Something changed

Jared Diamond notes (p 161) that the wild ancestors of domesticated animals are spread unevenly – only two are in South America, while none come from North America, sub-Saharan Africa, or Australia. He then argues that only a few special species are good candidates for domestication, and there just weren’t any in these regions.

The world’s climate was similar to today’s, back the Eemian, the last interglacial (before this one). Every animal species that humans have ever domesticated existed back then, along with many other now extinct. Yet none were domesticated. As far as we know, no plants were domesticated, either. Why not? I’d guess it was because people were different back then. So that’s a possible reason. We could push this argument further, back to earlier interglacial periods, or even back before the Pleistocene: people must have been different.

I could believe this for Australia. Marsupials are significantly different from placental animals – dumber, for one thing – and most of the large ones in Australia had been wiped out a long time ago. Do I believe Diamond’s ” no good candidates” line for North America or Africa? No, I don’t. Zebras might have a lousy disposition, but then so did aurochsen. While eland are easy to domesticate. Tarpans, the wild ancestor of horses, only died out in the 19th century. We have descriptions: they were “absolutely untameable”. Yet here we are.

Lots of domestic animals started out with difficult behavior (aurochsen, tarpans, wild boars): domestication is always first and foremost for tameness. Selection can change behavior just as it changes size and speed and milk production. That’s selection on animal behavior, of course. There’s a special principle that keeps selection from changing behavior in humans.

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90 Responses to Something changed

  1. Pingback: Something changed | @the_arv

  2. 1) Most of the domesticable fauna of America was wiped out by the Indians shortly after arrival. They didn’t seem to show any interest in domesticating the surviving species-elk, buffalo, moose, deer, caribou. Not like they were unfamiliar with domestication-they had dogs, and bred various plants for food (Eastern Agricultural Complex). But domestic animals other than dogs take up a lot of energy and attention, and really cramp your style.

    2) Australian aborigines also didn’t seem interested in domesticating any of the animals they had available, even though, for instance, kangaroos are tameable and delicious.

    3) A lot of this stuff seems to come down to just path-dependent/low-hanging fruit. If people domesticated everything that’s domesticable, they’d have domesticated bears, kangaroos, zebras, giant sloths…for most people at most times, not worth the bother.

    • Ursiform says:

      The Plains Indians successfully exploited the bison without domesticating them.

    • dain says:

      Man, imagine domesticated war-kangaroos …

    • Colin McColinater says:

      Maybe you need a certain population density to make farming worthwhile. Hunting and gathering is sufficient if there’s enough room and probably more fun too. As for domesticating kangaroos, you’d need pretty tall fences.

    • Turkey Day says:

      Baruch, the Amerindians were familiar also with the turkey, the guinea pig and the llama as domesticated, not just the dog. North Amerindians just the turkey though, as I recall.

      The real question with Amerind domestication is why no domestication of draft animals.

      Possibly no domesticated draft animals because no plowing? If you have turkeys and hunting and quite a lot of arable land, perhaps you don’t bother with taming anything like the bison.

      In the Eurasian sequence, roughly I believe, it goes cows+sheep->wooly sheep+goats->horses. Plowing power+meat->clothing+milk->mobility. The first couple of stages may be needed to get to pastoralism, and only then is horse domestication worthwhile as a more mobile substitute for oxen.

      • North American Indians had a pretty good setup going where their farming was based on spreading toxic weeds and then processing them into food. You’d plant a bunch and go away for a while, hunting or whatever, come back and harvest, soak out the poison, and you’d be good to go.

        It’s a better bargain than spending your life as a wheat farmer-lots more leisure and nutritional variety, not stuck to a piece of land, worried about birds, bugs, ungulates or raiders all the time. But much lower population densities, so you’ll end up losing wars to those miserable cannon fodder peasants and wiped out. Basically, same thing that happened to Eurasian steppe nomads.

        • Pop Density and Early Farmers says:

          As I understand it, Early European Farmers of Europe pretty low density and mobile as well. Their downfall was rather eventually running into mobile pastoralist types though – the big advantage of crop growers is their big populations.

          ( – Isotopic evidence for residential mobility of farming communities during the transition to agriculture in Britain – “Our results are consistent with the hypothesis that early farming communities in Britain were residentially mobile and were not fully sedentary.”

