There were so many different topics to write about this week, but I think the most interesting is something we’ve touched on before: the extent of co-evolution between man and domestic animals. How have we shaped each other, as separate species? It’s clear from experiments like Belyaev’s that domestication goes beyond simple taming and docility, that the genetic makeup of these animals is actually being changed. Rob Dunn mentions in his book The Wild Life of Our Bodies that we have bred many of our domesticated animals to have significantly reduced tendencies to feel fear. My question is, is all of this really genetics? In neither Dunn’s book nor reports on Belyaev’s foxes does there seem to be a mention of a more psychological explanation.
Dunn mentions that, “Cows and lambs are not just meek. They are actually numbed to the dangers that once haunted them, too tame to flee even when the wolf is at the door.” Belyaev’s foxes were selectively bred for “domestic” qualities, and each subsequent generation seemed to produce more and more dog-like foxes. I’m not arguing the truth of this, just the mechanism of the phenomenon. Mammals are particularly sensitive to human emotion- as the common saying goes, “they can smell fear.” Well, they can smell a lot more than that. Every animal trainer learns that the secret to success in forming a bond with an animal is that you have to be calm. If you are trusting and gentle, the animal will perceive you as such. This works especially well when you give the animal this impression of yourself at a young age- or when it is taught to them by their mothers and other “role models.” This is my theory: cows and lambs are meek not because they have been bred to have a repressed fight-or-flight response, but because they have been raised repeatedly in a world where this type of defensive behaviour is unecessary. They don’t need to be able to protect themselves; humans do it for them, to protect their investment in the animal. For herd animals like cows, sheep, and horses, humans serve as the dominant leader, the one in charge of protecting and defending the rest. In pack animals like dogs, we are viewed as members of the pack, and as long as they feel protected by their owners they will feel it is their duty to be protective of us as well. The integration of the lives of domestic animals with our own over the centuries, our protection of them (for whatever reason), has meant that from an early age they are used to us. They can read us emotionally (some better than others), and this I think lends itself to their docility and other domestic qualities more than anything else.
More evidence that this psychological explanation might have some credence? What about feral animals? By all standards, animals like cats, dogs, and horses have been completely domesticated. If genetics were the only things at work here, that means feral animals, who have had no interaction with humans during their formative years, would not act wild. But they do. Sure, feral cats and dogs may live in populated areas, and have no problem with human life–they may even rely on it to survive. But attempt to interact with them as you would a domestic animal, and you’ll quickly find their adrenal systems have not been dulled. Compare a wolf and a dog that has been feral all its life- they respond the same way.
We may have influenced the genetic evolution of our domesticated animals to make them rely on us, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that our selective breeding has changed their inherent instincts and behaviour. We learn these when we are young; animals are the same way.
Until we code the genomes for all domestic animals (and their wild counterparts, should they exist), we’ll never know for sure the extent that our selective breeding has influenced their genetic makeup. Here’s one more story to make us think about the huge impact of psychology on the domestication of animals: Christian the lion. Follow the link here to watch a short video about Christian: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqQt1MKTiaI
February 17, 2014 @ 4:28 pm
What a great post! I am also a big fan of Christian the lion. (Isn’t everybody?). The issue you raise about genetics/environment vis-a-vis Belyaev’s experiments and the other readings is so important and intriguing. Belyaev selected SOLELY for docility and interest in humans (as manifested by behavior) in order to isolate the genetic components of domestication. Your point about the docility of sheep and cattle being a function of their environment (including the circumstances under which each individual is raised) is important. But it isn’t “just” nurture that makes them the way they are. If it were, then by extension one could take any ungulate (say the Pronghorn), raise them around people and voila, they would be “domesticated” and lose much of their fight-flight response. Ironically (and inadvertently), what Belyaev proved is that both nature and nurture matter. In other words, domestication is a process, and a relationship between species that is conditioned both by genetics / biology and behavior/culture. Cool, but complicated!