Deep Historical Perspectives: Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers

Never before have I considered the vast history of human-animal relationships and what the implications of those relationships will mean in the future. Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers presents the four stages of human-animal relationship history: separation (when humans began to consider themselves as fundamentally separate from animals), pre-domestication (rich in symbolic expression of animals), domestication (exploiting and taming animals for human use), and post-domestication (our current industrialized consumption and separation from domestic animals).

A key debate in modern post-domestic thought is the question of what separates humans from animals and over what moral consequences? Although we know there is an inherent separation, the categories by which humans have defined themselves as different from animals have fluctuated over years and cultures. In fact, “human societies have repeatedly conceived and re-conceived of their differences from animals in ways intended to explain or reinforce their current social or spiritual standings.”

Prior to the post-domestic era humans understood our separation from animals in terms of sexual shame and the divine creation of animals as servants to human kind. These qualities disappear from discussion today because we make our conceptions based in evolutionary terms. That is, capacities like speech, reason and skill at hunting are important only insofar that they can be conceived of in evolutionary terms. What’s more, ideas about prehistoric humans have given rise to ideological arguments used to further the interests of their proponents. Case and point: “survival of the fittest”. As time continues and each new hypothesis undergoes civilization discussion, it contributes to and influences our contemporary understandings on the nature of humanity.

Therefore, if the influence of a particular idea or hypothesis is based on our current socially constructed paradigm can we ever truly understand how and in what psychological state human-animal relationships evolved? Since understanding this relationship will help us best appreciate where we stand today and help us predict, to some degree, where we will be in the future, how far must we escape from contemporary enlightenment thought to be successful in our understanding? By “success” I mean to reconcile our post-domestic guilt and fear of the revolting process in transforming animals into standardized livestock products and cultural services. It may be clear that the advent of post-domesticity has called into question many centuries of thinking on human-animal relationships generated under conditions of domesticity, as with all social development of ideas throughout human history. However if we look to the other hand, are we not supposed to learn and adopt new ideas as new knowledge becomes available? How far should we separate these cultural paradigm limitations from the history of human-animals relationships? Thinking about evolution, fundamentally and interestingly, may be the primary influence of the experiences of post-domestic society anxiety about animal exploitation morality.

This small business sells local food from their farm with domestic animals

Grass Fed Healthy Cow

Exploring the two most common topics of separation, meat eating and speech, are examples of our current freedom to speculate and the point-of-view promoting purposes that are often served by such speculation. It was an interesting realization that humans may have learned to butcher first, then hunt and finally cook. That’s right, it’s unlikely humans stumbled upon a forest fire and were enticed by the cooked meat, since human teeth and digestive tract are best adapted for eating fruits and vegetables. It was then made apparent that the incorporation of meat into the human diet was not like that of other meat eating animals. Humans killed members of the same species, large carnivores  and were involved in mass-slaughter. The consumption of meat, since not as difficult to identify safely like vegetation, may have allowed for the eventual human expansion of the homo erectus habitation. Looking at speech as another logical difference between human and animals there are two considerations of speech development: song and secondary representations of animal vocalizations (i.e. “moo-moo”). It was striking to read, “for mom and dad the dog, ‘goes bow-wow’; for baby the dog is ‘bow-wow.’” This understanding of human brain development in grasping human consciousness evolution I found to be new and thought-provoking.

The reading also debunked a socially accepted idea that pre-domesticity transitioned into domesticity based on human ideas about animals for food. Conventional descriptions of the neo-lithic revolution (like last week’s Germs, Guns and Steel video) are centered on food production. However, food does not determine artist preference, as exemplified in historical human art evidence, human conceptions of animals involved many dynamics not relating to food. Nor is there any evidence reasonably supporting the idea that the domestication of plants and animals accorded together. These new rational conclusions, I think, interestingly eliminate much of our current world-view bias of this small human-animal relationship aspect. However, these understandings do not provide enough evidence of knowing what exactly motivated the transition into animal domestication.

Other fascinating points:

  • Deepest inherited human fear: being eaten alive
  • Post-Domestic push to maximize the cost to the consumer
  • Modern value for humanized wild animals is greater than farm animals
  • Emerging avenue of post-domestic development: recrudescence to pre-domestic thought
  • If sexual fantasy takes priority over real-world carnality, and masturbation takes priority over the actual act as a response activity which is then “better” for human society? Is that answer simply determined by cultural paradigms or are there other factors that could better evaluate?

It’s only week two of class. I wonder if I will ever be able to look at meat the same way again.

4 Replies to “Deep Historical Perspectives: Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers”

  1. Erica – Thanks so much for zeroing in on this central idea from the chapter on the Human-Animal divide: “human societies have repeatedly conceived and re-conceived of their differences from animals in ways intended to explain or reinforce their current social or spiritual standings.” I appreciate that Bulliet frames many of his own hypotheses in terms of an Enlightenment perspective that sees humans as rational and endowed with a particular suite of distinctive characteristics. My guess is that everyone is thinking about meat-eating / non-meat eating slightly differently this week!

  2. I bet by the end of this semester, you’ll be eating no meat!

    But seriously,
    I don’t believe we will truly understand the evolving of human-animal relationships. Given that there are so many different ideas pertaining to one idea here, it’s going to be difficult for everyone to agree with one or two ideas on the evolution of the human-animal relationship. But, what’s to say this evolution isn’t still happening today? Example: dogs now know a very large number of words that we say to them everyday, through the domestication of the wolf. I guarantee you at the beginning stages of domestication, dogs didn’t know a single word. This is a weak example, but the point is, when people hear “evolution” they think of the past. Evolution is happening all around us, everyday. It just takes a different perspective to see that way.

  3. The discussion of the development of speech was indeed fascinating. I was particlarly interested to learn that humans developed words for colors in the same order that babies develop the ability so see colors. Of course, I’ve learned in biology classes that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, but this is a very interesting offshoot of that idea and indicates that there are more and less important colors.

    However, I am getting off topic with regards to domestication. I think that the topic of the divide between humans and animals is very, very interesting. As a biologist, I often simply see us an another species–differing in intelligence and success but not set apart by some sort of indiscernible human uniqueness. However, I also recognize that different disciplines see it differently, and I am interested to hear what others think later today.

  4. Pingback: Story of the farmer and his son on a hilltop | Back to the Blue Ridge

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