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Excerpts from Bob Church's articles on Domestication from the FML


The following is a series of excerpts from articles on Domestication written by Bob Church and posted to The Ferret Mailing List (Issues 1381, 2382, 2383, 2385, 2386). Bob Church is a zooarchaeologist (aka: archaeozoologist/ paleozoologist/ paleobiologist) specializing in areas of nutrition and domestication.

Perhaps one of the greatest problems faced by ferret owners and their charges is the misinformation concerning the state of domestication.... Domestication is nothing more than a form of evolution where so-called "natural" selection has been replaced by "human" selection.... That means it is not only a state of being, but also a biological process.....

...the one major difference between the natural species concept and the domesticated species concept is human involvement. So, even if you cannot define a species, you can still measure the degree of human involvement and classify an organism as domesticated based on that alone. Thus, the only real evolutionary difference between a naturally-selected organism and a human-selected organism is the human involvement...

Let me point out a few misconceptions regarding evolution. Simply put, evolution is defined as change over time. Anything can evolve; it isn't specifically limited to living creatures, thus you can discuss the evolution of automobile design, or the Spencerian concept of cultural evolution.

Because domestic animals have been changed over time, then domestication is a form of evolution. In other words, evolution is real because domestication proves the process; it proves animals are not immutable, and can change from one form to another because of various selectionist pressures.

Another misconception is that only certain types of animals can be domesticated. Wrong. *ANY* animal (or organism) can be domesticated; you may not be able to domesticate a deer to hunt rabbits, and the costs of domestication may outweigh the benefits, but they are still domesticatable.

Also, sometimes you will read than an animal "domesticated itself," often used to describe the origins of dogs, cats or mice. Since, as already discussed, to become domesticated the animal has to have evolved under human selection, animals simply cannot domesticate themselves. They can adapt to human presence and environmental changes and benefit from them, but they are not by any means domesticated.

......there is a major difference between "tamed" and "domesticated." A tamed animal has been conditioned to tolerate a human presence, but, aside from conditioning, the animal is in all respects the same as other wild members of its species. .....So what exactly is a good definition of domestication? Honestly, there are numerous definitions, but if you compare them all, three criteria seem to be important.

  1. The organism's breeding must be under human control
  2. The organism must have some sort of change from the ancestral species
  3. The organism must provide a service or product that is beneficial to humans

Some argue only the first of the criteria (human-controlled breeding, or human selection) is important, the second criteria is a result, and the third a reason for domestication. I reject such arguments because zoo animals are clearly under human breeding control, yet are not domesticated.... Therefore, the best possible definition of domestication would include all three criteria. So, simply put, domestication is the process by which human selection causes changes in an organism which are intended for human benefit or advantage....

So, are ferrets domesticated? Ferrets are certainly under human control when it comes to breeding. In fact, in the United States, only a very tiny percentage of ferrets ever breed; the vast majority are neutered prior to sexual maturation. Ferrets do not have control over their breeding; humans do, so ferrets fill the breeding requirement nicely.

Ferrets also provide many benefits and advantages to human beings, ranging from ratting and mousing (pest control) to ferreting (food production) to experimentation (veterinary and biomedicine) to pets (companionship). Each of these are direct services which assume a finical worth as well as a consumer demand, so the breeding of ferrets is also a benefit ... It is clear ferrets fit this criteria quite well.

As for some sort of change in the ferret caused by human-controlled breeding, many scientists have described changes in ferrets, including changes in behavior, skull morphology, reproductive cycle and vision.... These changes are as great or greater than between the wildcat and the house cat, therefore it is safe to assume the ferret fits this criteria as well.

Since the ferret easily fits all criteria needed to be considered domesticated, that is,

  • human controlled breeding,
  • changes from the ancestral species, and
  • being a benefit to humans,

then it is safe to conclude the ferret is as domesticated as any other domesticated species. In other words, the ferret is not "wild," it is not "semi-domesticated," it is not "tamed." The ferret is domesticated.

...Some animals are clearly more suitable for domestication than others and tend to have similar characteristics. These characteristics include

  1. variation of some trait or attribute that is desirable for humans (meat, fur, wool, milk, etc.),
  2. the trait can be consistently bred
  3. there is a consistent heritable relationship between parent and offspring that is not heavily influenced by the environment.

...How long does it take to domesticate an animal? Believe it or not, Russian researchers answered that question some time ago with breeding experiment on fox. They found, and it has since been replicated, that traits of domestication can be developed in just a few generations. Their experiments showed that in just a few years, fox were "transformed" into dog-like animals possessing pie-bald coloration, acceptance of humans, and hypersexuality. Considering ferrets have been held and bred in captivity for at least 2500 years, there has been more than ample time for domestication to take place.

What are some of the changes that occur in domesticated mammals like the ferret? These seem to be consistent from species to species, and although not all domesticated animals possess all the traits, most possess most of them. They include

  • hypersexuality (a willingness to breed under artificial conditions more than one time per year),
  • decline in brain weight (and attending skull changes and loss of intelligence),
  • decline in parental care behaviors (eating or not suckling babies),
  • decline in aggressive behaviors,
  • change in fur (Angora, curls),
  • change in coloration (piebalding, albinism),
  • loss in species selectivity (attempts to breed with other species or objects),
  • juvenilization (the persistence of juvenile traits),
  • failure to thrive outside of human captivity,
  • dental changes (extra or missing teeth),
  • and changes in body size, weight or proportions (dwarfing, giantism).

At one time or another, ferrets have shown all of these traits.


...There is a major difference between domesticated animals and captive-raised animals; captive-raised animals are wild (although sometimes tamed) animals that are biologically identical to the non-captive members of their species that are still living in the wild. Domestic animals have no "wild" species counterpart.


The full text from Bob Church's articles may be found at:


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