Book Review: The Domesticated Brain by Bruce Hood

Book Review: The Domesticated Brain by Bruce Hood

This is a riveting read from one of the leading lights of modern psychology, Bruce Hood of the University of Bristol. The book’s main premise is that 20,000 years ago our brains were 10% larger than what they are today. And that the reason for this is primarily the influence of social practices, culture and self-domestication.

“We have been self-domesticating through the invention of culture and practices that ensure that we can live together,” he writes.

This Pelican Introduction book delves into the relatively new discipline of behavioural neuroscience. Along the way Hood reminds us that the research we have currently gathered is only as good as the next discovery and never the final stop. The Domesticated Brain is an ideal primer on how we are wired as a species to behave in a social way and that your behaviour as an individual is not so individual and unique after all.

According to Hood, every species that has been domesticated by humans has lost brain capacity. This is due to the physiological effect of a decrease in testosterone in the body. Less testosterone in the body means smaller body organs including a smaller brain. Wolves (more testosterone) resolve problems through strategic cunning, and often work alone. Whereas dogs (less testosterone) are more adept at reading social and emotional cues are able to get help from their human masters.

Like domesticated dogs, infants and young children have the innate knack for getting their parents to do their bidding, or to keenly read social cues from those around them. Hood highlights significantly that only dogs and humans understand the social meaning of finger pointing at objects.

One primary difference between animals like chimpanzees and humans, is that apes will imitate others in the group to achieve a goal. Getting the ants out of a nest by using a stick for example. Whereas human babies imitate adults for no apparent reason. The evolutionary reason for this is that human babies want to fit in with the group. People in other words, are wired from birth to domesticate themselves, to cooperate and work along with other people and to copy others in order to fit in.

This social adeptness or domestication Hood says, is key to human’s success as a species. We are the only species to be able to produce such vast feats of creative work, technological improvements and scientific innovation. The reason for this isn’t due to one person working alone in a room independently of everyone else, it’s due to human collaboration, coordination of effort and communication. When disparate areas of knowledge come together in new ways – that’s when breakthroughs and advances happen.

The dark side of the domesticated brain Hood argues is that socially wired brains are prone to having strong tribal allegiances, prejudices and in some cases condoning horrific acts of war and genocide. These innate tribal and group allegiances that people have, are what are manipulated by leaders, in order to justify acts of war and mass genocide.

I loved this Pelican Introduction title about evolutionary psychology and behavioural neuroscience/psychology. It touched on a lot of areas that were interesting and the writing was vibrant and interesting.



Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

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