Learned helplessness and domestication

The learned helplessness theory backed by experiment presents a result that can happen when an organism is presented with averse situations randomly and where there is no reliable escape.   The result is a resignation to accept the condition and not even attempt to try new opportunities that could provide relief.   This is a learned behavior because prior to this conditioning, the creature would quickly explore any opportunity to escape the averse condition.   Once helplessness is learned in this way, the creature will stop trying to explore new opportunities that could offer relief when those opportunities are presented, even if the opportunities require very little effort.

I do not know much about this theory.   I was just introduced to it when it was referenced in some other discussion where there was a short video of dogs in cages that I presume were the actual subjects of the study.   My first reaction was to note that the subjects were dogs, a domesticated animal.

I don’t know the details of the experiment.   I don’t know if these were once pets, or feral, or specifically bred for experimentation.   In either case, the species itself has through the millennia adapted to at least some type of desire for bonding with humans.   Even if they never experienced a trustful human in their lives, I imagine there would be some instinct to respect the treatment given to it by humans.   The experiment may have been exposing an instinctual understanding among a domesticated species.   Compared to wild species, the domesticated species has been bred to expect some level of helplessness in the presence of humans.

The theory is stated as universal so I imagine it has been testing on other species.   One likely possibility would be rats.   I consider rats to also be domesticated species though unlike dogs bred to be trustful of humans, rats had been selected to distrust humans.

Using evolution theory, a common story about dog evolution is that they arose from wolves from the distant past when humans hunted in small tribes.   These tribes would be hunting similar prey as would wolves that hunted in packs.   Inevitably these groups would encounter each other and have to fight off the other to claim a fallen prey.   Eventually, there would be an encounter between human tribe and wolf pack where there was some cooperation or sharing.   Gradually the encounters would include docile wolf members that began cooperating with humans in the hunt and the humans would generously share the results.   Then over time, humans would selectively breed the more docile yet most helpful traits until dogs emerged as loyal companions to humans.

Assuming something like that happened, something similar probably happened with rats.  But for rats, the relationship evolved out of competition for scavenging and in particular the opportunities rats saw in scavenging the stores humans would accumulate.   In this story, humans always sought to eliminate the rats through direct physical attacks, or indirect attacks through traps or poisons, and eventually through the cooperation of cats.   Unlike the evolution of dogs, the humans did not welcome the evolution of rats, but the rats managed to evolve in a way to as reliably accompany humans as would dogs even as stowaways on long trans-oceanic voyages of the ancient Polynesians.   The species of rat may have an innate recognition of respect for the human species, similar to the recognition within dogs.   They just have opposite reasons for the respect.

I wonder if the experiment has ever been done on completely wild species.   I do recall of some stories of wild animals going to great lengths to escape otherwise hopeless traps.   For example stories of wolves chewing off their leg when it is caught in a trap, escaping to live out the rest of its life on three instead of four legs.

More generally, nature itself frequently presents generally hopeless situations for most species.  If the natural reaction to hopeless situation is a passive resignation, few species would survive.   Evolution of new species would be even more improbable if the natural reaction to persistent adversity is to resign and passively wait for death.

I suspect the propensity of learned helplessness within a species is a direct consequence of its domestication.   Domestication itself may demand a trait for capacity for learned helplessness.   Without it, would it ever really make sense for a dog species to be as loyal to humans as it is today?  It has the same opportunities as the rat to exploit the situation to its own advantage and to the detriment of the human companion.

We interpret the fact of dogs’ obedience and loyalty as a form of love, but this may actually be an instinct of helplessness in the presence of humans.  The obedience and loyalty are instincts of a species the owes its continued survival to humans.

Similarly the devious motivations of rats to rob us of our stores are also an instinct of dependency on humans.  The rat species owes its ability to thrive to humans ability to provide the stores to rob.

From a purely naturalistic interpretation of evolution, it is remarkable how many disparate species humans have managed to domesticate: dogs, rats, cats, sheep, cows, pigs, etc.   In addition, humans have domesticated crops that end up relying solely on humans for proper cultivation and seeding.   Humans have somehow mastered the art of domestication.

Meanwhile, we find other species have domesticated unrelated species, as in examples in the insect world.   Those relationships are limited enough to be explained by symbiotic evolution: species evolving together for mutual benefit.   In contrast, the domestication achievements of  humans have clearly occurred in a time period too short to explain through natural selection.   The alternative story is that humans are intelligent and thus capable of intelligent or artificial selection.

I suspect the only difference between artificial selection and natural selection is that we reserve the word artificial to humans.   Natural selection is likely just as intelligent breeding as is our grooming of dogs to become our companions, a process that appears to have started accidentally: early man did not seek out to breed wolves to become companion dogs, instead at some point people recognized among the inescapable guests in the tribe were obedient dogs and devious rats, one to be embraced, and other to be scorned.

Thinking back on the learned helplessness experiments, I was also reminded of the similar conditions demonstrated by rodeo wranglers breaking wild horses.   There seems to be a similar progression.  The horse first tries everything it can do to try to extract its unwelcome rider.   Eventually, assuming a successful wrangle, the horse calms down and accepts its rider, where it even allows the rider to remount later without objection.   Is the broken horse all that different from the dog that no longer attempts to escape its electrical shocks?    There must be some pain or strain to support a rider on a horse’s back.  Maybe it accepts this situation due to learned helplessness.   The horse is domesticated, and we quickly interpret this domestication as a type of love.

