Domestication refers to the process by which humans adapted other species of plants and animals to human use. Domestication represents a specific kind of co-evolution, following a specific course and often marked by specific effects. The domestication of such staple plant species as wheat, rice, and maize formed the bedrock of agriculture, itself the bedrock of civilized life. The domestication of animals like cattle, sheep, and goats gave rise to pastoralist societies that lived alongside them, while dogs and cats lived with humans as pets. With the collapse of civilization, the era of domestication largely came to an end, but their feral descendants have become some of the most common species in the Fifth World.
Animals that become domesticated often show a number of common changes:
- Reduction in size (though after this, humans can select for larger varieties, eventually creating animals much larger than their wild ancestors)
- Reduction in cranial capacity
- Piebald coloring
- Wavy or curly hair
- Fewer vertebrae
- Shorter tails or rolled tails
- Floppy ears
- Neoteny (retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood)
- Polyestrousness (having more than one period of estrus in a year)
Domesticated plants have greater variety, with no single set of characteristics that they all seem to share, though it generally involves the parts that humans use become much, much larger.
The physical changes seen in domesticated animals might have genetic ties to the one behavioral trait that humans truly selected for in domestication: tameness. Selecting just for tameness among silver foxes, for example, produced piebald coloring and neotenous features in just a few generations. This selection for tameness brings with it related behaviors, such as increased prosocial behaviors like sociability and playfulness, and markedly reduced reactive behaviors like fearfulness and aggression. Along with the reduction in cranial capacity, domesticated animals also seem to have a reduced intelligence compared to their wild ancestors. Aurochs and wolves, for example, had reputations for their distinct intelligence in the wild, while their domesticated cow and dog descendants became bywords for the lack thereof.
During the era of domestication, humans also showed many of the traits seen in domesticated animals, including reduced cranial capacity and neotenous traits. Many of the animals that humans succeeded in domesticating lived as herd animals. Herd animals often have hierarchies, which humans could co-opt. Rather than dealing with each animal individually, by dealing with the leader of the herd, humans could direct the behavior of the entire herd. But in plugging themselves into the hierarchical logic of other-than-human herds, they may have provided the pathway by which that logic could come to dominate a species that had invested so much in egalitarianism and consensus. Ancient societies would often use the same tools that they used on livestock on human slaves, and across ancient cultures, languages used many of the same terms for livestock as they did for slaves, considering them as more like each other than the “master.”
Domesticated plants and animals that escape into the wild rarely simply return to a wild state. More often, some legacy of domestication remains even long after it ends. For example, dingoes have lived in Sahul for at least 3,000 years, but they still have a reduced cranial capacity closer to that of a dog than a wild wolf. This makes it useful to distinguish between wild animals that humans have never domesticated, and feral animals that have escaped domestication. The domesticated history never goes away, but it does not need to go on defining the creature’s life.
With the end of agriculture and civilization, few humans had the resources to keep supporting domesticated species. Though their domestication often left them ill-prepared for life in a more-than-human world, their sheer numbers and global distribution generally proved more than sufficient to balance out that disadvantage. Feral species have become some of the most common creatures encountered in the Fifth World. Most have retained that lack of fear for humans, now combined with greater aggression and territoriality. On the whole, this has made the world a more dangerous one for humans.
#Contextualizing domestication & ferality
Many communities across the Fifth World teach the history of domestication as civilization’s greatest lingering wound. They usually teach it as a betrayal of the covenant that bound their most ancient ancestors to a more-than-human world. They teach their children that feral animals will harbor great resentment and anger towards them because of this. Further, they teach their children that each generation must dedicate itself to the ongoing work of reconciliation, to earn back the trust of other-than-human animals and eventually repair the covenants that their ancestors betrayed. They hold that this will take many generations, but that if that they continue the work and pass it on to their children, that one day they might succeed in forming a new relationship with these species.
- Ingold, Tim. “From trust to domination: An alternative history of human-animal relations.” In The Perception of the Environment: Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill, by Tim Ingold, p. 61-76. New York: Routledge, 2000.
- Wilson, Peter J. The Domestication of the Human Species. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.