“The human population explosion has been bad for most other living things, but not so for those lucky enough to warrant domestication,” writes science journalist Francis (Epigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance, 2011, etc.) in this provocative account of the latest developments in the field of evolutionary biology.
“In an evolutionary sense,” writes the author, “it pays to be domesticated.” Not only do humans breed animals for our own purposes—pets, horses, and cattle—but we have been an “unconscious evolutionary force.” Francis cites the famous 1959 experiment by the Russian scientist Dmitry Belyaev, who explored the domestication of foxes by selecting for tameness. By the sixth generation, they developed physical and behavioral characteristics normally associated with dogs. The author suggests that the driver in this case—also exemplified in the descents of dogs from wolves and humans from primates—was natural selection of those animals best able to tolerate the social stress of life in the vicinity of human habitations. Selection for tameness was related to “a general dampening of stress responses,” and over several generations, stress hormones decreased. In the author's view, a similar process of self-domestication occurred in the evolution of humans from their primate forebears. Francis astutely substantiates this thesis with fossil evidence from a variety of mammal species, including cats, dogs, raccoons, mice, and more. As the author writes, the concept of survival of the fittest was not based solely on competition for resources, nor initially on transformations in the brain, but rather on “parallel neuroendocrine alterations in humans (and bonobos) on the one hand, and dogs, cats, rats, and other domestic creatures on the other.” This leads him to the novel conclusion that rather than just human intelligence, the extraordinary evolutionary success of our species has depended on our “hypersociality and unprecedented capacity for cooperative behavior.”
A highly illuminating look at the cross-species biological basis for human culture and sociability.