Human self-domestication or human extinction?

The final segment in today’s episode of Radio Lab (New Normal?) on NPR Radio was a fascinating report on domestication of wild animals, specifically foxes. By selective breeding of the few foxes who did not exhibit avoidance behavior (fear) when approached by humans, a Russian scientist was able, in ten generations, to produce docile domesticated foxes.

This naturally raises the question about the possibility of domesticating human to be less aggressive and more empathetic. In fact, the anthropological evidence suggests that since we began living in settled groups, the human species has long been undergoing a process of self-domestication, this perhaps as a necessary adaptation for living together in harmony. That idea, together with Steven Pinker’s argument that humans are becoming less violent (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined), gives me cause for hope that humanity will not extinguish itself from planet Earth.

On the other hand, the fact that power is today so concentrated in the hands of a global elite who, by their threatening behavior and objectives of domination, seem not to have sufficiently evolved in that way, is cause for worry. That raises other questions: how can they be prevented from acting irrationally or how can the levers of power that they control be disabled or overridden?–t.h.g.

3 responses to “Human self-domestication or human extinction?

  1. Tom,

    Humans are social mammals, and cooperation is the rule amongst families, clans, and tribes with limited numbers in an area. However, as Dunbar thought, once a group gets too large (150?), feedback between the members begins to break down. Cliques form, and infighting between them increases. With humans mainly living in large urban centers, governance has little feedback and cooperation is mostly at the clique level.

    As we have tripled in total numbers in my 72 years, and limited resources are shrinking from overharvesting and toxic waste overloads, competition for material well being is increasing. Violent conflicts and normal illnesses both were offsets to high fecundity. Medical technology, sanitation, better nutrition…have outpaced the decline in violence Pinker sees. I think our overshoot will prove him wrong this century as the Global Footprint Network says we have already overshot Earth’s carrying capacity. And violence by humans on *other* species is off the charts as billions struggle for protein.


  2. Hi Tom,

    Another fascinating read in respect of claims that very slowly increasing levels of societal intolerance toward the use of force and violence exist is ‘A History of Force’ by James L.Payne which provides very considerable food for thought!!

    Also, with regard to Jock’s comment, I do find it hard – the use of violence aside – to recognise any link between the current events in the Middle East and the Crusades / Inquisition of yesteryear.

    Today’s events seem to me to be a continuation of the 100 year, or so, battle for the natural resources of the region, whilst the Crusades were simply unsuccessful attempts, sponsored by the Papacy, to recover Christian lands lost to successive waves of Islamic Imperialist expansion. As for the Inquisition, it was certainly oppressive, but over a 250 period year, it actually killed fewer people than died in New York on 9/11. Within the context of this thread, this is only relevant in so far as I think that it is important to try and pinpoint the origins of violence – is it economic, political, doctrinal etc?

    Best regards,



  3. kalikaloscentre

    Hi Tom

    Quite fascinating to read about those foxes. And the possiblity that humans might somehow naturally bred themselves to be less aggressive and more cooperative.

    You referred to the book by Pinker. His name is Steve Pinker, not Daniel. A former student of mine when I was teaching at McGill, going back, lets see, to about 1978! I have read pieces of it; in a way I agree with his thesis, in a way I dont. It’s true that you and I can walk down a city street without fear getting attacked, robbed and killed in a way we might have had difficulties doing 800 years ago (although reports of police shooting and killing citizens seems as bad or worse), what we are doing in the middle east seems on a par with the crusades and the inquisition.




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