about 250 to 430 russet-colored mice. They even began to run right over the researchers’ shoes on occasion when visiting time came for replacing food and water, rather than scurrying as they might’ve been inclined to do at the beginning. It was around 2006 that Lindholm noticed white patches appearing in the fur of some of the latest offspring, and this is a trait already deemed consistent with domestication. “It was really rare,” she explained. The proportion of adult mice with this trait more than doubled, however, between 2010 and 2016. Lindholm happened to also be working on an entirely separate experiment in which she was measuring mice’s heads, but she was measuring the heads of the same mouse population from the aforementioned study. Their heads shrunk by 3.5 percent on average during the course of the study, which indicates domestication.
The interactions mice had with humans was kept to a minimal degree, and though this doesn’t quite qualify as self-domestication, it proves, according to Brian Hare of Duke University, that natural selection can, indeed, breed self-domestication. Human beings did some of the work by providing resources, of course, but then, the mice did display physiognomical and behavioral changes consistent with self-domestication.