Wednesday, 4 June 2014

On the alleged "self-domestication" of humans

There are a lot of articles out there that claim that humans are a self-domesticated species. It is certainly true that modern humans show many signs of domestication. Humans are domesticated creatures. At first glance there is no other dominant species around to do the domesticating - thus the popularity of the "self-domestication" concept.

In this article, I will argue that institutions and organizations act as powerful masters to humans, and act as the agents responsible for the domestication of modern humans. The idea of institutions and organizations as domesticators renders the "self-domestication" hypothesis largely redundant.

Institutions and organizations are largely cultural phenomena. Some employers make their humans into replaceable components, making their essence primarily cultural. By contrast, some organizations are personality cults - where a single humans forms an essential component. Overall, although institutions and organizations typically have both organic and cultural components, the cultural element is often very significant. It is common for modern organizations to actively eliminate dependency on any individual humans.

Similarly, human responses to domesticating forces are also largely cultural. Modern humans are domesticated in a way that cavemen are not. Maybe cavemen are a bit domesticated - compared to chimpanzees - but it is mainly cultural responses to cultural forces that compose the phenomenon under discussion.

Institutions and organizations can often be very powerful, compared to individual humans - making them worthy domesticating agents.

Presumably, critics might claim that institutions and organizations have only been substantial sources of human power for the last 10,000 years - and that in hunter-gatherer tribes human personalities were a more dominant force. It is true that institutions and organizations weaken in power (relative to individual humans) the further back in time you consider - but they would still have had considerable power 10,000 years ago. Also, quite a bit can happen on that timescale - including quite a bit of human genetic evolution.

Another comment by critics might be that within institutions and organizations there's often a chain of command - where increasingly powerful humans monitor and manage those beneath them, while reporting to those further up the chain. So even within institutions and organizations, there's always a more powerful human immediately above any individual - who can act as the domesticating agent. That may be true, but if you ask where the power differential comes from in the first place, it comes from the institution itself. Without that, the whole structure collapses.

The humans-as-a-self-domesticated-species meme seems to have some momentum behind it. However, science isn't a popularity concept. While humans show many signs of domestication, a failure to understand cultural evolution has led to a misidentification of the domesticating species. Modern humans have been domesticated largely by institutions and organizations - which have their own inheritance mechanisms and lineages that are independent from those of humans. Saying that humans are "self-domesticated" totally misses this important point.


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