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Domestication: A Theory of Political Psychology
Remember gentlemen, chimps only masturbate in captivity...
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Written by Ichimoku Sanjin.
The problem of making peace with our anarchic impulses is one which has been too little studied, but one which becomes more and more imperative as scientific technique advances.
– Bertrand Russell
In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx famously proclaimed: Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains. Except, in escaping the bondage of industrial capitalism, we welcomed the fetters of domestication. In this article, I seek to present a theory of political psychology that argues the left/right divide can be captured along a single axis: more vs less domestication, respectively. First, let’s clarify our terms and examine the phenomenon:
Domestication encompasses a whole suite of genetic changes that arise as a species is bred to be friendlier and less aggressive. In dogs and domesticated foxes, for example, many changes are physical: smaller teeth and skulls, floppy ears, and shorter, curlier tails.
Behaviourally, domestication is usually associated with reduced stress/fear responses and decreased aggression (Kunz and Sachser, 1999). This is seen in a longer “socialization window”, in which young animals become familiar with humans without developing a fearful response (Wilkins et al., 2014).
How does domestication happen? Humans may well be the only species who have domesticated themselves (though some contend that dogs, cats, bonobos, and Marmoset monkeys have all self-domesticated). Many hypotheses exist, but it is generally agreed that selective pressures on tameness and docility were prerequisites (Darwin, 1875; Belyaev, 1974; Trut, 1999, Wiklins et al., 2014). In other words, highly aggressive males became significantly less favored for mating.
Of course, the extent of domestication may vary among individuals, social classes, and races. This could be due to genetics or epigenetics. It is possible that living in "gentle conditions" triggers epigenetic switches. This was demonstrated by the famous study of fox domestication conducted by the Novosibirsk group (Belyaev, 1979; Trut et al., 2004, 2009, although for a critique see Lord et al., 2019). Could it be that developed societies – which are relatively well-protected from disease, violence, famine, and social unrest – have triggered epigenetic changes resulting in a dramatic increase in domestication over a few generations?
After all, the decrease in most types of violence over the last century happened too quickly to be attributable to DNA changes, and so too with the various left-leaning cultural movements such as feminism, gay rights, racial equality, animal rights, and veganism.
Could epigenetic changes (caused by better living conditions) initially have triggered a cultural phenomenon that then led to values of social tolerance and lower aggression? If so, this phenomenon later took on a life of its own, creating a runaway process of cultural evolution that cannot be explained in terms of genetic or epigenetic changes alone.
Additionally, the dramatic acceleration of technology accompanied this cultural evolution by creating living conditions where social tolerance is more adaptive: overcrowding, increased contact with other ethnic groups, faster communication, and transportation. The values of social tolerance and tameness, in turn, favored technological progress through the promotion of formal education and communication. Technological and social evolution thus mutually reinforced each other and have been increasing at roughly the same pace in a positive feedback loop.
This condition is significantly different from the situation prior to the Industrial Revolution or even the Neolithic when technological and social evolution were both slow enough for genetic evolution to keep up.
Furthermore, natural selection has weakened. Today, there is no correlation between socioeconomic and reproductive success (indeed, the correlation is often negative). As a result, there is a gap between the optimal level of domestication and the average phenotypic domestication level of modern humans. This gap produces obvious psychological and social problems, such as depression, frustration, crime, and social exclusion. Figure 1 suggests the hypothetical trend in domestication on three levels: genetic, epigenetic and techno-cultural.
Let’s test this theory that left/right ideology is a manifestation of different degrees of domestication. Of course, it should be noted that what follows are merely generalisations and there are myriad exceptions.
System Thinking versus Empathy
More domesticated primates such as bonobos have been found to be more skilled at solving theory of mind tasks and those involving an understanding of social causality, while chimpanzees were more skilled at tasks requiring the use of tools and an understanding of physical causality (Hermann et al., 2010).
Individualism versus Collectivism
Generally, the Left is associated with collectivism, which involves the collective action of individuals to achieve common goals, while the Right is associated with individualism, which emphasizes the independence of the individual. This is evidenced by studies of domesticated primate species, such as bonobos, who are known for their ability to cooperate to solve new problems, while chimpanzees are more individualistic in their behavior (Hare et al., 2012).
The left believes that the government should provide more resources to citizens in order to create a more equitable distribution of wealth. Arguably, this is reminiscent of the human-dog relationship, where the human master provides for the pet regardless of work output or earnings.
