Domestication Syndrome: How Animals Become Domesticated Without People

Domestication Syndrome: How Animals Become Domesticated Without People

Bonobos exhibit a higher degree of domestication than chimpanzees, and all on their own.

There’s a common assumption (and rightly so) that the story of domesticated animals runs parallel to that of the story of human civilization. Once we had learned to plant and harvest, to build shelter and cook our food, we began the process of enlisting animals to help. However, recent ideas from a dynamic anthropologist from Duke University’s Institute for Brain Sciences hypothesizes that domestication may not be an exclusively human endeavor. Bonobos, primates that are closely related to Chimpanzees, show an incredible range of domestic traits without ever having been actively domesticated by people.

Hare recalls a a lecture from Harvard anthropologist Richard Wranghem on the evolutionary puzzle of the Bonobo, which share a number of traits with Chimpanzees but no one can seem to explain why.” Hare made the connection to a breed of “silver foxes”, bred by Russian geneticist Demitri Belyaev. Belyaev took the least aggressive foxes and interbred them, looking for naturally occurring domestic traits; docility, trainability, temperament and response to stress and social cues. The result was a white splotchy fox that behaviorally was no different than today’s domestic dogs, with some added physical changes as well; shorter canines, white splotches on the fur, floppier ears, and a curlier tail. He managed this within 20 generations of his “silver foxes”, an evolutionary nanosecond.

Hare believes that if you selectively breed the nicest animals, these domesticated traits will come to the fore, a process he calls “domestication syndrome”. However, where this has been a process over millennia with other domesticated animals (dogs, guinea pigs, cows), or a targeted and strategic process in the case of Belyaev, the Bonobos seem to have accomplished the task on their own. They have “self-domesticated”. Even compared to their closest living relative, the Chimpanzee, Bonobos display more domesticated behaviors. They have shorter canines, softer fur, and tend to spend more time playing socially and having sex; all characteristics of domestication. On the other hand, chimpanzees regularly war, fight, and engage in things like rape and even cannibalism; aspects of a wilder, more competition geared psychology.

Hare even hypothesizes how Bonobo’s may have “self-domesticated” naturally. In Africa chimpanzees inhabit a northern biome where they would experience competition from gorillas for food and territory, breeding a larger more aggressive male. In doing so they also likely were able to overpower the smaller, less developed females, and since the security of their family unit was much less certain, they may have formed a social structure based on dominance and aggression. Bonobos, on the other hand, occupied a southern area free of competition from gorillas (and most other primates). They had the leisure to develop a more intricate social system, and females had the luxury of creating tight-knit groups that could easily fend off an aggressive male. As a result, those males that were more cooperative, that would ally themselves with a group of females, were able to mate more often. The result? As Hare says, “when nicer specimens breed, domestication results.” In this way, Bonobos became evolutionarily “self-domesticated.”

Hare is quick to point out that his hypothesies are just that, educated guesses based on previous research. However, if there is credence to idea about self-domestication and the domestication syndrome, they have powerful implications for human behavior and the development of our societies as well.