Domestication (from Latin domesticus) or taming refers to the process whereby a population of living things becomes accustomed to a controlled environment by other plants or animals through a process of selection. The most common form of domestication is artificial selection by humans. Humans have brought these populations under their care for a wide range of reasons: to produce food or valuable commodities (such as wool, cotton, or silk), for help with various types of work (such as transportation or protection), for protection of themselves and livestock, to enjoy as companions or ornamental plant, and for scientific research, such as finding cures for certain diseases.
Plants domesticated primarily for aesthetic enjoyment in and around the home are usually called house plants or ornamentals, while those domesticated for large-scale food production are generally called crops. A distinction can be made between those domesticated plants that have been deliberately altered or selected for special desirable characteristics (see cultigen) and those domesticated plants that are essentially no different from their wild counterparts (assuming domestication does not necessarily imply physical modification). Likewise, animals domesticated for home companionship are usually called pets while those domesticated for food or work are called livestock or farm animals.
There is debate within the scientific community over how the process of domestication works. Some researchers give credit to natural selection, where mutations outside of human control make some members of a species more compatible to human cultivation or companionship. Others have shown that carefully controlled selective breeding is responsible for many of the collective changes associated with domestication. These categories are not mutually exclusive and it is likely that natural selection and selective breeding have both played some role in the processes of domestication throughout history. Either way, a process of selection is involved.
The domestication of wheat is an example of this. Wild wheat falls to the ground to reseed itself when it is ripe, but domesticated wheat stays on the stem when it is ripe. There is evidence that this critical change came about as a result of a random mutation near the beginning of wheat’s cultivation. Wheat with this mutation was the only wheat harvested and became the seed for the next crop. This wheat was much more useful to farmers and became the basis for the various strains of domesticated wheat that have since been developed.
The example of wheat has led some to speculate that mutations may have been the basis for other early instances of domestication. It is speculated that a mutation made some wolves less wary of humans. This allowed these wolves to start following humans to scavenge for food in their garbage dumps. Presumably something like a symbiotic relationship developed between humans and this population of wolves. The wolves benefited from human food scraps, and humans may have found that the wolves could warn them of approaching enemies, help with hunting, carry loads, provide warmth, or supplement their food supply. As this relationship evolved, humans eventually began to raise the wolves and breed the types of dogs that we have today.
Nonetheless, some researchers maintain that selective breeding rather than mutation or natural selection best explains how the process of domestication typically worked. Some of the most well-known evidence in support of selective breeding comes from an experiment by Russian scientist, Dmitri Belyaev, in the 1950s. His team spent many years breeding the Silver Fox (Vulpes vulpes) and selecting only those individuals that showed the least fear of humans. Eventually, Belyaev’s team selected only those that showed the most positive response to humans. He ended up with a population of grey-coloured foxes whose behavior and appearance was significantly changed. They no longer showed any fear of humans and often wagged their tails and licked their human caretakers to show affection. More importantly, these foxes had floppy ears, smaller skulls, rolled tails and other traits commonly found in dogs.
Despite the success of this experiment, some scientists believe that selective breeding cannot always achieve domestication. They point out that known attempts to domesticate several kinds of wild animals in this way have failed repeatedly. The zebra is one example. Despite the fact that four species of zebra are interbreedable with and part of the same genus as the horse and the donkey, attempts at domestication have failed. It is possible that the historical process of domestication cannot be fully explained by any one principle acting alone. Some combination of natural selection and selective breeding may have played a role in the domestication of the various species that humans have come into close contact with throughout history.
- Flexible diet — Creatures that are willing to consume a wide variety of food sources and can live off less cumulative food from the food pyramid (such as corn or wheat) are less expensive to keep in captivity. Carnivores by their very nature only feed on meat, which requires the expenditure of many animals.
- Reasonably fast growth rate — Fast maturity rate compared to the human life span allows breeding intervention and makes the animal useful within an acceptable duration of caretaking. Large animals such as elephants require many years before they reach a useful size.
- Ability to be bred in captivity — Creatures that are reluctant to breed when kept in captivity do not produce useful offspring, and instead are limited to capture in their wild state. Creatures such as the panda, antelope and giant forest hogs are territorial when breeding and cannot be maintained in crowded enclosures in captivity.
- Pleasant disposition — Large creatures that are aggressive toward humans are dangerous to keep in captivity. The African buffalo has an unpredictable nature and is highly dangerous to humans. Although similar to domesticated pigs in many ways, American peccaries and Africa’s warthogs and bushpigs are also dangerous in captivity.
- Temperament which makes it unlikely to panic — A creature with a nervous disposition is difficult to keep in captivity as they will attempt to flee whenever they are startled. The gazelle is very flighty and it has a powerful leap that allows it to escape an enclosed pen. Some animals, such as Domestic sheep, still have a strong tendency to panic when their flight zone is crossed. However, most sheep also show a flocking instinct, whereby they stay close together when pressed. Livestock with such an instinct may be herded by people and dogs.
- Modifiable social hierarchy — Social creatures that recognize a hierarchy of dominance can be raised to recognize a human as the pack leader.