 – Gradual decline in mobility with the adoption of food production in Europe: Neolithic more mobile than Bronze and Iron Age populations with steppe ancestry, and a lot more mobile than recent intensive agriculturalists. “This gradual change in mobility does not match the predictions of a relatively abrupt Neolithic Demographic Transition in Europe and thus only partially supports the proposed impact of increased sedentism on this transition”)

          Middle Eastern and Southeast Europe populations pushing to intensive agriculture and higher density (at cost of lower mobility) probably better able to survive rise of pastoralists.

  3. dearieme says:

    “There’s a special principle that keeps selection from changing behavior in humans.”

    The principle is “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you”.

  4. j says:

    I imagine domestication must have had a difficult start because animals and plants are FOOD and normal human condition is near-starvation. Say you and your Hottentot cousins had trapped an elephant, an intelligent, domesticable, nutritious creature. Would you try to tame and breed the monster instead of butcher it on the spot and share the meat with your undernourished wife and children?

    • AppSocRes says:

      Years ago I visited a traveling museum exhibit on the horse. IIRC, the archaeological evidence is that horses were slowly tamed as a food source millenia before anyone thought of using them for anything else. I suspect that it also took a while for goats, sheep, cattle, chickens, reindeer, llamas, camels, chickens, etc. to be treated as anything more than animated meat banks. The point is that the domestication process is a slow process. Humans apparently failed to make the conceptual leap that led to the taming taming of local animals as food sources, the first step in the process of domestication, in only two large regions, North America and sub-Saharan Africa.

      • j says:

        It was the Spartans that made the highest conceptual leap of all and domesticated themselves and the Messenians. Regarding themselves, the accounts describe them as robust, tall and well built, and sub-fertile. Their population collapsed and died out. Regarding the Messenian helot population, the Spartans conducted annual razzias and killed off the strongest and the assertive, a ritual they kept up for four centuries. It may have worked as the helots ended up quite submissive and never succeeded in freeing themselves from their Spartan parasites.

        • teageegeepea says:

          It’s my impression that slavery/serfdom/peasantry is a fairly stable arrangement in many contexts. Not to wax too political, but Franz Oppenheimer said the origins of The State is in nomads conquering settling farmers and stealing their surplus. Self-rule even to the degree of Spartan citizens seems atypical throughout most of the history of agricultural civilization.

        • kot says:

          Spartan exceptionalism is mostly myth.

      • Jim says:

        It took centuries for Apaches to learn to ride horses. For a long time they just ate or traded the ones they stole. Even after they learn to ride them I think they were always dependent on stealing horses from the Spanish.

  5. helenahankart says:

    Ooh! I know this one, pick me! Pick me!
    Is the answer “magic fairy dust”…sorry…”culture”?

  6. RCB says:

    “Tarpans, the wild ancestor of horses, only died out in the 19th century. We have descriptions: they were ‘absolutely untameable’.”

    FYI to readers, I’m seeing from wikipedia that this description comes from Belsazar Hacquet in the 1700s, after seeing tarpans in a Polish zoo.

  7. Dave says:

    Artificial selection had a huge effect on the Japanese. For centuries criminals were chopped to pieces with katanas — if you unwrap the handle you often see a test report scratched onto the tang e.g. “This sword cut through five bodies [of executed criminals] in one stroke.” Now it’s perfectly safe for ten-year-old girls to travel alone at night through Japanese cities.

    The exception is behaviors specific to the female sex. Societies couldn’t afford to cull a large percentage of females in each generation, so bad girls were married off and told to shut up and obey their husbands. Thus liberated women still exhibit monkey-like sexual behavior and seek out sex with the most monkey-like men. All PUA advice could be summed up as “act like a dominant male monkey”, and we all hate PUAs because they so effortlessly puncture our myths about female virtue.

    • RCB says:

      People bring up self-domestication through strong law-and-order a lot. I feel like it’s not as easy as people say. It’s not like a group just decides to enforce strict rules and then it magically happens. It requires that real people actually enforce the law, and fairly. Public law enforcement is costly and altruistic, from a fitness perspective – policing violent criminals can get you killed. Selection would favor the individual who doesn’t stick his neck out, no? Also, if people mostly use enforcement power to help themselves and family and friends (think mafia-style law and order), rather than enforcing the actual law, it might also favor nepotism and clannish behavior.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        “Public law enforcement is costly and altruistic, from a fitness perspective – policing violent criminals can get you killed.”

        true but on the other hand a lot of wimmins likes a uniform so there’s a balance.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      The sanctions against female infidelity and precocious sexuality down the centuries would have been the equivalent of selecting against criminals e.g. honor crimes, getting sent to nunneries etc.

