Behavioral Aspects of Animal Domestication

Edward O. Price

The Quarterly Review of Biology

Vol. 59, No. 1 (Mar., 1984), pp. 1-32

Published by: The University of Chicago Press

Stable URL:

Page Count: 32


Agriculture is labor intensive. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, slaves were common labor. Some crops can’t be mechanized; economic slavery exists today.


Since the survival and well-being of humankind is so inextricably bound to our domestic animals and plants, it is important that we understand the domestication process and its biological consequences. The objective of this review is to discuss available information on the biological basis of animal domestication, with particular emphasis on behavior.

Domestication concerns adaptation, which is usually to a captive environment and which is achieved by some combination of genetic changes occurring over generations, as well as by environmentally induced changes in development that recur during each generation. Genetic changes will occur in population of organisms undergoing domestication as a result of both chance and of any shift in selection pressures accompanying the transition from nature to captivity. In addition to changes in gene frequencies, adaptation to the captive environment may be facilitated by certain recurring environmental events or management practices that influence the development of specific biological traits.

It is difficult to generalize about the effects of domestication on either genetic or phenotypic variability because of different selection pressures on different traits and species. However, it is apparent that, with respect to animal behavior, domestication has influenced the quantitative rather than qualitative nature of the response. The postulated loss of certain behavior patterns under domestication can usually be explained by a heightening of response thresholds above normal levels of stimulation. Conversely, lowered thresholds of response often can be accounted for by constant exposure to certain forms of stimulation. Certain behaviors may have been altered because of man’s role as a buffer between the animal and its environment. One of the more important behavioral changes accompanying the domestication process is a reduction in responsiveness to changes in the animal’s environment. Food provisioning and man’s control over the breeding process have reduced competition for important resources, and thus have permitted selection for the retention of juvenile characteristics (neotony). Feralization is the domestication process in reverse. The capacity of domestic animals to survive in nature may depend on the extent to which the gene pool of the population has been altered during the domestication process. “Natural” gene pools should be protected when breeding wild animals in captivity for the purpose of reestablishing free-living natural populations.

1The Quarterly Review of Biology © 1984 The University of Chicago Press

Humans domesticated humans for the same reason that they selected for neotenic animals – “lowered responses to change in the environment” – That is, to captive sedentary environments, which were Hierarchical: “Top Male” controlled and drastically less healthy for individuals than foraging-nomadic-hunter groups. Slavery is FORCED domestication and was the labor-acquisition choice of agricultural societies. women and children were often no more that domestic labor.

This massive change to agriculture, de facto captivity, and necessary selection for  “tame” individuals would have excluded “wild” individuals (natural gene pools) who were killed off, could not survive in captivity, or became the “barbarians” that raided agricultural settlements and cities. Many likely straddled the fence, living on the border between both environments. 

Domesticated females would have been able to reproduce at younger ages and to give birth to more children over their reproductive span than hunter-gatherers, who regulate their reproduction to adapt to the natural environment.

The increase in disease in sedentary populations, poor nutrition from grains and cereals, and crop failure due to drought, flood, climate shifts, and the timing of these uncontrollable disasters, would have made the ability to reproduce at a younger age, and more frequently, was an automatic “good thing” for recovery of populations. Selection for “tame” domesticated females is a no-brainer: the same selection was being applied to domestic “animals” and was well-understood in practice.

One aspect of agricultural religion is baffling: if agricultural activity is better than the life of nomads and hunters, why are agriculturalists so intensely active in building temples and tombs for agricultural gods? Enormous effort and valuable materials were expended, so much so that modern people are shocked and hard put to come up with a rational explanation. The standard reply is “they were very religious” (thank-you JudeoChristian archaeologists for labeling every pot, figurine and lump of clay as a religious object) and “space aliens” which is the same answer.

Could it be that  agriculture was precarious, produced low quality food, attracted vermin, enabled the spread of disease and invited those pesky barbarians from near and far?  And that the populace was in a state of chronic anxiety and fear of crop failure? Bible mythology describes floods, pests, red tides and plagues; Pharaohs put a mighty spin on their godly powers and success in taming nature. A society doesn’t  center most of it’s “magic” in outrageous buildings where agricultural gods “live” for no reason; agricultural people were scared into extreme superstition and preventative obsessions.

As an Asperger, this condition of “inability to adapt to the domestic social environment” does not sound like Ancient History, but is a conflict that creates an ongoing struggle in everyday life.

Domestication / Drastic Changes to Human Genetics – Neoteny

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