Human Domestication — A Tale of Modern Civilisation


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From the dawn of time, humans have been engaging in a series of endeavors to facilitate their collective survival and improve their well-being.

After several failed iterations, humanity has finally arrived at a system that seems to stand the test of time: modern civilization.

However, despite its apparent success with an globalized agricultural, economical and political structure, one of its accompanying phenomena, human domestication, remains largely unexamined.

Because of that, this will be the topic we'll be delving into. We'll begin by examining the very concept of domestication, its wide-ranging examples and impacts, before looking into how this applies to humans — and what lessons we can extract from them.

A diagram illustrating the evolution of human

Domestication Explained


When we think about domestication, the first things that come to mind are often animals such as cows and dogs. However, domestication is not just an animal-exclusive phenomenon, and can be actually defined more broadly as follows: 

The process whereby one group — in order to satisfy certain needs — chooses to assume long-term care and control over another group of a species, who are made to work to fulfill those needs.

Here, the first group is referred to as the 'domesticator', and the second group the 'domesticate'. And since the word 'domestic' means 'related to a household', the works domesticates are tasked on are often related to a dwelling (or their surrounding).

Historically, domestication has provided us with a means of obtaining resources we might not have been able to obtain otherwise. These include, among others:

  • Chickens and eggs from hens
  • Meat and milk from cows
  • Grains and other produces from crops

Here, the domesticates could be livestock, crops, pets, houseplants, fish, zoo animals or anything in between, with some form of domestication being more humane than others.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Traditionally, we like to think of domestication as a mutualistic, win-win trade between both parties, but the truth is that it's usually more complex and nuanced than can be communicated via a simple "net benefit".

For example, can we really say that:

  • Our grains are becoming much more thriving?
  • Our dogs are becoming much happier, as a result of us providing them with dwelling, food and training? 

In many cases, these organisms are certainly becoming more secure, but not freer. And they can't really manifest the full expression of themselves — as they do in the wild.

Furthermore, since domestication is a "naturalization" process, it can also change the domesticate as a species in a profound way. These changes include, among others:

  • Smoother, more desirable physical and mental traits
  • Weaker, more childlike features
  • Less defensiveness and more dependence towards their domesticator
  • More prone to illnesses and diseases

In short, domesticates tend to be "cuter, more degenerate and more vulnerable" — a phenomenon coined in the scientific sphere as the domestication syndrome. This applies not only to animals, but to plants and Homo Sapiens as well.

Domestication of human and wolf

By default, domestication usually presupposes the reproductive control of a group (i.e. biological domestication), but if we were to relax that requirement, then we'll see that we now have a concept to describe many of the phenomena around us today.

In particular, we'll see that many of the aspects mentioned above also apply when we consider the case of humans as their own domesticates. But before that, we need to take a look at modern civilization — and see how our society became that way.

Modern Civilization Explained


By definition, a civilization is simply a system designed for the long-term management of human beings. For a small group of people, such a structure can be made relatively simple, but it can complexify quickly as the number of its citizens increases.

Historically, the evolution of civilization can be roughly summarized as follows:

  • After centuries of hunting and gathering, some nomadic groups began to experiment with sedentism as an alternative way of life.
  • Since permanent settlements require a constant influx of resources, this led to the development of agriculture and domestication of plants and animals to satisfy the demand for food.
  • As agricultural sedentism creates more surplus of resources and allows for more possessions, it enables its citizens to shift towards higher-level tasks such as the pursuit of art and knowledge. 
  • In the meantime, this shift of focus also leads to the division of labor, which greatly facilitates trades, the development of writing system, monetary system, transportation system and ultimately, political system of cities and states.
  • With the Industrial Revolution, a new wave of specialization of labor is born. The creation of factories and the refinement of production system also led to a higher economic output and growth.
  • As technologies advance and the world becomes increasingly interconnected, a globalized civilization is born. This led to a series of groundbreaking innovations which allow us to extract more resources than what's naturally possible.

In fact, when we think of a modern civilization nowadays, we're often thinking about a system with the following components:

  • Centralized government
  • System of education and research
  • System of taxation and services
  • System of food production
  • System of transportation
  • System of trades and commerce
  • System of communication 
  • Densely-populated settlements

How Modern Civilization Domesticates Us

On the surface, the story of modern civilization has been that of progress, but underneath that progress, there's also a coercive system of lifestyles, etiquettes and rules that prevents us from fully realizing ourselves.