      “Thus liberated women still exhibit monkey-like sexual behavior and seek out sex with the most monkey-like men.”

      If you define the human version of r/K behavior as a weighted collection of traits along a spectrum that’s more the behavior at the r end of the spectrum. PUA types were trying to get sex in clubs and the women most likely to oblige would be more r-type so r-type male behavior worked best. The most popular men (at least in the blue collar world) are fire fighters i.e. macho but steady and not monkey-like at all.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        so the spectrum is (imo)
        r women -> macho + slack men
        K women -> macho + steady men
        K++ women -> steady + little bit macho men

      • Lowe says:

        Eh, are firefighters not monkey-like? They spend a lot of the day on personal fitness, and their main occupation is climbing into buildings. They’re usually not very smart, either.

        They’re definitely altruistic, but still very monkey-like.

        • Greying Wanderer says:

          i guess the perspective varies depending on where you are on the spectrum.- personally i’d say a simple matrix would be slack vs steady combined with macho vs soy so on an r/K spectrum it would go something like:
          macho + slack
          macho + steady
          steady + macho
          steady + soy
          with slack + soy being more or less scavengers who reproduce by lying to 13 year olds.

  8. Noname says:

    Good question. Especially because during the Eemian Europe was populated by Neanderthalians which had larger cranial capacity than AMH (whatever those are)

  9. Pincher Martin says:


    Do you have any idea when sophisticated long-term breeding programs for domesticated animals began? Programs which would have selected for traits other than tameness and deferred consumption?

    I was quite surprised when reading a history of the Macedonian Army under Philip and Alexander that the Macedonian leadership was highly sophisticated when it came to breeding horses. They had a long-term breeding program and were always on the lookout for new breeds they might use in it. They selected not just for control, speed and endurance, which are obvious traits for war mounts in cavalry, but also for imposing height, which I suppose they felt would intimidate their foes on the battlefield.

    This breeding program was not some incidental factor in the Macedonian Army, not something that was run at lower level, not something which just happened to be a feature of Macedonian society and incidentally helped out the Macedonian army in the same way that, say, the U.S. military is often incidentally helped by many productive advances in the U.S. economy.

    No. Both Philip and Alexander were closely engaged in it. Anytime they invaded a new land and discovered animals with qualities they liked, they sent large numbers of the beasts – into the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands – back to Macedonia specifically for those programs. After appropriating some 20,000 Scythian mares as war booty, for example, Philip was said to be willing to wait decades for the breeding to pay off in a superior strain of war mount.

    I was wondering if you were aware of a similar engagement with breeding animals at the highest levels of a society that goes back even further in history.

    • dearieme says:

      Pigs? Did ancient history have its Lord Emsworths?

    • j says:

      The Greeks were actively engaged in hunting dog breeding with several local types, and also in improving battle horses. The horses shown on, for example, the Partenon frontispiece, look like ponies and may have been of little use in battles. Philip’s innovative use of the horse was had to be based on more corpulent breeds. BTW, the Chinese also sent out expeditions to Central Asia to import “fire breathing” horses for breeding.

  10. TWS says:

    Why are marsupials dumb? I’ve never heard that.

  11. If I remember Diamond’s thesis correctly, African mammals co-evolved with humans, and so learned to beware of humans. The modern humans invaded North America were so advanced that every unwary animal which might have served as a beast of burden got eaten. Asia was the sweet spot, in between Africa and North America: not too cold, not to hot, just right. Maybe I’m “remembering” a supposition from somewhere else as Diamond’s.

  12. Frau Katze says:

    Didn’t Diamond say that Eurasia was different, because humans and animals co-evolved. So the animals got better at evading humans as humans got smarter. So there were more large animals in Eurasia than North America. Humans were already smart when they got to North America, so quite a few were wiped out. I know I read this somewhere.

    The population density might not have been high enough to drive the North Americans to try domesticating. That’s just a wild guess.

    The ones living on the B.C. west coast (and no doubt south into the States) had a large supply of fish. Pretty tasty items like sockeye salmon. So they definitely didn’t need to try domestication.

