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Trust & share: how humans domesticated themselves, then animals

To prepare for our visit to London’s Cabinet War Rooms, the bunkered basement beneath the Treasury building from where Winston Churchill organized Britain’s coping with the Blitz, the German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom in 1940 and 1941, we read a few articles and book passages.

We also found valuable documentaries and YT videos on the topic. But Winston Churchill’s persona is too decisive to be dispatched as we do with the information hubris of our era (that is, with the help of Google searches and, even lately, by asking an unreliable though annoyingly eager to help digital intern we call, in its last iteration as I write these lines, ChatGPT 4).

Iberian pigs are raised through pastoral management in “dehesas,” large properties where the animals feed themselves with acorns and have to carry an active life to go drink, socialize, etc.; the animals’ well-being will translate (or so tradition states) into sublime ham and other products

So I borrowed a few books from the Public Library nearby, including some competent biographies on the man. I was fascinated by the skimmed reading (in the style of French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who confessed that the most useful skill one develops by coping with massive amounts of documentation is the intuition of knowing how and where to look at what’s relevant at any given moment). One day, I even ended up reading aphorisms and quotes by Churchill, which don’t have the following of those by, say, G.K. Chesterton, but still.

“I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”

Churchill’s commentary is on its own a well of interpretations —and who knows, it may hold a behavioral truth. We, as humans, extrapolate our perception about the things we find relatable and those other things that never entered the realm of human domesticity (from “domus,” home or hearth in Latin) and taming, and we perceive, therefore, as foreign and threatening.

Collaboration turned nepotism: Orwellian pigs

In Animal Farm, George Orwell’s allegory of how power perpetuates in advanced bureaucratic societies influenced by propaganda, the elite class hides the contradictions of holding two conflicting beliefs as truth and indoctrinating society to conceal this lack of coherence in plain sight.

In Orwell’s fable, we feel empathy for an earnest, naïve little dog who believes in the system’s fairness; then, he confronts reality and asks one of the pig overlords: “But you said all animals are equal.” Condescendingly, the pig replies: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Domestic animals’ distinct looks and behavior have been unquestionably shaped by the humans with which they have coexisted; however, each species maintains the underlying predispositions of their ancestors before domesticity. Or, explained by the missed British-American journalist Christopher Hitchens:

“Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.”

We associate animal domestication with the rise of agriculture during the Neolithic revolution, but hunter-gatherer groups used a symbiotic relationship with other animals by benefiting both humans and free-living animals.

I get the honey, you get the beeswax. Deal?

The Hadza hunter-gatherers from  Lake Eyasi, Tanzania, collect wild honey with the help of a guide bird, the honeybird. The bird leads its human partner to a honeycomb in the forest canopy, then waits patiently for the human group to take most of the bounty but a part is left there, which becomes the honeyguide’s share.

Knowing that discarded beeswax is this bird species’ favorite food, the cleaner from honey, the better, who is being taken advantage of in this hunting relation, humans or birds? Honeyguides are certainly not on the losing side of the arranged relationship. Nor can they get easily fooled by other sounds made by humans: according to Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University:

“The new finding shows that honeyguides pay special attention not just to sounds made by humans, but specifically to the sounds that are designed by humans to attract honeyguides.”

The relation is hence not instinctual but based on the mutual interest of two very different vertebrate species.

Some ranchers are trying to raise Iberian pigs (darker, smaller, and more active than most common species) in places with similar weather and ecosystems as in Spain, like California (in the picture)

This surviving ancestral technique hints at our forgotten ability and sophistication to work with other animals that were never tamed but induced to collaborate. This is what Claire Spottiswoode of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom when she confirmed previous studies on the Hadza-honeyguides very particular collaboration:

“They [honeyguide birds] are definitely not domesticated, and they’re in no way coerced. And they’re not taught in any conventional way as well. Humans are not deliberately going out there and training honeyguides.”

The long way of coexistence: animal domestication

Domesticated animals have always fascinated us, and we wonder from a young age why the animals that have accompanied human families for millennia resemble the humans they coexist with in ways we perceive but cannot quite grasp a plausible explanation for. We assume that animal domestication came out of mere utility not only for animals farmed for food (sheep, cows, pigs, turkeys, chicken) or needed for working (horses, donkeys, camels) but also in companion animals: dogs could have enabled hunting and protection, whereas cats could have controlled pests in the first Neolithic cities.

Darwin already recognized a pattern that domesticated species seemed to follow, making their traits (from looks and divergence to adaptation inter-species to behavior) different from those of their wild ancestors. These shared traits, known as the “domestication syndrome,” were tameness, docility, floppy ears, shortening tails, novel coat colors, reduced brains, smaller teeth, etc. They seemed a logical outcome of natural selection, selective breeding, and less dangerous environments controlled by humans. More interestingly, modern humans share features of domestication syndrome if compared to our ancestors.

Australian researchers Ben Thomas Gleeson and Laura A.B. Wilson explain why Darwin’s observation has been a matter of scientific debate ever since:

“Why would a host of seemingly unrelated features repeatedly occur together in different domesticated animals?”

Both have published a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B in which they argue that domestication affected domesticated animals in ways that don’t seem at all useful to humans or to the animal themselves, but which happened anyway.

The environment we shaped for domesticated animals

Until now, the two proposed scientific explanations of the phenomenon are complementary. The first one suggests that our ancestors selected certain animal specimens for their tamer behavior; the second hypothesis implies that specimen selection caused the other features to grow in newly domesticated species. But new evidence suggests these assumptions were wrong but became popular because of their plausibility.