  • The cultivation and consumption of crops and animal produces, along with a generally more sedentary lifestyle, has already contributed to some level of physical degeneration.
  • As humans moved from nature to dwellings, their activities became increasingly confined within narrow spaces. The development of writing and reading further exacerbated this process, leading to nearsightedness and other diseases.
  • As labor became increasingly divided and specialized over time, this led to a new class of citizens who is highly dependent on the system to get their basic needs met.
  • As our soil became increasingly replaced by flat, hard surfaces, it necessitated the development of cushy shoes, which led to the atrophy of bones and muscles around our foot.
  • As our sanitation standard increased, so did our fear towards bacteria. This would prompt us to live and operate in artificially clean environments, which can alter our microbial diversity and compromise our immune system.

In fact, with the advent of technology and information revolution, this trend has only become more and more apparent.

  • As more corporations continue to promise financial perks and safety, people become more inclined to work for them even if it means sacrificing their time and yearning, sometimes resulting in stress, sleep deprivation and anxiety.
  • As cities continue to be developed and populated, an increase in air, water and land pollution ensues. In the meantime, the taller buildings continue to obstruct the landscape, further decreasing the livability of the surrounding.
  • As access to low-effort, highly-palatable food improves, people begin to move from traditional diet to undiversified, highly-processed food. This would contribute to chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity.
  • As our reliance on Internet and smartphone increases, we become increasingly confined to screens and immobility, which contribute to atrophies at the physical, mental and cognitive levels.
  • With the advance in technologies and the threat of diseases and terrorism, we become increasingly subject to personal data collection and surveillance by governments and companies, all of which hamper our freedom and privacy.

Indeed, one could even argue that in this day and age, what domesticates humans — our domesticators — are often not individual human beings, but a subtle collection of humans with a certain societal role.

  • Governments: Instead of living outside of their sphere of influence, we choose to enter into a social contract with them by paying taxes and obeying regulations/norms in exchange of the services they have to offer. 
  • Corporations: Instead of making offers directly to the consumers, we choose to enter into a contract with them to provide our time and services on their terms in exchange of monetary compensations.
  • Schools: Instead of resorting to self-education and self-discovery, we choose to enter into a contract with them to follow their curriculum in exchange of credentials and pre-defined pathways of life.
  • Landlords: Instead of owning a dwelling or living in the open, we choose to enter into a contract with them by paying rents and obeying their rules in exchange of a place to live.
  • Parents: Instead of living outside their influence, we choose to enter into a social contract with them to get our basic needs met by satisfy their expectations.

Of course, some of these examples can be a bit far-fetched, and none of these needs to be automatically a bad thing. After all, the domesticates only subject themselves to the care and control of others to further their own interests. So there's a win-win to it.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Overall, human domestication has been a remarkable driver of progress, with some of the most incredible achievements including, among others:

  • A historic global increase of trades
  • A historic rise in innovations
  • A historic global increase in life expectancy
  • A historic refinement in infrastructures

However, when the different kinds of domestications are accumulated and compounded over time, we also start to lose sight of what we are as a species — as we would no longer have a "placebo" point of reference to compare with.

If anything, the story of humanity so far has been mostly about how it exerts more and more control over nature, all of the while becoming more and more docile and less and less self-sufficient — a progress trap.

In fact, on the average we're getting physically weaker, mentally weaker, spiritually weaker and less attuned to our environment. The system that's designed to maximize our security is also now making us more degenerate and less free on a massive scale.

Sure, we might have domesticated our landscape to promote transportation and commerce (and to rule out predators, conflicts and natural dangers), but the reality is that this is less of a show of power than humanity in self-confinement.

💡 Happiness vs. Level of Development

In some cases, it's even possible to argue that development is not instrumental to happiness. Okinawa, for instance, being one of the poorest places in Japan, is also known for their diet, longevity and spiritual way of life.

And with our rapid development in technologies, this is a trend that we'd expect to continue: that we'd become more and more dependent on solutions which require technology or the input of an industry — at the cost of our own self-sufficiency.

Human Domestication Continues

In late 2019, humanity was hit by a new strain of virus (with origin linked to trading wildlife animals under deplorable sanitary conditions). This would result in a respiratory disease known as COVID-19, which has since then turned into a global pandemic.

COVID-19 Global Incidence Map on December 11, 2020

To be sure, the fact that COVID-19 turned into a pandemic also has much to do with our globalized economy (and our modern civilization itself), but the most concerning part is actually not the virus itself — but our reaction to it:

  • To prevent the spread of COVID-19, major governments around the world decided to follow China's lead into locking down their towns and cities.
  • To further attenuate the spread, policies such as border closure, social distancing, face covering and travel restrictions were also reinforced. 
  • By closing schools, shops, production and recreational venues, an economic recession and a historic wave of unemployment ensued. Meanwhile, health care workers remained overwhelmed by their tasks and other ongoing challenges.
  • Despite mounting evidence of the inefficiency and impacts of lockdown, many governments continue to adopt it as a default strategy, disregarding more effective policies such as those adopted by Taiwan and South Korea.
  • In the meantime, technology giants and other organizations continue to police controversial ideas outside of the mainstream narrative — in the hope of curtailing the incidence of COVID-19.

