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?



Domestication and Home

First, an apology.  I apologize for the lateness of my blog post.  I mistakenly thought that this week we were working on our projects and had a break from blogging.  I’m glad I found this to be untrue in time to write a blog post at all, but I apologize for being late with it.

That being said, I found the Brantz reading to be incredibly interesting.  First off was the bit of language.  Domestication comes from the Latin word for home, “domus.”  Having never made that particular connection, I found this to be interesting and slightly problematic.  Domestication is the human desire to turn wild animals into animals that we could keep in our homes.  Francis Galton thought that early domestication came from the human desire to keep pets.  This was interesting to me because pets, domesticates we actually do keep in our homes, are very different from other domesticates.  As Brantz points out, we do not eat them or turn them into products, and even go so far as to turn them into individuals by giving them names and such.

So, my question becomes, why does the word domestication come from the word for “home” when most domesticates are not kept in our homes?  It seems to me that other readings have argued successfully that early humans did not domesticate animals to keep them as pets, but for food.  Why then is the word used for the process so tied to the idea of the home?  Could it be just a general idea of living with humans in general?  Most dictionaries I looked in for the definition of “domestication” simply offer two definitions.  One is to make something suitable for the home and the other is to make an animal or plant accustomed to a human environment or be useful to humans.  This proved to be unsatisfying because it did not really answer my question.  This connection with the home seems to important to me.

I thought maybe the word “domestication” originated in the 18th or 19th century and was somehow tied to the emerging bourgeois values that Brantz talked about.  Everything I could find, however, pointed to the word domestication being used before that in the 17th century, which lessens the likelihood of this possibility and left me still wondering.  I’m tempted to become a linguist to figure this out.

The rest of Brantz’s work was interesting as well, I was intrigued by the place of pets in society as a moral force because it is held over to today.  It is still common to get a dog or cat to teach a kid responsibility.  We may have come off the rigid morality of Victorian England, but apparently we still teach responsibility the same way.

Like a few others, I was also pleasantly surprised by the readability of Darwin.  I expected him to be stuffy and inaccessible, but that is of course not the case.  In the Introduction we read, Darwin talked about domestication and how humans can affect it but are ultimately still unable to fully control nature.  The idea of control and power seems so central to domestication, but how much control do humans really have in the process.  I’m curious to see what everyone else thinks about this.

Bit wear and Prehistory

As a budding historian, I think books and written records are pretty awesome.  Written records in particular are pretty great because that’s is what history is really.  History began when people started writing things down, and everything before is lost in the mists of prehistory, ultimately unknowable.

That’s what I used to think, anyway.  This week’s readings, among other things, changed the way I think about the supremacy of the written word.  Archaeology lends so much insight into early human populations.  Actually analyzing animal bones and charred seeds and what they mean is a little beyond me, but I can recognize the insight they can give.  I think one of the most interesting aspects was how bones can tell the age and gender of animals in a settlement and this in turn can tell whether the bones came from wild or domestic horses.  This is obviously important for determining when people domesticated horses.

Bit wear is incredibly interesting, and the fact that it so recently became studied is interesting to me.  As someone completely ignorant about horses and bits and such things, it seems pretty obvious that sticking a piece of metal in a horses mouth would change the horse’s teeth.  The matter is not so cut and dry as it appears though.  Assuming that bits do cause ware, so much can be gleaned from old horse teeth.  The question of where horse back riding originated can be answered by bit wear patterns on teeth.  The question of where it spread can be answered by the same thing.  It seems like such a small thing, a bit of ware on an old tooth, but it can tell us so much about early humans and the domesticated animals around us.

Linguistics are another source that can tell us a great deal about the movement of peoples before there were written records.  Again, the specifics of it go mostly over my head, but I trust that people smarter than I can trace how Indo-European languages developed over the years and can figure out what this means in terms of early humans.  And from what I understand, so much information can be derived from language.  We already knew this though.  As Kessler taught us, we experience vestiges of age old pastoralism in our language every day.  Language is so central to our lives and can tell us so much about our past.

