Humans are primates, more specifically apes and just like dogs, we humans once roamed wild. When we think of domestication we think of cats, dogs and budgerigars, however, we have been domesticated too. But has domestication improved things, has it made us happier?
The definition of domestication
The definition of domestication implies a domesticator which is assumed to be a human. So the obvious question is, who or what domesticated us?
the process of taming an animal and keeping it as a pet or on a farm
> the cultivation of a plant for food
the process of making someone fond of and good at home life and the tasks that it involves
Human domestication theories
Thousands of years ago, non-aggressive/tamer wolves would have been able to scavenge for leftovers on the outskirts of hunter-gather camps. Aggressive wolves would have eaten less and diminished over time, eventually leaving us with man’s best friend. This is the general theory of dog evolution which lead to domestication.
Docility which was theorised as being a benefit for wolves is also attributed as being a benefit for humans in the human self-domestication hypothesis.
The hypothesis implies that humans selected their companions based on pro-social behaviour. Which would have made docility and tolerance prevail while “killing out” our wilder nature.
Yuval Noah Harari author of Sapiens has a much simpler theory with wheat being responsible for human domestication.
Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants … We guarded and protected wheat from insects, blight and bunny rabbits, we dug ditches and carried buckets of water to irrigate it and collected animal poop for fertiliser. This had profound effects on humanity, not least of which, wheat forced us to stop wandering and to instead settle permanently next to our fields.
[Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari]
Both theories seem logical, part of human domestication required us to become more civil while the other part required us to stop roaming and settle down.
Why do domestic cats hunt?
If you were a domestic cat, why hunt mice when you have cat food served on a predictable schedule? It’s more preposterous considering you rarely eat the prey you catch. I realise it’s a stupid question. They are obviously indulging their hunter instincts. But if domestic cats need to indulge their pre-domesticated selves, surely we humans do too?
Instincts suppressed by domestication
Just as dogs love to play fetch as it indulges their instinct of when they hunted prey and returned it to their pack. We humans have desires from our pre-domesticated selves.
Based on observations from hunter-gather tribes around today, it’s widely believed that we lived as egalitarians with women as influential as men, and no one person being in charge. This is the opposite of how things are today, society is laden with rules and we spend much of our life at work being told what to do. We want fairness, freedom and to have our opinion heard.
🌲 being in nature
Imagine living in a concrete jungle with no parks, gardens or even a house plant. Studies show that green spaces are good for both our mental and physical space. Forest bathing first came about in Japan and has been adopted elsewhere since.
Being part of a community is one of the starkest differences between how we live today vs how our ancestors did. If you were left alone or expelled from the band then your survival chances would have been severely affected. It’s no surprise that loneliness makes us feel so terrible.
🏃♂️ being active
Because of technology we can survive without being active. But just as living a life in solitude isn’t good for our soul nor is being inactive. It’s no surprise that exercise is seen as one of the best ways to elevate depression.
🛠 having purpose
For many of us, life is lacking an ingredient, which is purpose. Life has become too easy which sounds luxurious but it’s not, it can make it dull. The desire to live a purposeful life is what made us hunt for food, build shelter, make fire and clothing.
Forces that keep humans domesticated
It’s hard to deny that wheat or more generally farming is a key force in keeping humans domesticated. Remove mass food production and anarchy would soon ensue. But it’s not the only force at play. There are other domesticating forces that take us to a deeper level of obedience.
-The education system
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson authors’ of The Elephant in the Brain write how the education system is an integral part of our domestication:
Consider how an industrial-era school system prepares us for the modern workplace. Children are expected to sit still for hours upon hours; to control their impulses; to focus on boring, repetitive tasks; to move from place to place when a bell rings; and even to ask permission before going to the bathroom (think about that for a second). Teachers systematically reward children for being docile and punish them for “acting out,” that is, for acting as their own masters. In fact, teachers reward discipline independent of its influence on learning, and in ways that tamp down on student creativity. Children are also trained to accept being measured, graded, and ranked, often in front of others. This enterprise, which typically lasts well over a decade, serves as a systematic exercise in human domestication.
