Book recommendation: A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals

I’m just finishing up this insightful and well researched book by archaeozoologist Juliet Clutton-Brock. It gets pretty deep into the differences between domesticated animals and their wild progenitors, and especially into the discussion of the fact that fully domesticated animals (think dogs, sheep, goats, cattle, pigs and horses, as opposed to “exploited captives”) bred within captivity within a limited population over a multitude of generations became entirely new species. The argument presented is that even when they escape back into the wild, they can only become feral, never truly wild. Too much of their original form (particular wild adaptions, genetic diversity across their population, etc.) has been lost.

So at the risk of opening a really big can of worms…

What about domesticated humans? Are we deluded to think we are unaffected by a similar watering-down process? Perhaps it is in fact impossible for us to become “rewilded”, and instead we can only hope (at most) to become feral through any efforts to cast aside civilized living.

Interested to hear people’s thoughts.

this has been discussed at pretty great length (& depth) for some years, with heartening results. i’ll let someone else link to resources if they remember them, as i’m terrible at writing down ‘for later’ where i read things - but basically, because we haven’t been (for the most part) forcibly bred over repeated generations, we are still something like 99.95% genetically identical to our hunter-gatherer forebears of say, 40,000 years ago. we are not technically ‘domesticated’ in the scientific sense, only the social sense. this is why many anarcho-primitivists & rewilders will refer to humans as ‘captive’ - because we are, truly, hunter-gatherers in body & mind whose natural impulses are constantly being redirected by modern society & government/industry, which explains so much of our disconnect in day to day life.

now, there are, of course, HUGE issues with the forms of socialization we’ve been lacking since birth that would have perfectly adapted us to different lifeways than what this current rotten culture offers, but that’s a parenting issue & local community issue, not a genetic one.

1 Like

& also - regarding the domesticated critters - there is nothing wrong with ‘just’ feral. our generation is never going to get as far as we want, there will never be an end point of rewilding in our lifetimes - we’re setting up for the long haul. so regardless of whether we’re ‘domesticated’ or simply ‘held captive’ by civilization, our environment (physical, legal, social, etc) is so fucked up that we’re really looking a number of generations down the road before our kiddos’ kiddos’ kiddos (etc) get to live as proper humans again. we’re just setting the ball rolling.

that said, who’s to say whether a dog, cow, etc Cares whether it’s ‘Just feral’ or ‘Truly wild’? whose privilege is it to determine for them what risks they’d be willing to take to begin the walk down that path? & who’s to say they give a fuck if it takes their offspring ten generations to be ‘wild’ again?


“Fully domesticated” vs. “Captive” is just your perspective. While there is no essential genetic hallmark of domestication, industrial humans look domesticated in contrast to tribal humans. You can domesticate anything… what you do is separate individuals of a species from their larger population and keep them breeding in captivity and genetic isolation. This is how all domesticated vegetables were created. Through isolated breeding and a smaller genepool, eventually inbreeding depression is achieved. At this point there are lots of deleterious homozygous alleles (AA and aa, for example, rather than Aa). In other words, alleles contain all dominant, or all recessive genes. This is why hybrid vigor is a thing… a shallow genepool becomes broad again. Genetic diversity is the name of the game. “Domesticated” animals often experience a lack of genetic diversity (that’s why some heritage varieties of plants or animals “breed true”). I’m rambling a bit, but long story short, the human species is not domesticated, because through all of our genetic material together is the reserve of our collective genetic diversity. Whatever limitations we might experience now in the oresent and might chalk up to domestication, we can undo within only a few generations of hybridization (aka this is my pro-miscegenation ideology! Haha). Genetic diversity equates to adaptability.

(And lest I fall prey to human exceptionalism, I add the note that pretty much ANY domesticated species, be it sheep, goats, dogs, or horses, can become undomesticated again through restoration of genetic diversity within the individuals, e.g. hybrid vigor. Get all the breeds of dog together and create a landrace mutt, and you end up again at an animal very much like what is known today as a coywolf).


Interesting discussion, thanks all, I might have to get that book to deepen my understanding of what happens when domesticates go feral. At the moment it’s just like “er, we let the cows, sheep, pigs and horses go and within a few generations we’ll be hunting their progeny through the new forests, river valleys and wild grasslands” - I think there’s a bit more detail missing in the middle part of that plan!

On a related subject I recently read about the Soviet/Russian experiments in domesticating foxes, in which simply selecting for tameness over a number of generations (allowing only the most subservient & human-friendly to breed) produced dog-like neotenous traits with striking rapidity - see: I wondered if the massive efforts to socialise children in the way Joan describes, as well as the constant hammering and/or marginalising of dissidents and alternative-types whose aliveness and rebellion survives into adulthood has acted in a similar way to produce tame humans, even reaching down into hormonal and biological traits which are then inherited by the next generation. I guess the test would be whether western children raised in a sane traditional society retained those same behaviours (and I seem to remember that no, they don’t). Further undermining my own theory would be the fact that these pressures of socialisation still exist, taking up a massive amount of time & energy, suggesting that the underlying desire to live in self-directed freedom has not gone away.

cheers for now,

This is coming a bit late, but thank you so much for the above. I don’t recall ever before hearing a human speak with such unqualified respect for the volition of others.