Over thousands of years, a type of animal that had a close relationship with wolves slowly morphed into something that likes to curl up in your lap, get belly rubs, and eat three times a day.
These changes in dogs weren’t just behavior. In fact, changes in body outline—such as a shorter snout, floppy ears, more expressive faces, less body hair, and a longer infancy—are common in many pets.
An international team of researchers has now indicated that similar traits exist within elephant populations, raising the question of who or what might have domesticated them.
The answer the researchers propose seems equally surprising: Elephants may have domesticated themselves.
At the most basic level, domestication is the process of artificially selecting representatives from each generation of animals (or plants) that best fit the criteria for living among humans. Number one on that list should be “Play Well”. No one wants to wrestle with big, hairy boobs to get her milk or risk their eyes for a morning fried egg.
While many common traits may not have been chosen on purpose, some genes go hand in hand with those of a docile companion, giving many animals a more graceful and less menacing appearance. called “domestication syndrome’, the combination of characteristics that go along with calm, cute, and content animals may not help them in the wild, but they certainly make them better suited to human society.
Back in 2017Duke University anthropologist Brian Hare took the concept of domestication syndrome a step further, speculating whether it could apply to us humans, too.
If we could choose which dogs, sheep, pigs, and cows to have babies based on their temperament and cuteness, why couldn’t we do it for ourselves?
Known as the human self-domestication hypothesis, it posits that our evolution was increasingly directed from the Middle Paleolithic to the late Paleolithic by a preference for less aggressive and more socially supportive partners.
Consequently, there has been increased pressure on our ability to communicate, facilitating complex language skills. Changes in how our brains work may have an impact on the size and shape of our skull, and it’s not all that different from how skulls change in pets.
We may not be the only primates to experience this preference for a more peaceful path and expression of a violent existence. Hare identifies our close relative, the bonobo (pan baniscus), as a candidate for self-domestication based on assertions of the species’ lack of aggressiveness compared to its other relative, the chimpanzee.
Now African and Asian elephants are being nominated as new models for self-domestication, having undergone similar selection processes to humans and bonobos.
The authors of this new study provided an exhaustive laundry list of similarities between groups that serve as evidence of a common domestication process. For example, in all three cases, the shape of the jaw and skull changed, with the jaws shortening or the skulls less elongated, and the number of teeth reduced.
Behaviorally, there is a tendency for peaceful interactions, with examples of aggression tending to be proactive rather than reactive. Children of all types tend to participate in social and non-social games that often facilitate socialization and bonding. There is also significant evidence of “parental paternity”, in which offspring are mentored and nurtured by adults who are not their direct ancestors.
The team conducted a review of hundreds of genes thought to be involved in changes in embryonic tissues considered partly responsible for domestication, and found some evidence that evolution favored at least a few dozen such sequences in elephants.
The examples given may just be take-it-suit cases. For example, other animals that have undergone domestication have evolved into breeds with floppy ears and wrinkled tails.
Researchers Argues “Domesticated species do not usually display the full range of traits associated with domestication,” as different masses of traits can fall apart and are no longer subject to selection. Sense elephants are unlikely to lose the already well-developed structure of their ears, given how useful they are for thermoregulation.
To what degree the three species of elephants may or may not have taken the evolutionary path to local, pro-social “bliss” depends primarily on whether the hypothesis itself presents a good theory capable of explaining why certain social characteristics are commonly found in diverse species.
If that happens, we may find other animals on the domestication continuum. Dolphins, or different types of birds or rodents may also have undergone similar changes that favor degrees of social complexity over muscle and anger.
Once viewed as an exclusive virtue of humanity, the tendency to prioritize peaceful guidance, complex emotional expression, and a general love for one another may be an open choice for many social animals.
As with many of the traits that once defined our species, humans simply took domestication to the next level.
This research has been published in PNAS.
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