Are Humans Tamed Apes?

Russian (Soviet?) scientist Dmitri K. Belyaev began a series of experiments in 1959 in which he crossbred generations of wild animals selecting only for increased tolerance for human beings. He considered this characteristic to be the hallmark of tameness or domestication. Most famously, Belyaev eventually bred foxes that in only a few generations became as tame as dogs. The New York Times has a fascinating article today looking at how Belyaev and his successors have also bred tame rats, minks, and so forth. Tamed animals look more like younger versions of their forbears.

Researchers have noted that domesticated animals generally have smaller brains than their wild ancestors did. In fact, modern humans also have smaller brains than our ancestors did. This has led some researchers to suggest that human beings are self-domesticated. As the Times noted: "Richard Wrangham, a primatologist at Harvard, has proposed that people are a domesticated form of ape, the domestication having been self-administered as human societies penalized or ostracized individuals who were too aggressive."

Researchers reported last year that one variant of the microcephalin gene affecting human brains was strongly selected for and swept through human populations about 37,000 years ago. Another study found that a variant of the ASPM gene, which is also involved with the development of human brains, arose merely about 5,800 years ago and has since swept to high frequency under strong positive selection. Could these genes be involved in our ongoing self-domestication? Is self-domestication (and the increased tolerance of others that goes with it) responsible for our ability to build large-scale civilizations?

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  • ||

    Would this imply that married men have smaller brains than single men ?

  • ||

    While self-selection undoubtedly plays some role in modern humans "domesticity", it is instructive to look at the behavior of uncivilized individuals. "Wild Children" - those raised outside of normal social contact, uniformly display completely "unhuman" behavior patterns, and can really just be thought of as naked chimpanzees.

    Further - if you look at the behavior of human beings at times when social constructs break down, especially in places without a strong "civilizing" environment, such as, say, Rwanda, you'll observe that large groups of human beings can quickly revert to chimp-like primal behavior.

    So, while genes definitely play some small role in modern man's less violent behavior, I'd say the vast majority of the difference comes from being civilized - being raised in a society which teaches empathy and trust, morality and self-awareness.

  • ||

    I'm not a baby, I am a man. I am an anchorman! I'm a man who discovered the wheel and built the Eiffel Tower out of metal and brawn. That's what kind of man I am. You're just a woman with a small brain. With a brain a third the size of us.

  • ||

    Microcephalin gene.......Ah that explains the President!

  • ||

    "self-domestication"

    Isn't that an oxymoron ?

  • ||

    Well either we did it ourselves in the sense that we domesticated our children. Or the greys in their sky chariots did :)

  • ||

    Anyone read "The Stone Dogs" by Stirling? If this gene can increase domestication how long before people without it are treated like pit-bulls?

  • fyodor||

    Since primates also live according to social rules that allow them to get along with each other in groups much larger than a single family unit, this "self-domestication" wouldn't seem unique to humans, at least not in an absolute sense. Or am I missing something?

    And then there's the issue of war. Which way are these genes working??

  • ||

    Most famously, Belyaev eventually bred foxes that in only a few generations became as tame as dogs.

    Libertarian weird-pet alert: I soooo want a domesticated pet fox now.

  • Ron Hardin||

    Domestic isn't the same as tame.

    Your tame pet wolf may love you, but you can't trust him to distinguish your guests from mortal enemies. A dog, you can.

    Domestication in dogs means making sense of human activities.

    To a wolf, conversely, we are wild, not making sense of his activities.

    You can, independently of that, study aggression and selection, but it's not the same as domestication or tameness.

  • ||

    Smacky- Me too.
    Fyodor- We may be more domesticated, but we're still animals that form herds and attack other herds. That seems to be encoded in our DNA as deeply as bipedalism.

  • ||

    Ron Hardin,

    Exactly. The point of the article is that when they bred for tameness, they got domesticity automatically. The hypothesis is that you can tame a wild animal, but it will not be domesticated in that in will not understand mundane social cues, but that if you breed for tameness, you will inadvertantly get an animal that will be, in every way, domesticated.

    RTA on to the second page. It's very interesting.

  • ||

    This sounds very similar to Terence McKenna's evolutionary theories.
    To summarize, psilocybin mushrooms in our diet made us more peaceful, more sexually active and more creative.
    It makes sense that the mushroom cults would have wanted to breed peace and creativity and no doubt the shrooms over a long period of time also changed our brains.
    But the aquatic ape theory also explains our intelligence and different physical structure vs apes.

  • ||

    One of the neighborhood cats has befriended a local fox and appears to be domesticating him. They're a team: partners in dumpster-raiding and panhandling. This opportunistic relationship has the racoons grumbling and conspiring to do something, something big...

  • ||

    Is the assumption that modern humans are less violent than our predecessors even hold water?

    Additionally, we modern Americans may punish agressive individuals - severely - but that certainly doesn't seem to keep those agressive individuals from passing on their genes.

  • ||

    Is the assumption that modern humans are less violent than our predecessors even hold water?


    Yeah, I have to say I agree with 'And this'. I really don't see "modern man" as non-agressive and non-violent. Sure, there are some refined people. Some very refined. But I think I know more agressive people than non-agressive, no contest. And many of those people have the potential to be very violent...much like any other animal.

