The Theory of Self Domestication

[First off, I know it’s been a while.  Life took a few unexpected turns, as life is wont to do, and blogging slipped way down my priority list.  But I miss it, and I miss you guys, and somehow I continue to get new followers each week or so without any activity on my part, so I figured at the very least I owed you a new post every now and then.]


Here’s a pretty great high school throwback of me with three of them!

I started reading Brian Hare’s The Genius of Dogs because, well, I love dogs.  And I like science, and I actually applied to Dr. Hare’s program when I was looking at undergraduate schools 5 years ago.  So when I stumbled upon his book a few months ago, I figured at the very least it would be entertaining.  I had no idea how blown away I would be.  Sitting down tonight, brainstorming topics for a new post, I realized that Hare’s “self domestication” theory is one of those kooky things I’ve been talking to everyone I know about, and therefore it was the obvious choice.

Here he is, and he only has one… 🙂

Dr. Brian Hare runs the most well known dog lab in the United States at Duke University in North Carolina.  His research in canine cognition isn’t just fun and games with puppies, it’s actually classified as a program in evolutionary anthropology.  The reason Hare does anthropological research with dogs is that they are (somewhat mysteriously) better at communicating with humans than our closest relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos) tend to be.  Therefore, the evolutionary history of dogs, and the basis behind their amazing ability to communicate nonverbally with us, might give us some clues into what makes us human (and separates us from those apes).

When Hare first started as a student of anthropology, he was looking at the differences between human infants and chimpanzees and bonobos.  He found that when raised by humans, these primates could interpret our hand signals (like pointing) and facial expressions.  However, wild apes required a lot of training to interact with humans in the same capacity as a human infant can.  Hare struggled to teach apes to learn to follow a pointing gesture, when he realized “I think my dog can do that…”

Sure enough, Hare’s childhood dog could pass the tests designed for apes almost right away.  Later studies revealed that puppies with zero training and minimal interaction with humans know how to follow human gestures much better than our close cousins the apes.  Dogs are much closer to babies, cognitively, than bonobos and chimps.  While I found this interesting, I had no idea just how big of an implication this had for the human race until Hare spelled it out for me.

For the whole story, I definitely recommend you read his book.  But in short, while comparing dogs to wolves and chimpanzees to bonobos, Hare came to a theory that humans are domesticated.

Dogs are more friendly than wolves (wolves are social but do not get along with strangers, other species, or humans as well as dogs do).  Dogs also have smaller skulls, variations in coat patterns, and more of a reliance on pack members, whether they be canine or human.  Wolves are better than dogs at a lot of skills that allow them to survive in the wild, but even when raised by humans, they always lose to dogs in tests of human communication (like pointing and facial expressions).  Hare hypothesizes that dogs were not created by humans who adopted wolf puppies, but instead self domesticated.  Friendly wolves, and wolves that could read the intentions of people, slowly became more involved in human society and the traits we know to belong to domestic dogs (smaller teeth, smaller skulls, different colors, etc) emerged as kind of a side effect of the canines becoming friendly.

If self domestication is a real phenomenon, then it can be applied to other species.  Bonobos were once thought to be one species with chimpanzees.  Now, though, we know they are two separate species and that bonobos are smaller, have smaller teeth and skulls, are more friendly with strangers, and less violent than chimpanzees.  When bonobos and chimps were evolving from their common ancestor (which they share with humans), no one was around to forcibly domesticate them.  However, they are essentially a domestic version of the chimpanzee.

Hare ties this to the conclusion that humans are, essentially, the domestic version of our early hominid ancestors.  We have smaller skulls, smaller teeth, and a more complicated social structure and dependence than our relatives.  Note that in this case, domestic doesn’t mean less able to survive.  When you think about domestic animals, they seem dumber and less equipped for survival in the wild than their untamed counterparts.  However, what Hare is talking about here is an advantage in the fight for survival. When being friendly becomes an advantage, species “self domesticate” and change as a result.  Wolves became dogs, able to exist within human settlements.  Bonobos welcome strangers, take care of one another’s infants, and live a much more peaceful life than their more territorial violent cousins, the chimpanzees.  And humans were able to live in larger groups, create trusting relationships, and ultimately settle down to create more complex society.

If that doesn’t help you see kindness as an advantage, feel a little better about the state of humanity, and want to learn more, I don’t know what will.


It’s good to be back.  That’s my picture this week – say hello to my dog, Solo!
Thanks to Dr. Brian Hare for all the cool work he does and for writing such a great read.
And, as always, a special thank you to the masses of Wikipedia, for most of the background knowledge needed for this post.

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