Domestic Animals Tamed Us

Let’s pretend a bee has thoughts. She flies from flower to flower collecting sweet sweet nectar. She essentially farms them. She thinks she’s got it good: all this free food out there. If she’s religious she’d say such benevolence is proof the Great Queen Bee In the Sky must exist. From a certain perspective she’s right (she does have it pretty good).

From another perspective it’s bullshit. The bee’s not in control at all! She’s a dupe of the flower who’s really the one pulling the strings. The nectar is just bait. A tiny wage for the much bigger job: helping one flower mate with another. More on the plant’s eye view of the world in this great video.

I’ve just read The Covenant of the Wild which makes a similar case for domestic animals. We’ve definitely contributed to their reproductive success (1.3 billion cows in existence can’t be wrong!). But there’s a deeper claim made by the book: the animals we’ve domesticated escaped extinction by getting us to domesticate them.

The book argues persuasively that the assumption that domestication was solely due to our efforts (or hegemony) is false. In body and behaviour, domestic animals resemble babies of their wild cousins (eg. adult dogs are more like wolf cubs than adult wolves). This is called neoteny and is common in the animal kingdom. Of course humans played a major role in domestication, but it was co-evolution. These animals were probably neotenous before we could start selectively breeding them. The alternative makes no sense: why would hunter-gatherers want to approach wild wolves “just to see what happens in a few generations”? (Interestingly we ourselves are domesticated and neotenous, resembling baby apes).

From an evolutionary perspective, getting domesticated was the best thing that happened to 18 lucky mammal species. Unlike most mammals they’re in no danger of extinction. In fact we clear land for them (a stupid amount), feed them (ahead of of millions of people) and spend billions curing their diseases. The problems with our current use of animals are gigantic, and we’ve taken a huge toll on ecosystems. But the idea that evil-cancerous-humans-are-ruining-pristine-stable-&-romantic-nature is human-centric, incoherent & false. If we have any chance in hell of fixing things we need to change to a more even-handed and correct perspective.

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The thinly-veiled identity of lives and rants in Sydney. Views not his own, provided by hivemind. All my original work on this blog is licensed under a CC BY-NC License.

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