Rats as Humanity’s Twin

This week’s readings were very interesting.  One would think that things as ubiquitous as mice and rats deserve consideration and thought.  I’ll admit, though, that before these readings I never thought very much or very hard about rats or mice, and I now realize how little I knew about them.

The idea that I found most interesting out of these readings was the idea that rats and humans are very closely linked.  The Burt reading introduced the idea of rats being humanity’s twin in many ways.  While crazy at first, this idea really appealed to me.  Rats are very tied to us.  They go where we go because they live off the networks that we create.  They come with us even to places where they would not be able to survive on our own, and they survive off the food and shelter they get from us.  War and imperialism took rats all over the world.

Rats also resemble us in their ability to adapt.  They can live almost anywhere, just as we can.  They can evolve relatively quickly to adapt to new environments.  They can dominate an environment in a way few other animals can.  They seem so similar to us, that at first I wondered where our distaste for rats came from.  I assumed that our hatred for rats was a holdover from their days as plague bearing embodiments of filth.  The Burt reading revealed the flaws of this idea.

First, rats are apparently clean animals.  They live in dirty places, but apparently the rats themselves are relatively clean.  I find this hard to believe, but I’m not the expert.  Secondly, while rats were associated with disease, people did not know that rats themselves could bring disease.  Intense distaste for rats started, as so many other intense distastes for things, in the Victorian era.  Disease and dirtiness were not nearly as lamentable as the rats insatiable appetites for food and sex.  Rats’ excesses made them an object of hatred.

Burt also described the relationship between rats and humans as almost parasitic.  Rats gain so much from their association with humans, food and shelter, but humans gain nothing.  The rats exploit humans for their own gain.  This is so radically different from humans’ relationships with other animals.  Humans exploit the animals, not the other way around.  I was intrigued by this relationship because it challenges the idea of humanity as a master of nature, because, try as we might, humans can’t kill all the rats.  The rats’ exploitation of humanity, in my mind, shows that humans are a part of nature, not above it, as many people want to think.

Here are some other questions for us to consider in our discussion on Tuesday:

How do changing attitudes toward rats help explain changing cultural values and vice versa?

In what ways is humans’ relationship with rats similar to our relationships with other animals?  Is the way rats exploit humans similar to the way humans exploit other animals?

Have scientists turned laboratory rats into a commodity?  What effects does this have on the rats?  What are the moral implications of such a process?  Is this different than any other domesticated animal?

How do laboratory rats differ from other domesticates?

Shapiro talks about the deindividuation of laboratory animals.  Does a similar process take place with other domesticated animals?



3 thoughts on “Rats as Humanity’s Twin

  1. Some good ideas for discussion here, Ben. Let’s make sure to talk about the different insights Rader and Shapiro draw from their study of rats / mice as experimental research subjects.

  2. I think you hit on a lot of interesting topics in your post. The ties between rats and humanity are really incredible when you actually sit down and think about it. I think the idea of rats exploitation of humans is particularly interesting. I cannot come up with any other animal that takes advantage of humans to the extent of the rat. Their means of survival by using humans is truly phenomenal. I wonder if this is one of the reasons that have led to the extreme hate of rats by humans. We are certainly a competitive species and I could see how being bested by some little creature like the rat could rub humans the wrong way. I look forward to discussing this and the rest of your questions in class tomorrow.

  3. It’s interesting (as you pointed out) that rats exploit humans (nearly completely–this is not a mutualistic relationship) in the “wild.” However, when we use rats as research animals, we are exploiting them almost completely–they get very little benefit (except, perhaps, the propagation of their species. However, I question whether that can even be counted as a benefit for them, because they have been genetically modified so extensively by selection and, in some cases, genetic technologies). Does a mutualistic relationship between humans and rodents ever exist? I’m not sure.

    Also, yes, rats are indeed very clean. I had pet rats when I was a kid and have read stuff about wild rats. They groom themselves like cats!

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