Out of the forest

Reasonable People #23 Domestication, trust, trickster spirits and inter-species communication.

The stranger comes out of the forest. The hair that falls to his shoulders, the coin in his hand, the promise he makes, are all silver. He offers a trade. Or proposes a journey. Or simply asks if he can sleep under your roof tonight. And you have to ask yourself the question, the same question asked in the 500 lifetimes this has happened before, “Can I trust him?”

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When the stranger approached, he was first greeted by the sound of dogs. We had the dogs before there were cities, before farming. Around 15,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene - the great Ice Age - an extinct species of wolves gave up some wildness in return for a place by the campfire. Genetic analysis shows that dogs accompanied the first humans who crossed the thawing Bering Straight, moving with them as they colonised the Americas (Perri et al, 2021).

The dogs were only the first. The history of human success is one of domestication, as much as of tool use. We domesticated cats, horses and cattle from the animals, but also plants (grains and fruits), insects (bees) and birds (chickens). Life with us brought benefits, but also demanded changes as we altered the lives and environment of these species so they could meet our needs.

In Guns, Germs And Steel, Jared Diamond argues that the availability of potentially domesticable species was a decisive factor in the emergence of eurasian civilisation. Some species can be domesticated (like wild horses), he says. Some cannot (like zebras, despite their superficial similarity). Australia has just one native species which has proved capable of domestication: the macadamia nut. In this way, having access to many domesticable species is a root cause of European colonialism in the last five hundred years. Biological tools, like manufactured tools, flowed more easily East to West, along the climatically similar landmass of Eurasia, than they did South to North, along the climatically divergent Africa and the Americas.

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History is what happened. Myth is what keeps happening.

Neither are really my purview, but I’ve been thinking about how myths capture some essential dynamic of human life. When we speculate about the origin of some psychological trait - like the ability to reason, or to talk, or to trust - we often conjour to mind some generic human lifestyle, an environment of evolutionary adaptedness. This is most obvious when people deploy their imaginings in a way that is crass or incoherent: on the ancient savanna men hunted and women gathered, so men should have the jobs and women stay home and cook, etc. But even if we can avoid the worst errors, we all deploy mental models to what is plausible, likely, typical of human societies in prehistory, and these are myths, or adjacent to myths. And maybe draw on the myths we learnt as children too.

All cultures have trickster gods and spirits. Chaotic forces which you can’t trust, or shouldn’t trust, and you know this, yet they somehow manage to trick you again anyway.

We have Marvel’s Loki, but medieval France had Reynard the Fox.

Image: Reynard the Fox as depicted in an 1869 children's book by Ernest Henri Griset (1844–1907) - Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In one story, which you can read in this 1860 english version, Raynard is brought before the king after a season of thefts, murders and other cruel crimes.

There’s a law in evolutionary signaling theory that communication between organisms can only occur if it is, on average, beneficial for both parties. So, for example, a species of moth could evolve colouration to indicate to predators that it contains toxins and both moth and predator would benefit (by not being eaten / by not eating toxins). If another, non-toxic, moth species evolved similar colouration however, there is a risk that the net benefit to the predator would drop to zero (if the risk of eating a toxic moth was low enough and the amount of tasty, non-toxic, moth calories forgone high enough). If that happened, the predator species would switch (in evolutionary time, probably) to simply ignoring moth colouration in its predation decisions. That kind of interspecies communication would be over, the benefits lost.

At the trial, Raynard begins to try to excuse his crimes, but the king understands the logic of signaling theory and forbids him from speaking: “Peace, traitorous Reynard; think you I can be caught with the music of your words? no, it hath too often deceived me".

Part of the human condition is that we’re very bad at not communicating. We can disagree with arguments with much more facility than we can ignore them. (Perhaps this is why people who ignore our arguments are so infuriating?).

As for human nature, so for anthropomorphic animal rulers. The court isn’t able to fully implement the king’s order, and the trickster Raynard understands his signaling theory too. Raynard is sentenced to death by hanging and as he is led to the gallows he is allowed to make a plea: “My dread Lord the King, grant that I may unlock my heart before you, and clear my soul of her burdens, so that here-after no one may be blamed for me; which done, my death will be easy.” Cunning Raynard plays on the other animals’ compassion, and seems to offer - directly - some increased benefit: full confession, so no innocents are accused of his (no doubt numerous) crimes. Granted this inch, he then takes a mile and weaves a tale which gives excuse for his crimes, and, seemingly incidentally, mentions a huge treasure that he knows the location of. Having recognised that the king, wary of his tricks, judges the potential costs of communicating with him to be too high, Raynard counters by inventing the treasure and so increasing the apparent benefits . In narrative time, rather than evolutionary time, communication is restored and so the platform for Raynard’s schemes.

