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!