July 25, 2006

"Imagine the most evil supervillain and the nicest, sweetest cartoon animal."

I hate to think so much of our personality lies at the genetic level, but let's look at the evidence about nonhuman animals:
In one colony, the rats have been bred for tameness in the hope of mimicking the mysterious process by which Neolithic farmers first domesticated an animal still kept today. When a visitor enters the room where the tame rats are kept, they poke their snouts through the bars to be petted.

The other colony of rats has been bred from exactly the same stock, but for aggressiveness instead. These animals are ferocious. When a visitor appears, the rats hurl themselves screaming toward their bars....

“The ferocious rats cannot be handled... They will not tolerate it. They go totally crazy if you try to pick them up.”
There's a lot in the article about animals and domestication, but what about us?
Human self-domestication, if it occurred, would probably not have exactly the same genetic basis as tameness in animals. But Mr. Albert said that if he could pinpoint the genetic difference between the tame and ferocious rats, he would compare the chimp genome and the human genome to see if they showed a similar difference.
Well, we can't do that today. Maybe you would like to speculate wildly (or tamely) about where on the line between wildness and domestication you think we are and where we should be.


Steven said...

I expect that one will not be able to find a consistent difference between humans and chimpanzees. Humans until the invention of agriculture had essentially the same social structure that chimpanzees have, and similar levels of death by violence.

The differences, if any, will be between humans who have been living in agricultural societies and humans living (at least until recently) in tribal hunter-gatherer societies. The social conditions that would favor "domesticated" humans over "wild" ones didn't arrive until population density went way up.

Even then, I expect agricultural humans are not going to show up as domesticated; I think our behavior more resembles wild animals raised from infancy as pets than genuinely domesticated animals.

reader_iam said...

Maybe you would like to speculate wildly (or tamely) about where on the line between wildness and domestication you think we are and where we should be.

It seems to me most likely that there isn't a monolithic "we" to begin with, but rather that the situation is more like that of the rat example in the story.

(Yes, I know Albert is talking about comparing chimps and humans, as are you, but while that would be useful and very interesting, I'm personally more interested in differences amongst humans themselves.)

It's interesting to me that Albert would like to compare chimps vs. humans, but doesn't mention wanting to compare humans to humans (of course, the lack of mention isn't evidence of lack of interest, or it could just be the way the reporter approached the story). It makes me wonder if that ground is too volatile to touch, given the current climate toward inquiry.

I mean, sure we might learn a great deal by comparing us to nonhuman animals, but it's also true that that's a safe and currently comfortable place. We, these days, like to emphasize our place in the continuum of "animalhood." We'd learn more, however, comparing humans to humans ... but that's dangerous stuff.

Marghlar said...

Just goes to show you that there is no science experiment that doesn't have its analogue in a horror movie.

The chimps have been infected...Infected with what? Infected with rage.

Your question makes me think about the WWII statistic, wherein an astonishingly low percentage (25% is what I remember) of GIs were willing to actually point their guns at an enemy and shoot. I wonder -- would it have been different if their families had been threatened directly? Or is it just very hard for an average human to kill another? I tend to suspect the latter. Which would be a fairly high-adaptive behavior, most of the time.

Gahrie said...

I agree with Steve, we are born wild, and are civilized during childhood.

There is essential truth in Lord of the Flies

John said...

"...mysterious process by which Neolithic farmers first domesticated an animal..."

Is it really that mysterious? Don't you think it was the path of least resistance? Why try to catch the aggressive, ferocious cow, when the tolerant, friendly cow was just standing there? Even our Neolithic ancestors would have learned after a few tramplings, that you don't try to 'domesticate' an animal that doesn't want to be!

WV: hayrbuw ...bribery/reward probably didn't hurt either during the domestication process!

Jeff with one 'f' said...

It could be argued that giving ritalin to many boys is an effort at domestication.

As for how much of our personality is rooted in genetics: I believe genetics play a far greater role than many liberals would be comfortable admitting. (Outside of an arguement in favor of defining homosexuality as innate rather than learned).