I suppose part of this class was about looking at history before the written word made everything so easy.  There’s so much evidence about early humans and their animals if we know how to look.  As a historian, it has been so interesting to learn so much about a time that I, like so many others, think of as being prehistory.

A Little Something Extra

So, after thinking about our discussion in class yesterday, I feel like I didn’t contribute enough.  I’m making this extra blog post to talk about something that I’ve been thinking about and that we touched on a little in class.  I would also like to share a piece of art that I made that is relevant to class (tangentially).

In class, we talked for a while about if cheese or food in general can be considered art.  After thinking about it after class, I’ve come to the conclusion that cheese, food, and most other things are undeniably art.  Ultimately art is experiential.  We look at a painting or listen to a piece of music or watch a play and experience the art.  The experience engenders some kind of emotion in us.  A painting makes us happy, a piece of music makes us sad, drama excites us, in every case, the actual “work of art” is less important than what it makes us feel.  A painting, after all, is just pigments on a canvas, nothing about that is particularly special.  Viewing the painting and experiencing how it can affect us is what makes it art.  A Rothko painting is just squares on canvas, but it becomes more when we view it because it makes us feel.

Cheese is the same.  It is elevated to art because eating cheese is an experience.  It can evoke feelings just by tasting it or looking at it.  It is art because it can make us feel something.  Yes, at the end of the day it is just calories that we put in our mouth, but the experience of putting it in our mouth and what that can make us feel makes cheese art.  Cheese took Kessler to a pretty emotional state and, to me, that makes it art.

Now, for something slightly less serious, this is a fingerpainted cave painting of a reindeer I made while working with a kindergarten class in Christiansburg.  Before you criticize its poor quality you should know that a roomful of kindergarteners have already told me everything that is wrong with it.  Among their observations were: it doesn’t have enough antlers, its legs aren’t long enough, it’s tail isn’t big enough, reindeer aren’t red, it’s to skinny, it’s to fat, and so on.  With that in mind, I humbly submit my masterpiece for your viewing pleasure.

Reindeer fingerpaint

Language and Pastoral Fantasies

I enjoyed reading Goat Song.  Kessler is a gifted writer who made his story engaging and interesting.  While reading I was struck by certain tensions in how I felt about goats and Kessler’s experience.  On one hand, I found myself wanting to do something similar, go out and herd goats and farm or something.  On the other was the realization that Kessler’s experience couldn’t possibly be how farming really is because at the end of the day, he’s a successful writer who is not relying solely on the fruits of his labors with his goats.  I feel like Kessler romanticizes goat herding and pastoralism very much in ways similar to paleofantasies.  He has an idea of what herding goats is and was, an idea full of spiritual fulfillment and happy, almost carefree living, and wanted to recreate this pastoral ideal in rural Vermont.

I don’t really fault Kessler for romanticizing animal herding like this.  Romanticizing shepherds (and shepherdess, there is plenty of that) has been an institution in literature since there have been writers and shepherds.  Writers romanticized most people who worked with animals or farmed as people who had a strong connection with nature and lived better in general than city-bound intellectuals.  This romanticized view shows up in all shorts of literature, the only specific examples I know are from Russian literature, but I’m fairly certain it was a common trope in 18th and 19th century literature from all over.

So, Kessler is just continuing a long tradition of idealizing pastoral life.  I don’t think this is a bad thing to do, since I think to some degree, everyone who isn’t a farmer or herder idealizes it to some extent.  It just means that Kessler created a way of living that is further from real life pastoralism than he would care to admit.  I highly doubt pastoral people in the past or present named all their animals or formed the close emotional contacts that Kessler and his wife did with their goats.

I found Kessler’s discussion on language to be incredibly interesting.  Other things I’ve read showed how much words and their origins can tell about societies.  I had no idea so many words came from goats.  The way the words arose from how one culture viewed goats but also showed how important goats were to that culture is very telling.  A few other people mentioned “scapegoat” in their posts, and I am just as amazed as everyone else at the origins.  The fact that “capricious” came from the word for goat was also interesting because it uses a facet of goat behavior to describe humans.  I found myself wondering, when the word was coined, did people use it in the same way that we use it today, or did they mean something different when they called someone capricious?