[The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson]
The authors go on to say how the education system is primarily about credentialing and has little to do with learning. We earn credentials to show employers that we can complete boring assignments, do as we are told and not slack off.
Other than reading, writing and basic math, did you learn anything that was useful or ever needed again outside of the education system? Simler and Hanson go on to write:
The modern workplace is an unnatural environment for a human creature. Factory workers stand in a fixed spot performing repetitive tasks for hours upon hours, day after day. Knowledge workers sit at their desks under harsh fluorescent lights, paying sustained, focused attention to intricate (and often mind-numbing) details. Everyone has to wake up early, show up on time, do what they’re told, and submit to a system of rewards and punishments … schools help prepare us for the modern workplace and perhaps for society at large. But in order to do that, they have to break our forager spirits and train us to submit to our place in a modern hierarchy.
Just as dogs go to obedience school so too do humans. Dogs are told what to do by their trainers but who or what keeps humans obedient after leaving the education system?
If you don’t think you’re being brainwashed by the media, think again. Whether it’s TV, the Internet, radio, cinema or film, someone, somewhere is telling you what to do and what to think. The only way to opt-out is to stop consuming media, but we all know that’s never going to happen.
With the ubiquitous smartphone, we consume more media and are more brainwashed than any other generation. The media is our master and with its evolution into one-to-one personalised communication, it’s algorithms that we now obey.
If schools help start the domestication process then it’s the mass media that continues to enforce it. Without someone telling us what to do, think, consume, and how to behave, it wouldn’t be possible to domesticate humans on a global scale.
Are domesticated humans happier?
If we wanted to understand the effects of human domestication, it would involve implementing a randomised control trial using identical twins and splitting them into two groups. One group would live as hunter-gathers and the other group as we do today. Unfortunately, such a trial would never be allowed so instead we can run a thought experiment.
Are animals born in captivity happier than those born in the wild? This feels like a fair-ish comparison for our domesticated vs non-domesticated human thought experiment. Now let’s assume Joe Exotic isn’t the zookeeper, it’s a nice zoo with plenty of space to roam and an abundance of food — it’s an easy life. So is “wild lion” or “zoo lion” happier? Despite lions living longer in captivity, my money would be on “wild lion”.
If you were taken from your current life and thrown into the wild to live as a hunter-gather, I have no doubt it would be traumatising. Maybe you’d get used to it, but most people would wish for their old lives back.
That being said, it’s a mistake to look back in time and assume we must be happier today with all of our modern-day conveniences. Just as you don’t miss the latest contraption that makes your life easier (but hasn’t been invented yet), nor did our undomesticated ancestors.
Do humans suffer from zoochosis?
Zoochosis is considered to be a form of psychosis caused by captivity. It’s characterised by repetitive, obsessive behaviour with no obvious goal or function. A popular method to combat zoochosis is to give animals distractions such as toys and to prescribe Prozac and Valium for relieving depression and anxiety.
By removing animals from their natural environment it causes abnormal behaviour. So can we attribute aliments in human society to “unnatural” urban living? We originate from a nomadic species, so it’s possible we suffer from some form of zoochosis. Is spending long periods of time rooted to one spot in our homes and at work too dissimilar to living in captivity?
Psychologist Ming Kuo has studied the effects of nature on humans and discusses our evolution from forests into cities in the podcast below. In one extract Kuo claims “humans today are living in the kind of conditions that we used to keep zoo animals in 50 years ago”.
“Organisms, when housed in unfit habitats, undergo social, psychological and physical breakdown”Edward O. Wilson
Everyone wants to be free
Do you like being told what to do? Chances are you don’t. I never stopped to think why that might be until I learnt about the egalitarian nature of our ancestors. It’s very possible we’re wired not to like taking orders and being part of a hierarchy.
Unfortunately, for most of us, we’re frequently being told what to do in our working life. To me, this explains why the self-employed enjoy working so much more than those of us with a boss. Even though Uber gets a lot of stick, the freedom that drivers get by working the hours they want and having no boss is highly appealing. Give the drivers more pay, set hours, holiday and a boss and the dynamics completely change.
The domestication of humans has meant a reduction in freedom, nature, community, purpose and activity. It’s easy to see why many would consider this cruel.