This the way with conmen, they take advantage of our greed, to involve us in their stories. We can resist complete cynicism though - the platform for these stories, for the misrepresentations that trick us, is a legacy of communication and cooperation which must, across evolutionary time, by the law of signalling theory, have brought more gains than losses.

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As well as having world-defining historical importance, domestication is important as a model for how evolution happens (Gregory, 2009). Here too our imagination can use myths to fill gaps in our understanding. Perhaps we imagine man the hunter choosing which pups from a litter to keep, actively and selectively breeding to create dog from wolf. And on the second day he turns to grains, cattle and all the rest. Not so, says the research.

Rather than active selection, domestication probably occurred, at least for some species, through passive forces: think ‘the least aggressive wolves most likely to find friends around the campfire’, rather than ‘humans choosing to breed friendly pups’. Incipient domestication then made humans change their own behaviour, for example with grain species assisting with sowing the seeds, which in turn altered the selective forces operating on the species in the zone of domestication. The picture is of a multistage process, with chance “founder events” and then indirect and mutually beneficial selection between humans and the species they were coevolving with. “Humans became entangled with these species as the relationship between them, and the human role in their survival and reproduction, intensified.” (Larson & Fuller, 2014).

This analysis is supported by genetic evidence: domestic pigs, for example, continually interbred with wild boar species. There wasn’t the isolation that you’d expect from deliberate and sustained selective breeding (Franz et al, 2015). The genetic variety in domesticated species remained high until recent history (i.e. within the last couple of hundred years) when pedigree records became systematised enough to allow more controlled selective breeding.

One theory of domestication, at least in animals, is that it operates on some common neurodevelopmental locus. A “domestication syndrome” is defined by a set of common traits - such as shortened jaw, extended juvenile period, decreased aggression, reduced size - which seem to characterise domesticated species. The idea is that rather than a bunch of independent characteristics being directly or indirectly selected by the evolutionary pressures of domestication, domestication could happen by selecting animals which had more of this single underlying trait and all the associated factors which come along for the ride.

Neat though this is, the idea doesn’t fare well when reviewed systematically. Although there are multiple accounts of a domestication syndrome, there is no common core to the traits they suggest it involves (Lord et al, 2020).

Again, it is not my purview, but I think this still leaves open the possibility that selection, whether natural or artificial, of a suite of traits could be driven by a common anchor trait, probably something neurodevelopmental, like an extended juvenile period.

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The stranger comes out of the forest. The fur he wears around his neck, like his tongue, like the knife in his belt, is silver. He has a proposition, and, like always, you have to ask the same question, should you trust him?

For Mercier & Sperber (2011) this is exactly the domain in which the power of reason manifests. Even when you don’t trust someone - especially when you don’t trust someone - providing reasons can create bridge between you (RP#3). The stranger can give reasons, which you can skeptically review and make a better decision about whether to trust them. When this happens the reason-giver, whether trickster or truth-teller, is drawing on a platform of understanding, a common ground of cooperation which is the legacy of the communicative community which you come from, evolutionarily or culturally. The reasoner has to rely on something you share to persuade you. Without that common ground, reason is sterile. Like domestication, reasoning is a cooperative game.

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In the far north, at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Siberia is home of the world’s longest biology experiments. In the 1950s, Lyudmila Trut was selected as manager and began to pick the tamed foxes from fur farms for a selective breeding program. The idea, from Dmitry Belyayev, was that domestication was driven by a single force: selection for tameness. Not a shape, or a colouration, but a behavioural disposition, could explain how wolf became dog, how tiger became cat.

So, a decades long experiment began. The experimentalists selected foxes for their lack of aggression and willingness to approach and interact with humans. Only 1 in 5 was bred from, and now - over 50 generations later - the foxes, it is reported, are as tame and friendly as a domestic dog.

But that is not all.

Image: Lyudmila Trut with a domesticated silver fox, 1974. CC-SA Wikimedia Commons.

