Self-domestication refers to a theory of the process of adaptation of wild animals to humans, without direct human selective breeding of the animals. The term is also used to refer to biological processes in the evolution of humans and human culture.
Wild animals may self-domesticate when tame behaviour enhances their survival near humans. Tolerating or even enjoying the close approach of humans in order to feed near them, and a lessening of natural adult aggression, are two aspects of tameness. An environment that supports the survival of tame animals can lead to other changes in behaviour and appearance as well.
Smaller skulls on tame animals have been noticed in other species. Noticing that a dog's skull looks like that of a juvenile wolf, Richard Wrangham goes on to say that "this leads to the thought that species can self-domesticate." Other characteristics that are associated with juvenility – barking and meowing (sounds used by wolf cubs and kittens of large felines, respectively, to communicate with their parents), increased playfulness and reduced aggression, and increased eagerness to learn – are seen in tame animals.
Self-domestication is described by biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham as being in an environment where lessening of aggression was beneficial for survival. As grain plants and livestock became domesticated 9,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, wild cats adapted to living with humans, hunting rodents in grain stores and "abandoning their aggressive wild-born behaviors", which led to today's house cats.
While humans may have intentionally domesticated wolves into dogs, an alternate hypothesis is that wolves effectively domesticated themselves by establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with prehistoric humans. They scavenged on the remains of the prey animals left by the prehistoric people at the human settlements or the kill sites. Those wolves that were less anxious and aggressive thrived, continued to follow the prehistoric humans, and colonized the human-dominated environments, generation after generation. Gradually, the first primitive dogs emerged from this group.
Research done beginning in 1959 by the Soviet geneticist Dmitri Belyaev on silver foxes selectively bred only for tameness revealed that a whole range of other physical and behaviourial features, such as neoteny, also appeared along with the tameness, characteristics that were not specifically the result of selective breeding by humans. White spots on their fur, floppy ears, rolled tails and smaller skulls were seen in the tame foxes, and the foxes were also described as "incredibly endearing."
Belyaev and his successors also selectively bred wild rats for tameness, with similar results. These results with selective breeding suggest that the natural process of self-domestication can occur within a single human generation.
Self-domestication describes theories of how humans developed and evolved. The idea of self-domestication was used by early Social Darwinism which, according to psychiatrist Martin Brüne in an article "On human self-domestication", developed from the idea that humans could perfect themselves biologically.
"Contemporary reproductive technologies such as selective abortion and genetic screening are typical examples where our self-domestication is most directly apparent," writes philosopher Masahiro Morioka, who also says that "Through domesticating ourselves like cattle, people began civilization."
Gregory Stock, director of the UCLA School of Medicine's Program of Medicine, Technology and Society, describes self-domestication as a process which "... mirrors our domestication [of animals] ... we have transformed ourselves through a similar process of self-selection ... our transformation has been primarily cultural, but it has almost certainly had a biological component."
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