Experiments in animals already conducted in the 1930s hinted at the real culprit. Old studies in rats showed the animals had developed the same common changes (behavioral, morphological, physiological) defining the domestication syndrome, despite the lack of deliberate pre-selection of specimens depending on tameness or aggression. Which led to a focus on the effects of the environment in which the animals have experimented with such changes.

Instead of humans’ preference for tameness or a certain look, it’s the removal of pre-existing forces that keep animals aware in the wild that allows for the new treats to evolve in a similar fashion across species:

“For example, domesticated animals are often protected from predators, so wild traits for avoiding them might be lost. Competition for mating partners is also often reduced, so wild reproductive features and behaviors could decline, or disappear.”

“Domesticated animals are also usually reliably fed. This might alter certain features, but would certainly change natural metabolism and growth.”

Safety and reliable food sources go a long way

The new hypothesis of what triggers common traits across domesticated animal species by Ben Thomas Gleeson and Laura A.B. Wilson describes how the new traits play out once the new environment disrupts the process of natural selection happening in the wild, and hence new ones emerge or get amplified: less male fighting; fewer males for females to choose from; more reliable food and fewer predators; elevated maternal stress, which reduces the health and survival of offspring.

One of these newly defined ways in which wild animals are shaped differently with domestication, the consistently higher maternal stress reducing the health and survival of offspring, could also lead in the future to a new hypothesis about the dramatic transformation of the first inhabitants of Neolithic settlements, whose health, physical strength, and height diminished in comparison to their hunter-gatherer ancestors. In that respect, settling in cities played out for the first humans like the island effect in evolutionary biology: members of a species may get smaller if the population increases faster than the resources immediately available.

Another factor that increased in domesticated animals, the elevated maternal stress and its effects on their offspring’s survival and health, has led me to —in ChatGPT terms— hallucinate, but I’m doing so organically and not in the ways substances or GPT 4 would entice me to if we consider that domestication made having offspring stressful for mothers and their offspring, could we eventually deduct that wild animals (or, say, hunter-gatherer humans) are, at least hormonally, “happier” than urban humans and domesticated animals?

We can’t scientifically measure “happiness” in people, not to talk about animals. According to author Nassim Taleb, social sciences try to approach the challenge of quantifying things such as “happiness” by eluding the fact that cross-cultural comparisons are tricky, to say the least. That said, we could define “animal well-being” or something on similar terms by studying its health, stress levels, life expectancy versus a historical baseline in a species, etc. With this caveat, we should be more prepared to ask again, are wild animals and animals raised in pastoral management environments versus industrial facilities less stressed, healthier, and happier?

Pig skyscrapers vs. pastorally managed pigs: which one would you eat?

Such “wild” speculation has no scientific basis, but we shouldn’t toss up its common sense, which can be extrapolated within the field of domestic animals raised differently: is a pig growing in the last inhumane iteration of industrial-scale animal feeding (CAFOs), the dystopian skyscraper pig farms built in China, capable of “process” (that’s the word) 700 million pigs per year? Those pigs living in Matrix-like conditions, a feeding dystopia that prevents the animal from being in contact with anything it can relate to from birth to slaughter, can’t be “happy,” no matter how we want to measure well-being.

Now, let’s compare the existence of pigs raised in skyscrapers with that of pigs raised across generations and over centuries under pastoral management conditions, like Iberian pigs in some parts of central and southern Spain, raised in “dehesas” of rolling hills where holm oaks and ponds provide water and acorns, a place in which the animals roam freely and can make their own decision about eating, drinking, and resting. Are such pigs “less stressed” and, therefore, closer to the “happiness” of their wild ancestors? Enticing speculation.

The eternal discussion of the roles played by environment and genetics in evolution gets very personal when it comes to the animals we successfully domesticated and transformed forever, creating an inter-species bond that has deep effects on both sides of the relation.

Evolutionary biology’s nature vs. nurture dichotomy can be illustrated in as many ways as life has expressed itself on our planet. Still, in a few places, one can see how important the environment is to personalized treats, as in the sea floor: there, crustaceans of many shapes show the evolutionary tendency to evolve into craw-like creatures, no matter how divergent their starting point might be. This process, named carcinization, shows how one particularly hostile environment as the sea floor propels animals to stumbled upon similar shapes for survival, line spindly articulated legs.

Carcinization explains how many such animals evolve like close relatives when they are not biologically similar. Could a similar phenomenon happen to domesticated animals, who end up looking alike among themselves and also in relation to humans due to the environment we have shared for millennia?

Trust and cooperation were there since the beginning

Researchers Ben Thomas Gleeson and Laura A.B. Wilson ask themselves one last important question: “so how did we domesticate ourselves?”

Theories favored until now argue that cooperation among “beta males” allowed them to displace the minority alpha males, transforming forever competition among males from our species, who used cunning (like Odysseus in the Greek epics, or like Hadza individuals summoning a bird species to guide them to honey in exchange for beeswax) instead of brute force to impose themselves, which in several generations might have led to fewer big and aggressive males.

Their new theory, however, suggests that other aspects played a bigger role than expected: sharing and trust among peers (two values that don’t bear much popularity these days) allowed our ancestors to overcome what still triggers high stress among our closest relatives today (like chimpanzees):

“In our chimpanzee relatives today, sharing care of an infant would likely trigger extreme stress for the mother – but our ancestors adapted to this increased stress and gained an effective survival strategy.”

But sharing and trust didn’t come out of nowhere. Hunter-gatherers guaranteed reliable access to food thanks to coordinated hunting and foraging; moreover, their collaboration to defend themselves against predators may have made our ancestors more sociable and cooperative:

“Whatever the specific drivers in each species, recognizing multiple selective pathways better explains the domestication syndrome, and reaffirms the complexity of evolutionary effects shaping all life on Earth.”