Overall, I liked Kessler’s book.  He had a pastoral fantasy in his head and he made it come true.  I don’t think he got an authentic pastoral experience, but it seemed like he enjoyed doing what he did.

Caging Wolves

I really enjoyed the article about our collective Paleofantasies.  I think it is a rather common idea that at one point in our evolutionary history, humans were perfectly adapted to our environment.  I have probably thought that myself.  The article does a good job of pointing out the obvious flaws in that line of thinking.

I found the reading about dogs and wolves to be more interesting.  The story of wolves becoming dogs was very interesting and, as the author showed, very relevant in our dog centered world.  I found two points to be most interesting.  The first was the author’s discussion of early interactions between wolves and dogs.  At that point, humans did not have the means to restrain wolves in any way.  Their ability to physically control what wolves did was very limited.  Humans did not have metal for cages or strong collars or anything like that and wolves could easily chew through any restraining device that humans could create.

This lack of control meant wolves could come and go from groups of humans as they pleased.  The author put it in terms of wolves knowing when humans were beneficial and when they were not.  If associating with humans stopped being mutually beneficial, the wolves could leave and return to hunting by themselves.  As long as the humans kept being beneficial, the wolves would stay.  The fact that wolves stayed with humans long enough to become dogs is interesting to me because it ascribes a great deal of agency to wolves.  Wolves chose to remain with humans long enough to become dogs because it was beneficial to them.

We have mentioned this idea of animals deciding to become domesticates because it is beneficial for them, but I think this is the first time an author has so explicitly put so much emphasis on the animal making a conscious choice.  I am so interested in this idea because it ascribes so much agency to animals, which is something very new to me.  As a historian, I am so used to reading about humans doing this or that, reading about an animal made such a momentous choice is very interesting.

The second point I found interesting was something Derr only briefly mentioned.  During his discussion of feral animals and stray dogs, Derr mentioned wolf “culture.”  This piqued my curiosity because, for me, culture has always been the sole domain of humans.  Animals don’t have culture because they are animals.  This notion is becoming increasingly problematic as I consider it more.  Culture as a shared legacy of practices and behaviors is obviously not limited to humans.  What does everyone else think?  Is culture limited to humans, or do animals have culture too?  As of now, I’m leaning towards animals do have culture, but I’m curious as to what everyone else thinks.

On Folktales

Vitebsky described two Eveny folktales in the reading.  Both had to do with how reindeer and humans came to have the relationship that they do.  In one, a woman lures reindeer closer and closer because they like the salt in her urine.  Eventually the woman is able to touch them and milk them, thus beginning centuries of human reindeer relationships.

The second folktale is more interesting to me.  In that one, humans help create reindeer by birthing them from trees.  The reindeer get older and have two calves.  Eventually the reindeer are attacked by wolves and the older reindeer cower in fear and call on the God Hovki for help.  The younger reindeer kill the wolves with their antlers and Hovki asks why the older reindeer could not do it themselves.  Their answer was that they had been born with human help and now needed human help to survive.  Hovki sent the older reindeer to live with humans the younger reindeer into the wild, never to mingle together again, thus explaining the difference between wild reindeer and domestic reindeer.

Folktales and folk practices are important because they serve as a link to a time for which few other records exist.  I’ve taken a class on Russian folktales and practices in general before and the light they can shed on early history and religious beliefs is interesting.  Very little is known about Slavic pagan belief is known, except for information that could be gleaned from folk tales and practices.  For example, a recurring character in Russian folklore in St. Elijah.  St. Elijah is a Christian figure, but the way he behaves has led scholars to believe that St. Elijah is a character from older Slavic myth, Perun the Thunder God, with a veneer of Christianity.  Scholars are able to learn a great deal about Perun and other pre-Christian Slavic beliefs based on folktales.

My point with that bit of unrelated knowledge is that the Eveny folktales might tell us something about how reindeer actually first came to be domesticated.  The two folktales in the introduction have a few elements in common that also line up with arguments that Bulliet made and with a point that we have talked about in class.