    When you think how hard it must been to domesticate aurochsen and wild pigs (because of aggressive males) the Eurasians might have been more desperate. Population density might have been higher.

    • Cantman says:

      In Subsahara humans and megafauna co-evolved, as humans sportingly stayed dumb enough for the animals to compete. But elsewhere megafauna suffers mass extinctions before recorded history, with domestication being a rare outcome for the lucky few.

      Anyway, if domestication doesn’t pay for the first few generations what it means is that you need to be a capitalist human (high future orientation, high IQ) before domestication starts. The domestication cannot create the capitalist human.

      • Frau Katze says:

        The source (GGS, I think) claimed that first humans out of Africa weren’t as bright as they later came. So they co-evolved, but with humans, getting smarter was the main point.

        It makes sense. Eurasia posed all kinds of difficulties not seen in Africa. So intelligence was selected for.

      • j says:

        Eurasians might have been more desperate… On the contrary, domestication is feasible only when you have excess food to avoid eating the “seed”.

        • Cantman says:

          If there’s a lot of food around, you don’t bother storing it. You store it on the trees. Capital accumulation arises when you’re forced to store it by necessity, then get good enough (or just lucky enough for long enough) to build a significant surplus.

          So humans go into the far north, become intelligent and future-focussed to survive (it helps that one can afford to lose adaptations to fight disease and other megafauna – Subsaharans aren’t “less evolved”), then these intelligent, future-focussed killer aims flood back south in genocidal waves.

      • bb753 says:

        Indeed, Diamond’s argument is self-defeating. If animals could catch up with Africans as both humans and megafauna evolved, it follows that Africans didn’t evolve a lot or at least not enough to compete. For instance, were African elephants and lions that much more difficult to kill that Eurasian mammoths and saber-tooth tigers (or fot6that matter, Eurasian lions)? Even if they were, was the difference so large that Africans couldn’t wipe those animals out as other humans did in every other continent? And need I remind you that elephants and lions were driven to extinction north of the Sahara? It seems Diamond learned a lot about bollocks while measuring testes in his youth.

        • Stephen W says:

          In Africa Humans co evolved with tropical diseases, so before modern medicine there was always the diseases preventing over crowding. That is what prevented humans in Africa from hunting more of the mega fauna to extinction or the humans being more selected for novel food gathering and intelligence. But the neanderthal while having the selection for scarcity survival had too small a population to provide new genes for selection and were quit inbred. Homo Sapiens evolved at the Axis where Eurasia and Africa meet. Once more advanced Sapiens technology allowed large populations in Eurasia it allowed further intelligence selection there to snowball.

          That is my take.

      • I wonder that there might be some religion to which domestication is a side effect. Look of how Hindus treat many animals now.

    • Calvin X Hobbes says:

      “When you think how hard it must been to domesticate aurochsen and wild pigs (because of aggressive males) the Eurasians might have been more desperate.”

      I have the impression that domestication of animals (and plants) just kind of happened as a by-product of local conditions, without much conscious planning behind it. For example, some wolves hang around human encampments and the tamer ones especially get habituated to humans and the humans to them, and eventually the selection effects give us dogs, all without much long-term thinking on the part of the humans. If there was human intelligence involved in this process, it was probably along the lines of thinking, “We could kill this sow that’s been lurking around and eat it now in the summer, but maybe it will still be around in the winter and we could eat it then when we’re hungrier, or maybe it will even have some piglets by then and we could eat some of them.”

      • Frau Katze says:

        That could be the case for animals that live in packs. Dogs are the prime example: their owners are regarded as part of their pack.

        Cats, not so much. But they did self-domesticate by hanging around grain storage buildings and feasting on the mice that were attracted by the grain. As carnivores go, they were too small to be dangerous (or it could be that ancestor cats were bigger and humans selectively picked the smaller one…total wild guess.)

        I think I read somewhere that horses were also easier to domesticate because they lived in alpha male groups (one male and a bunch of females). The females were used to having other horses around. Males could be gelded, with a few keep for breeding.

        I don’t know about the aurochsen. The males were particularly aggressive.

        Selective breeding may not have started right away, but it must have done. Look at all the different breeds of dogs. There are breeds of cattle too.

