Domestication - Background

Background

Charles Darwin described how the process of domestication can involve both unconscious and methodical elements. Routine human interactions with animals and plants create selection pressures that cause adaptation as species adjust to human presence, use or cultivation. Deliberate selective breeding has also been used to create desired changes, often after initial domestication. These two forces, unconscious natural selection and methodical selective breeding, may have both played roles in the processes of domestication throughout history. Both have been described from man's perspective as processes of artificial selection.

The domestication of wheat provides an example. Wild wheat falls to the ground to reseed itself when ripe, but domesticated wheat stays on the stem for easier harvesting. There is evidence that this critical change came about as a result of a random mutation near the beginning of wheat's cultivation. Wheat with this mutation was harvested and became the seed for the next crop. Therefore, without realizing, early farmers selected for this mutation, which would otherwise have died out. The result is domesticated wheat, which relies on farmers for its own reproduction and dissemination.

Mutation is not the only way in which natural and artificial selection operate. Darwin describes how natural variations in individual plants and animals also support the selection of new traits. It is speculated that tamer than average wolves, less wary of humans, selected themselves as domestic dogs over many generations. These wolves were able to thrive by following humans to scavenge for food near camp fires and garbage dumps. Eventually a symbiotic relationship developed between people and these proto-dogs. The dogs fed on human food scraps, and humans found that dogs could warn them of approaching dangers, help with hunting, act as pets, provide warmth, or supplement their food supply. As this relationship progressed, humans eventually began to keep these self-tamed wolves and breed from them the types of dogs that we have today.

In recent times, selective breeding may best explain how continuing processes of domestication often work. Some of the best-known evidence of the power of selective breeding comes from an experiment by Russian scientist, Dmitri K. Belyaev, in the 1950s. His team spent many years breeding the Silver Fox (Vulpes vulpes) and selecting only those individuals that showed the least fear of humans. Eventually, Belyaev's team selected only those that showed the most positive response to humans. He ended up with a population of grey-coloured foxes whose behavior and appearance was significantly changed. They no longer showed any fear of humans and often wagged their tails and licked their human caretakers to show affection. These foxes had floppy ears, smaller skulls, rolled tails and other traits commonly found in dogs.

Despite the success of this experiment, it appears that selective breeding cannot always achieve domestication. Attempts to domesticate many kinds of wild animals have been unsuccessful. The zebra is one example. Despite the fact that four species of zebra can interbreed with and are part of the same genus as the horse and the donkey, attempts at domestication have failed. Factors such as temperament, social structure and ability to breed in captivity play a role in determining whether a species can be successfully domesticated. In human history to date, only a few species of large animal have been domesticated. In approximate order of their earliest domestication these are: dog, sheep, goat, pig, cow, horse, donkey, water buffalo, llama, alpaca, bactrian camel, Arabian camel, yak, reindeer, and elephant.

Read more about this topic:  Domestication

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