In the first folktale, domestication is based on a mutually beneficial relationship between reindeer and humans.  The reindeer wanted the salt the woman could give them and the woman wanted the reindeer milk.  This vision of domestication lines up with Bulliet’s idea that domestication was not a process that early humans discovered and mastered, but instead was more of an accident.  The woman in the folktale didn’t even know that the reindeer was useful until after it was comfortable around her.

The second folktale is similar.  The reindeer want to go with humans because humans can protect them from danger.  The humans can use the reindeer as pack animals and the hundred other things that reindeer are good for.  It is even more interesting because humans don’t really play any part in the domestication aspect of the folktale.  In class we have discussed the idea of animals “choosing” to become domesticated because it is useful for them.  The second folktale is interesting because the reindeer literally chose to go to the humans when Hovki asks them.

I don’t mean to say that these folktales should be taken as literal, just that the ideas presented in them may not be so farfetched.  The first one paints the picture of a mutually beneficial relationship that, I think, we have decided is a good basis for domestication.  The second describes the split between wild and domestic reindeer.  It doesn’t seem impossible to me that older reindeer would have been easier to domesticate, it seems fairly likely.  I think these folktales can give a lot of insight into the early relationship between humans and reindeer.

The Idea of Progress

Reading Ingold’s article about trust and domination made me think about an issue that has come up in many of my classes and in conversations with people outside of class.  This happened during our first discussion as well.  The issue is a problematic idea of what progress is and what it means and implies.  I apologize in advance if this doesn’t make much sense, but I’ll do my best.

Progress is a term that has many ideas wrapped up in it that don’t seem incredibly obvious at first glance.  Progress implies a movement toward in a direction that is better than the current state of things.  The better that is implicit in this turns the idea of progress into a value judgement.  Progress is a good thing because it leads to something better.

The problem with this idea is that the way that we, being us in the class, define better is very subjective and based on our own cultural experiences.  Our idea of better is not the same as another culture’s idea of better.  Therefore, our ideas about progress can not be applied to other cultures because of the disconnect between idea’s of what is good.  When we lose sight of this disconnect, we try to superimpose our idea’s of progress on other culture’s and end up being judgmental in an unfair way.

Ingold mentions this in the first part of his article.  Darwin talked about the hunter-gatherers he encountered on his voyage around the world and compared them to the culture he knew and deemed them backwards and without many redeeming qualities.  The rest of Ingold’s article discusses why this is an unfair judgement.  Hunter-gatherers were and are not any worse than other cultures because they lack technology, they simply live differently.  Judging their progress as a culture or civilization based on the Western standard of how much can they produce is unfair because, as Ingold describes, production as we see it is irrelevant to the hunter-gatherers.  Their conception of nature as something to be trusted to provide as opposed to something to be dominated is so different from what Darwin knew as good, that his judgements ultimately do not mean anything.

Unfortunately, unfair judgements like Darwin’s are not limited to 19th century naturalists.  It seems that many people in the present day do the same thing to Native Americans.  In my experience, many people think Native Americans were backward because they did not have the technology that colonists had.  The colonists helped Native Americans progress by introducing their technology to North America.  They helped the Native Americans progress beyond their unsophisticated hunter-gatherer ways.  This narrative is unfair because it imposes a Western cultural standard on the Native Americans.  It is also unfair because Native Americans lived much better than early colonists.

I don’t think that people do this purposefully.  I think it is mostly that people don’t think about the implications of the word “progress.”  By more closely examining what we say in class, I think we can better analyze the arguments that we read.  Again, I apologize if this seems like a rant.

Postdomestic Guilt

Bulliet’s stages of human-animal are very interesting and mostly correct.  It seems obvious that societies change over time in regards to their relationships with their animals.  I for one have only been on an actual farm once, and that was a grade school field trip.  Other than that, my closest contact with domesticated animals is petting my cat or seeing some cows or horses while driving down 460.  I probably have very different feelings concerning animals than  someone who had grown up on a farm.