In domesticated animal species, sharing is often more informal or the food is provided by a human (such as with dogs, cats, horses, etc.). In contrast, humans are capable of symbolic thinking and of creating institutions. In this context, the role of the master is played by the government, which is responsible for providing resources for its citizens.
The left is strongly opposed to racism and advocates for increased immigration rights. This is in contrast to the behavior of wild primates such as chimpanzees, who are xenophobic and territorial, engaging in aggressive behavior to protect their territory from outsiders. On the other hand, self-domesticated primates like bonobos are more tolerant and cooperative, even engaging in voluntary sharing of resources with unfamiliar individuals.
The left generally supports the advancement of the rights of women. This is similar to the behaviour of self-domesticated primates like bonobos, where male-female aggression is much lower than in wild primates and females are often the highest-ranking members of the group (Hare et al., 2012).
The left is in favour of the rights of members of the LGBT+ community and there is a higher prevalence of leftists in this group. This could be related to the domestication syndrome which leads to reduced sexual dimorphism and feminization (in males). Yet Bonobos ‘display a substantial emancipation of sexual behaviour into nonconceptive functions’ and show higher rates of homosexuality (Hare et al., 2012). Chimps also only tend to masturbate in captivity — food for thought, gentlemen.
Declining testosterone levels in men
Over the last century, average testosterone levels in men have dramatically declined. There is no scientific consensus as to why, but a reduction in testosterone is the chief biological mechanism responsible for domestication. This phenomenon occurred during human evolution with the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic and was associated with morphological and behavioural changes (Cieri et al., 2014).
Lockdowns during pandemic
The left generally supported the idea of lockdown. This is similar to the behaviour of domesticated individuals who, due to their high docility and tameness, accept orders even if it results in a deprivation of freedom.
The left generally supported the idea of wearing masks, even when the scientific evidence was highly questionable. Again, this behaviour can be explained by the tameness of domesticated individuals that facilitates following orders without questioning.
The left generally supports the idea of censorship, as free speech sometimes enables individuals to display verbal aggression. This verbal aggression is then redefined as actual violence, a definition expansion process known as concept creep.
The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to bear arms and it allows citizens to protect themselves and their property from potential threats. Conservatives are strong supporters of the Second Amendment. The left’s strong support for gun control stems from low levels of reactive aggression and tameness that are associated with the domestication syndrome.
Leftist voters are concentrated in metropolitan areas, whereas people in rural areas tend to be conservative. People who are more socialized and domesticated seem to prefer living in more civilized environments that are very different from wild or ancestral living conditions, such as the centers of large cities. The emergence of densely populated areas is a relatively recent phenomenon in human evolution. The challenges posed by the transition to higher population density during the Neolithic triggered evolutionary mechanisms leading to morphological and behavioral changes associated with domestication (Cieri et al., 2014).
In turn, more sheltered conditions probably make people more likely to acquire left-wing beliefs. Take three examples. First, Italy’s general election results for 2022 (shown below). The center-left (red) won in the big cities (Rome, Milan, Florence, Bologna), whereas the right-wing coalition (blue) won in the smaller cities and the countryside.
A similar pattern can be observed in the US, where the left had the majority of votes in more densely populated coastal regions, but the right generally wins in the more rural areas.
There are similar results in Germany, where higher population density is correlated with the share of left-wing votes (Potrafke and Roesel, 2019).
Domestication syndrome successfully predicts beliefs and behaviors associated with the left/right ideological divide. Arguably, it does so better than competing theories, such as the empathic thinking versus systemic thinking paradigm espoused by Jonatan Pallesen. Such theories fail to predict the urban-rural divide, feminism, gun control, higher rates of homosexuality, as well as support for LGBT+ rights. Lockdowns are better predicted by domestication than by empathy, although a case could be made for the latter (i.e. saving lives). Conversely, other examples are predicted equally well by the two theories. For brevity, I have left many questions unanswered, but I welcome the critical engagement of readers in the comments below.
Ichimoku Sanjin is an evolutionary anthropologist. He has worked in population genetics for the last ten years and has carried out research in chronobiology, evolutionary psychology, creativity, and behavioural genetics. He has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Intelligence, Creativity Research Journal, and Thinking Skills and Creativity. He once published poetry but now prefers the language of R.
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