Experiments with Trut’s fox population show that the domesticated foxes understand human gestures and track human intentions (Hare et al, 2005). They do this better than a control population of foxes, also artificially maintained but not selectively bred for tameness, and as well as dogs. Part of what makes this remarkable is that understanding pointing is a vanishingly rare ability in the animal world. Apes can sort of do it, domesticated dogs, and possibly a few other species with extended relationships with humans, but that is about it. No animal species clearly and reliably uses pointing, except humans. Pointing, so natural to us, is actually conceptually sophisticated. It requires a rudimentary theory of mind: to understand your gesture I need to know that you want me to understand something about the world, not about you. Anyone who has tried to show an animal something which is in their interests and just got quizzical looks at the end of their finger knows this.

The ability is possibly at the root of human development of language, the origin of the conceptual and communicative changes which define human thought (see, e.g. Tomasello, 2010). Pointing is, in short, a Big Deal.

So its a big deal that Trut’s foxes can find hidden food when an experimenter looks and points towards it. They do this as successfully as domestic dogs, while for the control fox population performance at chance (i.e. as if they are taking no account whatsoever of what the experimenter is doing). The domesticated foxes also prefer to play with a toy which has just been touched by the experimenter, demonstrating an instinct for sharing interests with humans (a control experiment showed the foxes didn’t prefer to play with a toy moved by another object - their interest was in the thing moved by a human).

Silver Fox (Vulpes vulpes) Image: Flickr user: Minette Layne CC-BY-NC

These are foxes bred only for tameness - lack of fear and aggression when approached by humans. Recently there has been some criticism of the origins of population, suggesting that their domestication may have begun earlier than the scientific programme (Lord et al, 2020). While that might undermine claims from the fox experiment about how quickly a wild population can be domesticated, it doesn’t affect the fact that these animals were never selected for their ability to communicate across species. That is an amazing by-product, and it suggests that what humans have done deliberately to domesticated species is a very minor part of the complexity of changes ultimately wrought.

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The Silver Foxes were bred for tameness, but this had a side effect of enhancing their capacity for inter-species communication. The foxes, with their extended juvenile periods and enhanced curiosity, played together more, paid more attention to each other. This facility for intra-species communication created a platform for inter-species communication. The foxes were ready and able to read human gestures. That feels like a kind of miracle to me.

Humans too are affected by domestication. We may even be classed as “self-domesticated”, our evolution driven by past humans choosing as companions those who are most pro-social. Compared to the other apes we are more juvenile, more curious; speaking perhaps to a common core of traits, by-products as well as drivers of our own domestication.

* * *

Human reason is a miracle resting on top another miracle. That we can persuade with words relies on a platform of communication and understanding that has its own complex origin story. Once that niche exists, reasons acquire their own force, used for good or ill. We can try and persuade, but we risk being persuaded in turn, or even of being tricked. Of pursuing noble goals, or dedicating ourselves to great lies.

Reason and argument are often idealistically portrayed as expressions of human rationality and logic. The thing that raises us above the animals, a mark of civilisation rather than wildness. But argument can also be an uncontrolled force, capable of motivating purges just as much as space programmes. Like domestication, there are side-effects and by-products. The long term implications of an argument can be far removed from the immediate intentions of the arguer.

This isn’t all bad. Part of the trade-off of a system which allows a greater and more creative range of actions - as reason certainly does - is that it has some capacity for side-effects and backfires. Strangers will keep coming out of the forest. Tricksters will try their luck. Far from being pure, reason contains a bit of wildness, even when we think we’ve successfully domesticated it.


Polperro, Cornwall
25 August 2021

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Further reading

Hare, B., Plyusnina, I., Ignacio, N., Schepina, O., Stepika, A., Wrangham, R., & Trut, L. (2005). Social cognitive evolution in captive foxes is a correlated by-product of experimental domestication. Current Biology, 15(3), 226-230.

(I picked up the story of domesticated silver foxes understanding gesture from Neil Roques’ review of Humankind on ACX)

Dugatkin, L. A. (2018). The silver fox domestication experiment. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 11(1), 1-5.

Terri Windling: The tang of the fox in myth and story

Frantz, L. A., Bradley, D. G., Larson, G., & Orlando, L. (2020). Animal domestication in the era of ancient genomics. Nature Reviews Genetics, 21(8), 449-460.

The Wild Fox Koan tells the story of a monk who denied the existence of cause and effect:

One day a student asked me, 'Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?' I said to him, 'No, such a person doesn't.' Because I said this I was reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. Reverend master, please say a turning word for me and free me from this wild fox body."