I have long been entertaining the following hypothesis about the origin of our species. Millions of years ago, an ape began to take an active interest in its progeny. Children became a resource. Mothers and others would favour docile, educable offspring who could be turned into reproductive allies that would give them more descendants.
Human consciousness must have co-evolved with this behaviour insofar as it was manipulative and intelligent. Our long childhoods, our enhanced sexuality and reproductive capacity, our juvenile anatomy and other traits that we share with domestic animals were thus intentionally selected (by individuals along the generations).
By contrast, mainstream biologists speak of humans as a self-domesticated species, meaning that these special traits were ‘naturally’ (i.e. unintentionally) selected. In this, they seem to be trying to exempt parents from any responsibility, as well as affirming a certain dogma related to Darwin, the ‘Father of Evolution’. Indeed, the fact that humans exert a ‘significant degree of control over the reproduction and care’ of each other (not just of other species) is a reality that must have a biological explanation, as opposed to a moral or philosophical explanation.
Think about the way in which societies, parents and spouses decide whom individuals belong to or can have sex/children with. When did this intentional control take over from natural selection? Obviously, humans have been instructing our children intentionally for a long time. We establish enduring relationships with our descendants that involve the obedience of norms concerning reproduction, such as marriage and incest taboos. The resulting societies are multigenerational ‘homes’ unique in the animal kingdom . I don’t think Darwin would disagree with this, though it seemed difficult for him to accept.
Humans have a multigenerational relationship also with plants and nonhuman animals that we have chosen to domesticate. When we domesticated the dog, we supposedly knew how to domesticate plants, but didn’t do so for another 10–20 thousand years. What makes dogs more valuable? I would imagine it is their resemblance to children in their ability to learn and be loyal to their masters, something a plant cannot do. Therefore, wolves did not ‘self-domesticate’ by coming closer to humans, as anthropologists like Richard Wrangham tell us. Rather, wolves and humans probably came together due to a confluence of interests akin to that between children and parents: the first want free food and the second help, friendship and loyalty. This favoured the most docile wolves over time, and then humans began to domesticate those wolves.
Domestication is closely associated with what I call the behaviour of language, i.e. the human-specific ability to make signal receivers respond to our signals, as opposed to merely expecting them to respond. Imagine an early human attempting to tell a wild wolf to come over for a bite to eat. This involves getting the wolf to respond to signals, not food, though he would use food for that purpose. The fact that dogs are now excellent at obeying spoken commands and pointing gestures is then a reflection of what those ancestral apes began doing with their own children and, eventually, with wolves, so that those receivers would respond to their signs and symbols (not those of others) and have an interest in them. In our case, the spoken commands became the stories we love, stories that tell us what is good and bad, and what we ought to do to produce a desirable breed, to give them descendants.
Hence, the question of who is our own master, if we, as a species, are the masters of dogs, has a simple answer: our masters are our ancestors. We were domesticated by our elders, who were in turn domesticated by their elders, probably all the way to the split with the other apes. We were not domesticated by natural selection, culture, God or any other abstract entity. Our tendency to believe in these authorities only reveals our longing for those masters, their stories, and our unconscious desire to be masters ourselves.