Why Don’t Humans Have Floppy Ears? Are We Not Tame?

2018-02-12 – My  dog Lefty is a herding dog. He’s not aggressive unless you are a sheep (or a Canada goose, for some reason). Lefty is an Australian Shepherd. And, as an Australian Shepherd, Lefty exhibits many of the traits of the so-called “domestication syndrome.”

The term domestication syndrome refers to a cluster of traits that occur in domesticated animals that differentiate them from their wild counterparts. One of the most notable traits of domestication is floppy ears. Wolves have pointy ears, but many dogs have floppy ears.  Wild boars, too, have pointy ears while domestic pigs have floppy ears. The same is true of goats and rabbits and cows and sheep. In addition to floppy ears, these animals tend to have a number of other characteristics in their tame form: smaller teeth, shortened snouts, and spots in their skin and fur.

Why are these traits associated with tameness and domestication? Charles Darwin first asked this question 150 years ago in his sequel to On the Origin of Species called The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. Without knowledge of genetics, Darwin was unable to answer this question with any confidence. Modern science may have found the answer, however. One experiment conducted by D.K. Belyaev in Novosibirik, Siberia showed the emergence of the same cluster of floppy ears and other traits as foxes were bred over 50 years for tameness.

In 2014, scientists Adam Wilkins, Richard Wrangham and Tecumseh Fitch proposed an explanation. They found a set of embryonic neural crest cells that differentiate into multiple organ systems in the developing animal, including the production of adrenaline, which is responsible for aggressiveness, as well as the shape of face and ears and pigmentation of skin and hair. If an animal is bred for tameness, deficits in adrenaline production responsible for tameness is derive from deficits in the embryonic neural crest cells, which is also responsible for shorter snouts, spotted coats, and floppy ears. This is now fairly well established.

But I notice that humans do not have floppy ears. Are we not tame? Perhaps we followed a different path to domestic tranquility.

More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle said that “man is by nature a political animal.” This is not due to a lack of aggressiveness in our species. Homer called this political animal a “lover of war.” But this aggressive trait is mediated by language and a sense of right and wrong rather than by floppy ears. We can talk with each other and negotiate to achieve the greatest good.

A common tactic of intransigent politicians is to confuse these things. They call their opponents sheep or lap-dogs. They erect obstacles to negotiation. They see the world as made up only of winners and losers. The art of the deal is domination and capitulation.

But it is not so. We get along, not because we have floppy ears. We get along because we talk with one another.

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