        • Calvin X Hobbes says:

          “I don’t know about the aurochsen. The males were particularly aggressive.”

          So how did that domestication process get started with aurochsen ? I doubt that it occurred to anybody at the start that these wild critters could be turned into something relatively tame after a few dozen generations.

          • Frau Katze says:

            Not sure which of the posts on GGS this came up. The consensus was: They were originally hunted, so people knew they tasted good. People started capturing young ones, who weren’t able to fight back. They could raise the young ones, being careful about the males.

            Modern bulls are still dangerous.

        • Cantman says:

          I think cats and dogs also domesticated humans. Why? We see them as extremely cute. We don’t treat them like a saw to be left to rust when we no longer have any wood that needs cutting. Instead we spend lots of money keeping them when we don’t need them at all. People probably didn’t see feral wolves as especially cute, and humans supposedly didn’t change the form of cats much at all, so probably people who were averse to these animals were much more likely to die at some point in our evolution.

          • Frau Katze says:

            Yes I think they have had an effect on us too. People get attached to them almost like they were their children. It varies of course, but it’s amazing how many people are like that.

    • TWS says:

      On the west coast dogs were bred for long white coats and brushed to make blankets. I don’t know if this was pre or post Spanish contact. Elders said some of those dogs were around when they were kids but the dogs are gone now.

  13. carol2000 says:

    Inter- and intra-species phylogenetic analyses reveal extensive X-Y gene conversion in the evolution of gametologous sequences of human sex chromosomes.
    It affects everything from H1 to T, and E1b1a1a independently.

    • carol2000 says:

      “For reasons that are not yet understood, there is an excess proportion of genes on the X-chromosome that are associated with the development of intelligence, with no obvious links to other significant biological functions.[22][23] There has also been interest in the possibility that haploinsufficiency for one or more X-linked genes has a specific impact on development of the Amygdala and its connections with cortical centres involved in social–cognition processing or the ‘social brain’.”

  14. Jalfrezi says:

    Just to play devil’s advocate: do we know for certain no animals or plants were domesticated back in the Eemian?

    • TWS says:

      I’ve wondered that about certain species. Rein deer apparently self tame to get salt. Despite being all the wrong shape for riding and saddle wear people can ride them. Watch even experienced guys with them in harness and you’d never ride in a cart or sleigh they draw.

      It’s like they are feral and waiting for someone to handle them. Plus European ones have smaller antlers.

      It’s just something I’ve speculated about since hearing about them from my Norwegian and Sami great grandparents.

      • j says:

        Reindeer wanders into Evenki camps as if expecting to be domesticated. They just fence off a corral to protect them against wolves and burn some moss to repel biting insects and the reindeer walks in every evening.

        • TWS says:

          That’s what I was talking about. Not easy to use but good dispositions for taming. I think it was the Evenki whip told the story about the reindeer coming into camp for the urine.

  15. Senator Brundlefly says:

    I wonder how much (if any) domestication has occurred in zoo/circus animals. Only animals well-suited to captivity produce offspring and not many are wild caught. In fact, I’ve read a critique of zoos as conservation sources for future wild stock based on this logic.

    • TWS says:

      An African elephant adopted my infant son. I was friends with the staff at the zoo so every morning I’d take him in and we’d see the animals. An African elephant would visit with him all morning if she could. This went on for a few years. She’d tolerate me but just loved my son.

      We moved away and years later his class went to the zoo. The elephant remembered him and wouldn’t leave him be. She had been born wild in Africa but adopted a human boy. A couple of generations of selecting that behavior would be helpful to domestication.

  16. dave chamberlin says:

    The change was that some people that survived the ice ages under incredibly difficult conditions were pushed hard by evolutionary pressures to get smarter. Bad science by speculators with preconceived notions can now be brushed aside because of recent advances in genetics like this amazing paper.

    This paper is able to peer back in time to those populations that kick started agriculture and the domestication of animals 9000 to 10,000 years ago. good read

  17. It must be systemic racism on the part of the animals. I can’t see that any other explanation fits the facts.

  18. KevinM says:

    Cheetahs have been domesticated.

    Feral hogs are easily domesticable, its a growing business here in Texas, though are mostly of previously tamed stock.

    Bobwhite quail have been domesticated.

    My experience with giraffes leads me to believe they would be easily to domesticate. They are the animals the teenage girls start out on at the zoo.

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