I'm adopted and I have known several other adoptees in my life. Those of us who have met or learned of our biological parents have been struck by how closely our interests and abilities and even personalities resemble those our progenitors. I chose a profession that was absolutely antithetical to those of my siblings and parents; I later discovered that it was the same career as my biological father.

When I told this to an adopted friend and mentioned that it made me doubt free will he said that he didn't belive in it at all.

jeff said...

Hmmmm. Anyone else read Larry Niven's "Known Space" stories and seen parallels in the Puppeteer's breeding lucky humans and, um, more docile K'zin?

Alcibiades said...

How bizarre.

It's like the futuristic social experiment gone awry that produced the rievers in Serenity.

Ernst Blofeld said...

Nicholas Wade's new book, "Before the Dawn", has some good discussions of this, including the domestication of dogs in prehistory and the interaction between human culture and genetics in the establishment of agriculture and permanent settlements.

Some scientists in Russia have been attempting to breed tame foxes; over many generations they've pretty much succeeded. Rats just have a shorter generational time.

Apparently Ann's neighbor's cat is an escapee from the "aggressive" cage in the cat breeding experiment at UW.

Rick Lee said...

"Human self-domestication, if it occurred..."

I don't know if this is on topic or not... but I've often wondered about the dramatic shift in personality of the Scandinavian peoples (from marauding Vikings to the gentle folk we know today) and exactly how to account for that. Was it Christianity or something else?

Tom T. said...

Clearly, these scientists spent too much time watching Pinky and the Brain.

Peter said...

Marghlar, my experience in the Southeast Asian War Games leads me to believe that the soldier that points his gun at the enemy and pulls the trigger is the soldier who has dehumanized that enemy. There is a reason we called them "slopes" and "gooks".
It is difficult to pull the trigger on another human being, it is easy to pull the trigger on "The Other".
The most difficult thing is to train a young man, and now woman, that THIS person is "The Other" while this other person is not, even though they might look the same except in clothing.

Gahrie said...

Upon further reflection of this topic, I have also come up with another interesting (or perhaps obvious) observation: all truly domesticated animals are pack or herd animals. The stronger the pack/herd behavior in the wild, the stronger the degree of domestication.

John said...

"...all truly domesticated animals are pack or herd animals.

Not sure that holds true. Lions "pack", wolves "pack". Perhaps related (cats and dogs) species prove the point, but it seems to me that truly domesticated animals were chosen by humans because they served a purpose for humans - food, transportation, herding, etc.

starjacked said...

I love the title here. More than any other creature on Earth, human babies are the most dependent on their parents for survival (and I am excluding those crazy penguins for brevity's sake). Long story short: we are not born with any good innate instincts that help us to survive upon this planet. That said, our fundamental years of learning (ages 1-6 or 7) inscribe deeply upon our brains. If a parent has a belief and preaches that into his or her child then it will certainly imbed deeply but, as long as they provide that child with their core "needs", then that 'imbedding process' can be altered through some 'life-altering event' later in that child's life. Long story short, we are not the whims of the genetic process but, rather, we live by its code. A better question might be: Why is it that we are so genetically unadapted to life? In a fair fight, I mean, would you honestly put a five day old human baby up against any other five day old baby in the animal kingdom?

LGS said...

Once read that apes while foraging would spread out and when one became visually separated from the group would cry out in a particular pattern. However the other apes did nothing about it. No "Hey bro we're over here!"

No empathy for the fellow creature - even from the same tribe. Perhaps Americans who come from just about everywhere have more empathy for the world then others, who see themselves separate and "better" then them. Hmmm

yetanotherjohn said...

I suspect that you would find that in fewer generations than it took to create, cross breeding the two strains of rats would result in a diverse mix. And therein lies the difference between domestication of animals and humans.

A "domesticated" line of humans would likely find itself conquered and its genes mixed back into the broader race. A "super violent" line of humans would lack the inter social skills needed for civilization and so find itself marginalized.