In retrospect, while some of the measures have proven to be instrumental in attenuating the spread of virus, the overall reaction to the pandemic has been nothing short of devastating

Indeed, from business shutdown, event canceling to depression and suicides, the drastic intervention by the governments has already led to a historic loss of social liberty and individual agency around the world.

  • Less outdoor activities (eating, entertainment, gathering)
  • Less traveling (train, plane or ship)
  • More orders controlling movement
  • Less physical exercises
  • More screen time
  • More behavioral issues (anxiety, loneliness, violence, drug abuse, suicide)
  • More chronic inflammations
  • More chronic diseases

To put it more bluntly:

It is as if we're in our own zoo, reacting panically after discovering that our masters have just pulled the plug (and that there's nothing we can do about it).

Of course, sometimes harsh circumstances are what it takes for us to realize that we're actually on a leash. And if we were to fall into poverty, hunger or diseases, it'd be because we've been self-domesticating ourselves to be self-insufficient to begin with.

So does that mean that our reaction to COVID-19 has brought us nothing but tragedies? Of course not. For example:

Most importantly, these developments have provided us with a time to take a good look at ourselves: to figure out what we really want as a species, to figure out how we should move forward to regain our freedom and dignity.

What's The Way Out?

Obviously, humanity has come a long way since the pre-historic age, and our domestication has played a key role in moving us towards a more efficient world. This means that whether we like it or not, many of our practices are here to stay.

However, just as it would be foolish to reject everything modern civilization has to offer, there are also some forms of domestication we should reject — for the simple reason that they prevent us from living a life true to ourselves.

Fortunately, the way toward a less domesticated life is actually very doable, and can be summarized by our motto: "humanity strong and free". This means working on things that make us stronger, while chasing after things that enliven us.

Working on Self-Sufficiency

In a nutshell, being self-sufficient means mastering a set of skills that reduce our dependence towards the civilization, without being completely detached from it. Doing so allows us to switch back and forth between both worlds — as we see fit.

For example, in terms of survival, self-sufficiency could mean:

  • Coping with wilderness
  • Experimenting with solitary living in less developed area
  • Experimenting with hunting, gathering or gardening
  • Fetching of natural spring water
  • Mastering some form of self-defense
  • Learning to cook using traditional means

In terms of lifestyle, self-sufficiency could mean:

  • Limiting needless consumption
  • Limiting the frivolous use of technologies (TV, smartphones, social media)
  • Starting a business
  • Building a house

And in term of cultivating intelligence and health, self-sufficiency could mean:

  • Waking up without alarm and following one's circadean rhythm
  • Adopting a sustainable diet
  • Avoiding artificial cleanliness
  • Developing and implementing your own curriculum
  • Adopting some routine of introspection
  • Limiting any form of close work
  • Mastering critical thinking
  • Learning to manage good and bad relationship

In other words, acts of self-sufficiency can be large or small, and one doesn't need to detach themselves from civilization to do it.

Embracing Full Self-Expression

It's often said that one of most important things in life is the actualization of oneself. However, one can also get in touch with their inner core via some very basic activities.

For example, in terms of physical activities, full self-expression could mean:

  • Daily intermittent running
  • Learning to breath
  • Learning to shout
  • Engaging in heavy manual labor

In terms of contact with nature, full self-expression could mean:

  • Exposure to morning/afternoon sunshine
  • Exposure to space
  • Exposure to soil and wind
  • Engaging in barefoot and other "bareskin" activities

And in terms of spiritual health, full self-expression could mean:

  • Engaging in artistic creation (writing, drawing, composing music)
  • Bonding with fellow humans (and other living beings)
  • Immersing in deep art

In brief, the pursuit of self-expression is about chasing after what makes us feel alive, so that at the end of the day, we don't have to say that we are animals under shackles — because we've structured our routines in a way they're meant to be.

So that even though our civilization has evolved in such a way that in order to undomesticate ourselves, we often have to go against the norms, ultimately, there are still much we can do to make sure that our civilization does not work in our peril.

Math Vault Standard Post

Thomas Lu

About the Author

Founder at The Sustainabilitist. Still thinking hard about long-term omnidirectional harmony at the individual, organizational and global level.

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