Dec 9, 2020
When you think of domestication, I bet you think of farm animals—you know cows and pigs and alpacas—or maybe house pets. You might think of corn or wheat or rice. You probably don’t think of us—humans, Homo sapiens. But, by the end of today’s conversation, I’m guessing you will.
For this episode I talked with Dr. Brian Hare of Duke University. He’s a core member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience there, as well a Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology. Along with Vanessa Woods, he’s the author of book published this summer titled Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding our Origins and Rediscovering our Common Humanity.
We talked about Brian’s research with dogs, foxes, and bonobos and how it led him to a big idea at the center of this new book. The idea is that, much as we domesticated farm animals to make them tamer and easier to work with, we also seem to have domesticated ourselves at some point in our evolutionary past. This process is known as self-domestication—a selection for friendliness. But beyond making us gentler and smilier, the domestication process also had a bunch of unexpected impacts on our behaviors, bodies, and brains. Really unexpected, like the fact that we have globe-shaped heads. According to Brian and Vanessa’s account, self-domestication was in fact the force that allowed ancient humans to develop larger social networks and, in turn, more sophisticated technologies. So it may hold the answer to why we’re still around while other hominin species—like the Neanderthals—aren’t.
As Brian says at one point in our conversation, the book is really offering an account of human nature. And, importantly, it’s a dual nature. Lurking behind our friendliness—co-existing and co-evolved with our newfound chumminess—is a darker side, a capacity for real cruelty.
I consider the human self-domestication hypothesis to be one of the most fascinating ideas of that last decade. Right now it’s really at the center of a lot of conversations about human origins and about human and animal minds. Enjoy!
A transcript of this episode is available here.
Notes and links
Note: Much of what we discuss is covered in Survival of the Friendliest, but additional readings and sources are also listed here.
6:42 – Read the paper inspired by Dr. Hare’s early observations about how his dog Oreo could understand human pointing gestures.
8:40 – In one study, Dr. Hare traveled to Siberia to study a population of domesticated foxes—and specifically to ask whether they would show a predilection for cooperative communication. The long-running fox-farm experiment is the subject of a book titled How to Tame a Fox (And Build a Dog).
10:50 – Around the same time as his research in Siberia, Dr. Hare also published work examining how bonobos exhibit more tolerance than chimpanzees.
15:15 – A recent article voicing skepticism about the fox-farm research and the so-called “domestication syndrome.”
17:30 – See Dr. Hare’s 2017 book, Bonobos: Unique in Mind, Brain, and Behavior, co-authored with Shinya Yamamato.
30:00 – A long-standing puzzle in paleoanthropology is why modern human behavior—as judged by advanced tool use, symbolism, etc.—lagged behind modern human anatomy by more than a hundred thousand years. The eventual emergence of modern behavior is sometimes described as the Upper Paleolithic Revolution.
40:00 – An article Dr. Hare published along with Robert L. Cieri, Steven Churchill, and other colleagues on the origins of “behavioral modernity.”
58:45 – Evidence from social psychology suggests that cross-group friendships might be especially powerful in changing attitudes. Here’s one paper on the power of inter-group contact.
Brian Hare’s end-of-show recommendations:
Richard Wrangham, The Goodness Paradox
David Livingston Smith, On Inhumanity
David Stasavage, The Decline and Rise of Democracy
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