Over the past few years I encountered a few ideas that have intrigued me and made me look at modern life differently, namely that humans are comparable to domesticated animals living in captivity. In Move Your DNA, Katy Bowman compared the movement functionality of modern-day humans to the bodily dysfunction of captive orcas. While her perspective focused on how forces or their lack can shape a body, it occurred to me that the metaphor could extend to other aspects of human life. Later, on the Katy Says podcast, Katy blew my mind with the idea that the need for much orthodontia is a modern-day solution to a particularly modern problem– human jaws are smaller because we no longer are subject to the forces necessary (i.e. chewing, biting, etc.) to the extent necessary to stimulate growth. As a result, our teeth are overcrowded, a problem we correct with braces and other interventions. This was my first inkling that our bodies are not entirely well adapted to modern life.
Shortly thereafter, I heard Daniel Vitalis on his Rewild Yourself podcast also allude to the smaller human jaw. He took it a step further, and argued that this was a sign that humans are domesticated animals. This idea that we are not only the domesticators but the domesticated has intrigued me ever since. In addition to the physical attributes Katy and Daniel noted, I began to observe other similarities that allow me to conclude that we, like the poor orcas, are essentially living in captivity, albeit a captivity of our own making.
I will explore this theme of humans as domesticated animals in a three-part series. Part I below focuses on the traits homo sapiens exhibit that make us a domesticable, if not domesticated, species. Part II will discuss how civilization contributes to self-domestication by fostering alienation from nature, including denial of the fact that we are animals and fostering authoritarianism. Part III will conclude with an explanation of the ways modern society is like a zoo for humans and and how various aspects of society serve as cages that restrain our potential.
1. Signs That Humans Are Domesticable
The traits of animals that are appropriate for domestication include usefulness, predictability and docility, low reactivity to external stimuli, tolerance for different diets and habitats, and willingness to conform to social hierarchy. Humans meet each of these criteria.
To start, humans prove immensely useful. We are capable of both laborious tasks requiring brute strength and solving abstract problems requiring creativity and ingenuity. We can grow and prepare food and other marketable crops, design and construct buildings, tame and train animals, care for other human beings, transports goods and people, devise and effectuate various technologies, make art and more. Clearly we are a species that proves useful enough to be worth domesticating.
Our ability to conform to social hierarchy is also self-evident. Whether it be the ranks of the military and law enforcement, a democratically elected government, a system of aristocracy, or a feudal regime, we humans have proven capable of submitting to authority and observing a chain of command. We obey and even respect those who are deemed elite in a society, regardless of whether that status was obtained through money, birth, violence, popularity, or merit.
Further, we are a flexible species. We can live in hot or cold climates; in deserts, forests, or plains; and in rural, suburban, or urban areas. We can function on a variety of diets: high-protein, low-fat, vegetarian, or high-carb. We can tolerate a wide enough variety of foods that we can find sustenance on almost any continent. We are not very skittish, and we can be exposed to new people, locales, and foods without extraneous anxiety or stress.
Homo sapiens have exhibited a willing to breed in captivity as historically seen in slavery around the world, if nothing else. Conception by prison inmates also demonstrates this trait.
Humans’ predictability and docility is evident in conditions we’ve endured around the world and throughout history. Humans have a huge capacity for suffering, as has been shown in numerous repressive political regimes, systems of slavery, abusive cults, war, chronic gang violence, and deadly genocides. The fact that human beings can endure some of the worst evils in the world for decades, if not centuries, without resorting to violence is proof of our predictability and docility.
In less sinister examples, compulsory education, military selective service, and industrialized and post-industrialized employment are major societal institutions that are dependent on humans yielding to the direction of others. What more paradigmatic example of domestication can there be than an animal that freely submits to the authority of another to perform labor for others’ benefit at the expense of its own freedom of movement and freedom to follow its biological appetites and urges? Docility is also evident in our ability to form orderly lines, adhere to rules of traffic, comply with a garbage pick-up schedule, and pay taxes. And not all of the rules we follow are enforced by an authority figure with punitive powers. Our tendencies to follow fads in fashion and technology, to abide by general (and often conflicting) advice in the media, and to buy a lot of unnecessary consumer products simply because it is marketed to us shows humans to be a very pliable species even without the threat of punishment.
Our low-reactivity to external stimuli is also a sign of our domesticable capacity. In order to have a civil society, it is necessary that humans do not become anxious when encountering other strange humans or novel situations. We would not be able to have such a large, complex, interwoven society if humans were to become skittish and react violently each time they encounter the unknown.
But human beings are not only capable of being domesticated; humans already show signs of genetic changes just like domesticated animals. Domesticated animals often exhibit different features from their wild counterparts. Physically, domesticated animals have physical features that include smaller body sizes, smaller jaws, smaller brains, and more infantile faces. Such traits can be seen in modern humans, notably a smaller jaw and dental crowding and shrinking brains. These features, along with large heads, flat faces, and minimal body hair, are more suggestive of juveniles than mature adults, which is a hallmark of domestication syndrome.
As I’ve explained, humans have demonstrated throughout history a substantial capacity for being domesticated. Our traits include the hallmarks of domestication: usefulness, predictability and docility, low reactivity to external stimuli, tolerance for different diets and habitats, and willingness to conform to social hierarchy. Stay tuned for future posts detailing, not only are we capable of being domesticated, but how civilization has resulted in domesticating us so that we are in fact now domesticated animals.