I do disagree with his idea that our postdomestic separation from animals explains our fascination with graphic violence.  Humans enjoyed graphic violence before people moved off farms.  Ancient Romans made a spectacle of brutal violence in the Coliseum.  Public executions are common throughout history and make a display of violence.  Bulliet mentions these as part of being desensitized from violence, but I fail to see how they are meaningfully different from a violent film or other modern depiction of violence.  People went to see these things because people like to see violence.  I think it has less to do with how we interact with animals and is just a basic part of being human.  I don’t mean to imply that we all enjoy seeing violence all the time, just that, at some level, some part of us enjoys seeing violence.

Bulliet’s description of vegetarianism is somewhat shallow.  He characterizes elective vegetarianism being based on a feeling of guilt, which is a totally reductive claim.  Elective vegetarianism is based on a wide variety of moral and health reasons.  Bulliet’s claim that people become vegetarians just because they feel guilty about the way animals are treated simplifies the matter unfairly.  Guilt can play in to the decision to become a vegetarian, but it is more than a simple knee jerk reaction to being guilty about animals being treated poorly.  Being a vegetarian myself, I can say my choice was driven by more than just guilt.

How do non vegetarians feel about Bulliet’s claims?  I’m interested in how someone who isn’t a vegetarian felt about it because I feel like I might be biased.  So, how does everyone else feel about guilt and vegetarianism?



Anthropogenic Evolution as a Two Way Process

As the Russell article, “Evolutionary History” points out, our understanding of human history is enhanced by looking at how humans have interacted with the environment to shape the evolution of many species of plants and animals and their own evolution.  Russell put forth the idea that domesticating plant and animal species was not a one way process of humans simply selectively breeding plants and animals for their own gain, but a two way process in which the domesticated species also affected the ways humans behaved and evolved.

In the article, Russell described how humans breeding plants for agriculture allowed for agricultural surpluses that led to larger and larger human settlements and more complex human social networks.  The domestication of plants and animals for agriculture laid the groundwork for modern human society by making it possible for early humans to change the way they spent their time.  Since not every member of a group had to engage in hunting or gathering for food, some early humans were free to paint cave walls and other similar endeavors.  The human influence on plant evolution allowed humans to evolve as well.  The chapter on “Energy and Ecosystems” described how one group of early humans survived and thrived because their food source was more secure because they engaged in agriculture.  Agriculture allowed early humans to grow and store their own food and be less susceptible to scarcity in wild resources.  Upper Paleolithic populations thrived and evolved because agriculture allowed their environments to consistently yield a higher amount of energy.

The adoption of agriculture was a process that affected both the plants and animals that humans domesticated and early humans themselves. In a book called An Edible History of Humanity author Tom Standage described how the domestication of corn led to a species of corn that could not survive in the wild and was dependent on humans to plant it and make it grow.  It also led to humans who were less able to hunt for their food.  According to Standage, agriculture led to less diversified diets that made individual early humans less healthy and less successful at hunting for food.  This description is consistent with the idea presented by the previous two articles that agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals was a process that affected the evolution of those being domesticates and those doing the domesticating.

This idea of anthropogenic evolution as a two way process is interesting because it challenges a common theme of the narrative of early history, that human history is a story of humans conquering their environment.  This idea is brought up in the “Energy and Ecosystems” chapter, in which the historian Jules Michelet’s views on nature are summarized.  For Michelet, history started when humans began using the environment for their own benefit.  This idea of humans conquering nature and making the environment productive is an important part of many historical works, if not always explicitly.  In my experience, many historical processes are deemed significant in the context of expanding the productivity of land and resources.  The Industrial Revolution, for example, is significant because humans made their resources more productive with new technology.  It was a process of humans gaining more mastery of nature.

If anthropogenic evolution, the adoption of agriculture, and domestication in general are not cases of humans simply imposing their will on their environment, but are instead processes of change on the parts of all involved, then this narrative falls apart.  Humans become not victorious conquerors subjugating nature to their will, but parts of a system that is always evolving.  Humans are simply a part of ever-changing nature instead of using nature like a tool.  Revising the common narrative of history could allow for a deeper understanding of human history.  As Russell’s article pointed out, using a deeper pool of knowledge allows for an enhanced understanding of history.

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