Wake up Sheeple! The Anna Karenina principle and the domestication of people

I was going through the Wikipedia page of the very fascinating Professor Jared Diamond, American scientist and author, when his use of the Anna Karenina principle grabbed my attention. According to Professor Diamond, animals need to satisfy all of a number of criteria in order to be candidates for domestication (regardless of their other advantages, which otherwise doom them to failure).

These criterions entail that they:

  • be easy to feed 
  • have a high reproductive turn-over 
  • breed well in captivity 
  • possess a pleasant disposition 
  • refrain from panicking 
  • belong to a well-defined social structure. 

Going through this list, the cynical part of my brain wondered whether our own culture applies these same criteria to its members. Has socialization meant that we have cultivated the same traits amongst humans as we have in animal domestication? Consider the following, for instance:

  • I might live in a cosmopolitan city, yet I find it exceedingly difficult to find a low-carbohydrate meal. I have also been a vegan, and I remember similarly having to wander from restaurant to restaurant in search of something I was ‘allowed’ to eat. 
  • Not very long ago in the West, and particularly amongst the more religious population, most people were under (a lot more) pressure to breed early, and quickly. 
  • The amount of literature and media relating to sex – the billboards, glossy magazines, and soap operas – illustrates how sex is still a highly prescribed and regulated activity particularly in this age of so-called sexual liberation. This might sound paradoxical, yet think of it this way – by flooding the airwaves with marketable forms of sexual expression, our culture is drowning out personal variety. For instance, the orgasm has become the be-all and end-all of sex, when for many it is incidental or irrelevant; and the prevalence of rather outlandish forms of visual pornography means that people are getting further disconnected from the real thing – a good argument for why we should be more trusting of our own imagination. Also, think of how we expect many people to be transparent about their relationship status: to display their spouses (Facebook relationship status, ringed finger, stickers on the back of their car) and to have a designated piece of furniture on which to have sex. Occasionally we revolt against this regulation (albeit in very stereotypical, structured ways): we escape on romantic escapades to the coast or upon a cruise-ship, or hook up with other backpackers in some third-world country’s youth hostels. 
  • Anyone who enjoys the television series ‘Dexter’, or felt sympathy for Hannibal Lecter M.D. in the third movie, or laughed in Gross Point Blanke, serves to illustrate how it is better to be a serial killer with a grin in this society than a pacifist who grimaces. QED – A pleasant disposition is more valuable than a virtuous mind. 
  • Perhaps the best measure of how far socialization has come to resemble domestication is in the extent that we have traded our freedoms for safety: the more that we are willing to fit in to our particular culture, better that culture rewards us, and the more mobile we can afford to be. Stockholm syndrome is merely the extreme example of how easy we find it, in times of crises, to imprint on our masters – another, more readily available example would be George W. Bush’s rise in popularity following the September 11 attacks. We yearn for hard love, it seems, even when it is lacking in real love

The path of least resistance certainly inclines us to go with the flow, and accept what is easily available to us. We constantly ‘sell liberty to purchase power’. Yet it is hard not to occasionally comprehend that our ancestors and peers have ‘bred’ us to be as accommodating and as passive as possible, making us animals no less captive than the cats and dogs whom we in turn keep.

Images by Think-N-Evolve and xkcd