The learned helplessness theory is a theory of depression among humans.  Alternatively, it may be a theory of domestication.   The domestication process involves at some point a creature recognizing its limitations to escape the condition it finds itself.   It trades off passive acceptances as a coping strategy.   It’s subsequent survival is entirely at the generosity or negligence of the domesticating species.

The domestication explanation may still apply to human depression.   I suspect that the human species itself is a domesticated species.   At some point in the past, humans were domesticated by some other species, either a more advanced race of humans, or some other species.  In our case, however, that domesticating species has long sense disappeared from our lives.   Our subsequent survival was a consequence of our attempt to replace the missing domesticating species.   At first, our ancestors mimicked their behavior in trying to emulate what they remembers from their earlier masters.   This was a poor and disappointing approximation, but it was at least sufficient to propagate our domesticated existence.    Later generations emulated their predecessors through customs that eventually devolved to a point where the traditions were reliably passed on through many generations.   Those traditions trace back to a time our species were domesticated for the benefit of another race or species we no longer remember.

The modern day experience of depression is a side effect of being a domesticated species like dogs.   Dogs are prone to depression if they are mistreated or neglected by humans, their domesticating species.   Similarly, human depression may come from the inadequacy of the human approximation of our now lost domesticating species.

I wonder what would happen to the species of dogs in a future after humans become extinct.  I can imagine most breeds would quickly die out from passive depression of the absence of its role it once offered in exchange for the benefaction of its human masters.

Something similar may be a fact of human nature and our proneness to depression.   The above theory is that depression is a form of learned helplessness: the depressed learns there is nothing he can do to escape whatever is bothering him.   I suggest an alternative explanation in that the depression is a consequence of being domesticated by a now absent master race or species.

Depression is a default setting for domesticated species.  Inherent in the domesticating process is a selection for helplessness.

What is actually learned is non-depression from the appearance of a reasonable approximation of the domesticating species.   For humans, that is in the form of active cultural practices following traditions that trace back to vague remembrance of the time when we lived with our masters, whatever they may have been.

Using this analogy and going back to the hypothesized futures of dog species surviving after the extinction of humans, the dogs could survive if they could somehow develop traditions that substitute for the missing humans.   A second and more likely option is that they can evolve out of their domesticated traits, and return to wild nature comparable to that of their now distant ancestors of wolves.

Humans as a species may also have that opportunity out of depression, to devolve into a wild species.  Such a devolution involves the return of a hunter-gather type of existence with not even the attempt at civilized behavior beyond what makes sense for the immediate extended family or tribe.   I doubt this option is available to individuals.  Instead it would be something that would take generations where each generation isolates itself from any past traditions or cultures and concentrates instead entirely on the tribe.

This learned helplessness theory intrigued me recently because of what I see happening at the social and political level in modern times.   I don’t describe this as consequences of widespread depression, although I suppose a good case may be made for it.   However, I do see the preconditions of learned helplessness.   Modern governments and economies present more constraints on us compared to the constraints faced by our recent ancestors.    At the same time, the same governments and economies provide benefits that our ancestors didn’t even dream of.

More specifically, in the work place, we experience increased constraints.  Either through automation or specialization, we are not permitted the latitude of freedom of action we would have had in the past.   Personally, I experience the feeling is being prevented from doing what I had been able to do easily in the distant past.  In some cases, the technology has moved on to a complexity beyond a single person’s capability to modify (or certainly my own capability).   In other cases, there are necessary barriers that much more expensive or time consuming to cross compared to the past.

The overall environment is vaguely similar to the helpless conditions in the above mentioned experiment.  The consequences may also resemble the passive resignation of doing nothing to change anything individually other than whimper and hope that someone would take care of the situation on our behalf.

At a political level, we see the rise in demands on authorities to impose more protections (though limiting liberties of peers) and assure more entitlements.   These demands resemble what might be expected from a domesticated species that relies on its master for both protection and sustenance.   We are reverting to our roots as a domesticated species.

We have tried this multiple times in history.  It always fails because humans can only approximate our original domesticating species, and that approximation is always deficient.   The result is always collapse and misery.   We are not good at being our own domesticators.

Looking at recent history this way raises the question of what immediately preceded our current age.   Something different did happen to humanity during the recent centuries as result of the individual liberty started by the enlightenment philosophy.   Individuals had more liberty to seek out their own individual happiness.  Certainly this liberty to pursue happiness was not universal, but it was more abundantly available than any time before and perhaps since.    We enjoyed a collective optimism that encouraged individual optimism that minimized the lethargic reaction of demanding protection and comfort from the state.

This period may necessarily be short lived in human timescales, and that time may now largely be passed.   Most of the individual opportunities for self actualization have passed with the presence of much more complex systems and automation.   Additionally, our predecessors have done a lot of damage in terms of exploiting natural resources and leaving pollution.   Many of things done by earlier generations are impossible to replicate because they exhausted the abundance of easily accessible resources or innovative opportunities.    In many cases, we enjoy the benefits of their contributions, but we individually lack similar opportunities to make our own contributions or our own wealth.

We look back at the recent history and are frustrated that we can not do what they were able to do.   We live in a world with many more rules, and a lot less opportunities.   The conditions are like that of the experiment: we are frustrated in finding relief and observe what increasing appears completely random occurrences of success.   The modern examples of people who do succeed, even in the technologies, appears more to be the case of the person being lucky at being in the right place at the right time rather than being particularly visionary or brilliant.   Success is random, and consequently so is the pain of the lack of success.   Success is also increasingly rare, leaving a large population in frustration, yearning for its master to save them.


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