On an average morning, you might wake up to the sound of your dog scratching at the door to go outside and do its business. Or you might wake up after your cat plops its furry ass on your face in an attempt to persuade you to fill its dish. Or you might simply go downstairs and pour a bowl of cereal for yourself. What do these all have in common? No matter how you slice it, our lives revolve around domestication – the process by which we selectively breed and engineer wild animals to turn them into furry friends and farmed food.
For decades, human scientists set us apart from other animals by claiming that we were the only creatures capable of using tools, and that our tool-making indicated an elevated state of consciousness that no other animal could achieve. Subsequent anthropological research firmly discredited this particular line of evidence. But human intelligence is one of the few things that has allowed us to domesticate animals that aren’t as intelligent as us. To properly turn an animal – especially a scary predator like a wolf – into an affectionate companion, ancient humans relied on a variety of factors: knowledge of heredity, a need for companionship, and the ability to safely corral and interact with dangerous wild animals on a daily basis.
There are a variety of different routes that animals have taken to live with us. Some, like cows, pigs, and horses, were forcibly bred and domesticated by humans. Other animals, like dogs and cats, forged alliances of convenience with us – we let them eat our garbage if they took care of household pests and helped us hunt.
Evolutionary physiologist Jared Diamond once identified six pieces of criteria that aid the domestication process in any given species: a flexible diet, a reasonable growth rate, passive temperament, the ability to breed rapidly in captivity, and a modifiable social hierarchy (allowing humans to supplant the natural “leader”). Not every domestic creature has all of these traits equally, of course, but most of the animals in our homes embody all of these traits to some degree.
A new hypothesis among numerous genetic scientists attempts to determine whether the domestication process is more than skin deep. One central developmental change in domesticated animals revolve around a temporary clump of cells in the embryonic stage, known as the “neural crest.” This minor change might be behind the entire idea of “domestication syndrome.”
Since 1960, Russian scientists have conducted a long-term experiment on a repurposed fur farm in Novosibirsk. The foxes there are different from any other fox in the world. They’re not shy around humans: quite the contrary, as they’re practically aquiver with excitement whenever a human approaches, hoping to be pet. These gregarious foxes are the great-great-great grandpuppies of rescued fur foxes, roped into a eugenics experiment aiming to reproduce early domestication conditions.
From these experiments, scientists have nailed down just what sets domesticated animals part from their wild counterparts. While wild animals – with no one but themselves to rely on – are aloof, independent, and self-reliant, domesticated plants and animals take things slower. Domesticated animals are almost entirely dependent on us for food, and can’t breed with their wild counterparts anymore.
From what we’ve gathered, domestication probably began with dogs around the time of the Ice Age. Wolves, drawn to villages by the smell of meat and the lure of garbage, started hanging around humans, who used these hangers-on for companionship and, eventually, hunting. Goats, dating back about 6000 years, were another early acquisition by humans. From there, humans diversified, spreading as far as silkworms, honeybees, cats, hamsters, and more. Maybe, in the future, we’ll domesticate more animals, but at the moment we seem to have hit our cap. Say it with me now – whoza good boy? Whoza good boy?