  • ||

    Is the assumption that modern humans are less violent than our predecessors even hold water?

  • ||

    Shit, I think we're less violent now than we were even 2000 years ago. The thing is, there's a lot more of us now, so even if the percentages have gone down (not saying a lot, but I do think we are less violent), you're still going to have a boatload of violent folks.

    I would be curious to see what sort of things were happening in the world at large ~37000 and ~5800 years ago that may have put external pressure on our ancestors to have these mutations. If anything, of course.

  • ||

    So, is Bush trying to domesticate terrorists?

  • ||

    Interesting stuff about the experiments, but there's actually a great deal of uncertainty about the origins of the dog. The long-standing theory has been that dogs began as wolves that were less fearful of getting close to human settlements in order to dine on our wonderful garbage piles and such. Over time, they began to hang around us exclusively and began to interact with us.

    More recently, however, fossil and genetic evidence has cropped up that indicates that the dog may be MUCH older--so much so that it may have actually co-evolved with homo sapiens. In other words, dogs are what they are because they hung around humans, but that we humans are also what we are now, in part, because of the presence of dogs.

    Another small point--strictly speaking, all canids are actually the same "species" because they can interbreed. I know that the use of the term "species" is very imprecise, even among scientists, but the true definition of speciation is the ability to interbreed. It would be more accurate to think of wolves, foxes, dogs, coyotes, etcs. as different subspecies or populations of the same larger species. This is important in this context because it affects the origin of the dog--it's probably not accurate to look for a single point of deviation between the various canids, when they have, and still do, intermingle.

  • ||

    Yet more proof for intelligent design... ;-)

  • ||

    ChrisO,

    My wife is a dog; does that count?

  • ||

    Did you co-evolve with her, wsdave?

  • ||

    But the aquatic ape theory also explains our intelligence and different physical structure vs apes.

    Terrance McKenna's ideas run more along the lines of speculation than actual science. Aquatic apers are only marginally better than YECs.

  • ||

    smacky wrote: "I soooo want a domesticated pet fox now."

    Doemsticated foxes are the ferrets of the future.

  • ||

    So, Science proves that Man was created 6000 years ago just like my Bible says.

  • ||

    Self-domesticated? No.

    Monolith domesticated? You betcha.

  • ||

    Hey, Phileu-et cetera! Remember when we had that discussion on that other forum, where I speculated that human beings may actually be evolving into a less violence-prone, more cooperation-prone species? I think this thread topic folds into that hypothesis very neatly.

    Of course, I can't take any credit for that, but I love it when I make a wild-ass guess and then surrependitiously stumble across some support from an unexpected quarter.

    Jose:

    While self-selection undoubtedly plays some role in modern humans "domesticity", it is instructive to look at the behavior of uncivilized individuals. "Wild Children" - those raised outside of normal social contact, uniformly display completely "unhuman" behavior patterns, and can really just be thought of as naked chimpanzees.

    Further - if you look at the behavior of human beings at times when social constructs break down, especially in places without a strong "civilizing" environment, such as, say, Rwanda, you'll observe that large groups of human beings can quickly revert to chimp-like primal behavior.

    So, while genes definitely play some small role in modern man's less violent behavior, I'd say the vast majority of the difference comes from being civilized - being raised in a society which teaches empathy and trust, morality and self-awareness.

    Could be. But also note that the supposed "domesticity gene" specifically governs how a human interacts with other humans in society. So in cases where a "wild child" is raised without human social contact, the gene may be there but simply without a way to express itself. There's no social group behavior for it to influence.

    It would be like having genes that control the development and use of your eyes, but being raised in a completely lightless cave all your life. You'd be blind, not because you lacked the requisite genes, but because your environment lacked the conditions that your genes were adapted to.

    In cases where society exists but has been warped out of normalcy -- where normal rules have broken down, violence is more commonplace, and cooperation and trust have become more risky -- then the usual social cues that cause you to act in a more domesticated way might also be missing, so people may react in a less domesticated way.

    I don't believe that genes cause all behavior, but the speculation here is defensible.

    I find this fascinating because I'm interested in the question of where rights come from, and in the idea that morality -- and consequently our ideas of human rights -- is rooted in biology and evolution. In other words, that natural rights/human rights, are actually expressions of human nature, not merely a social/intellectual construct that might vary arbitrarily from society to society.

  • ||

    "...It would be more accurate to think of wolves, foxes, dogs, coyotes, etcs. as different subspecies or populations of the same larger species.
    Comment by: ChrisO at July 25, 2006 01:07 PM"

    Yes for wolves, dogs and coyotes. Foxes are not only different species, they're different genera (several genera in fact). I don't think they can interbreed with wolves and dogs at all.

  • ||

    Yesh, Man is a de-gen-er-ate cousin of the Ape ... domeshhticated for ushe in our reshearch lab-ruh-tories and in our zoosss. Ash he should be!

  • ||

    I take exception to that portrayal of Dr. Zaius. He was erudite, well-spoken, and a master of Apish. A fine successor to mankind's failed efforts to civilize himself. And an eligible bachelor--catch him while you can, ladies!

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