Necessary behavioural adaptations for domesticated animals

Domesticated animals, including humans, don’t live in the natural environment they originally have adapted to during the largest period of their evolution. The timespan that they have been domesticated has been largely insufficient to adapt them perfectly to their new environment – which is actually changing at an ever accelerating pace. This mismatch between environment and genetic equipment manifests in a number of problems for domesticated animals. They have to cope with this mismatch by changing their behavioural patterns.

First of all, let’s characterize this mismatch and the basic problems it creates:

  1. Having to accept (other) humans as dominant alphas is the group. For non-human animals this is plainly weird, because accepting a member of another species as in-group member is rare in the animal kingdom. This would point to some kind of symbiotic relationship, suggesting that both species should gradually lose their ability to survive on their own! For humans this is weird, because human societies have been mostly egalitarian throughout most of pre-history. This changed during the neolithic revolution. What are problems caused by this? To put it simple: Power corrupts. Alpha humans possess a disproportionate amount of power, which they are inclined to abuse. This diminishes the quality of leadership displayed by alpha humans and causes a lot of distress for non-alpha animals.
  • Staying in one small area for most of the time. This stands in contrast to the relatively nomadic lifestyle of non-domestic animals. It creates a problem in that domesticated animals are exposed to a smaller number of different environments, thus reducing experienced novelty, which can lead to boredom.
  • Disappearance of natural predators. Domesticated animals rarely meet natural predators. That sounds like a good thing, but it creates some problems. Natural predators keep their prey alert, fit, and strategically smart. Domesticated animals therefore have less “motivation” to keep themselves physically and mentally in their best shape.

These problems in particular discourage the development of the full neural and mental development of domesticated animals. In fact, domesticated animals typically have significantly less brain mass than their non-domesticated counterparts or predecessors (which is also true for humans). Nevertheless, domesticated animals largely retain their original drives, but need to express them in a way that is relatively adapted to their new artificial environment. So, they need to resort to necessary and more or less adaptive coping mechanisms:

  • Retaining of playful behaviour: This is necessary, because the environment of domesticated animals rarely poses great natural challenges. Playful behaviour can compensate for that by creating artificial challenges that stimulate neural and mental development. Work is usually not playful behaviour, but to the degree that certain forms of work possess elements of playful behaviour, they too can help neural and mental development. Intellectually stimulating activities not directly related to survival can be seen as playful behaviour, though.
  • Exercise: In fact, exercise is a relatively unnatural behaviour, but it slows down physical and mental degradation resulting from the environmental mismatch.
  • Breaking out: Getting out of the regular artificial environment would obviously reduce the problems that are associated with staying in one small place all the time. This seems to be the basic reason why a lot of humans have a craving for travelling, adventures, or getting out of mainstream society entirely.
  • Use of recreational psychoactive substances: This is actually something that isn’t restricted to domesticated animals. All kinds of animals like to get “high” sometimes. Occasional and moderate use of psychoactive substances might actually enhance mental functioning. However, the environmental mismatch of domesticated animals probably makes them much more likely to get addicted to certain substances.
  • Revolt: Rejecting the leadership of alpha humans that are seen to possess bad leadership abilities. Because the costs of this kind of behaviour is typically rather high, it happens relatively rarely. Most domesticated animals are surprisingly obedient.
  • Neurotic behaviours: To cope with certain kinds of stresses, domesticated animals often develop neurotic behavioural patterns. That’s probably not the best way to adapt to an artificial environment, but it’s a way of neural self-regulation that kinda works when everything else fails.

A lack of use of effective coping mechanisms can cause severe physical and mental problems – problems that are rarely, if ever, seen in non-domesticated animals.

In theory, the environmental mismatch could be resolved by addressing the associated problems more directly. For example, we could try to establish a more egalitarian society. Unfortunately we don’t really know how to do that when starting from our current level of civilisation. We could also try to become more nomadic. That’s perhaps not a too far fetched possibility, given that physical location plays and increasingly smaller role in a digitalised world. Finally the introduction of new predators might happen by the accidental (or deliberate) creation of hostile AI.

To sum it up: Play, exercise, travel, and moderate use of psychoactive substances play a rather necessary role for domesticated animals, if they are to have a high quality of life.

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You might want to consider whether works of science fiction count as “psychoactive substances” for humans. :slight_smile: