Peak Dog vs. Degenerate Dog?

This is Balto, the famous Siberian Husky sled dog who led his team on the final leg of the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska. The windchill of the whiteout blizzard when Balto set out was −70 °F. The team traveled all night, with almost no visibility, over the 600-foot Topkok Mountain, and reached Nome at 5:30 AM.

Balto is not the only dog who deserves credit–Togo took a longer and even more dangerous stretch of the run.

And this is a modern Siberian Husky:

Now, don’t get me wrong. He’s a beautiful dog. But he’s a very different dog. I think he’s trying to turn into a German Shepherd-wolf hybrid. Balto practically looks like a corgi next to him.

Siberian huskies were bred by people who depended on them for their lives, and had to endure some of nature’s very harshest weather. We moderns, by contrast, like to keep our dogs inside our warm, comfortable houses to play with our kids or guard our stuff. Have modern huskies been bred for looks rather than sled-pulling?

On the other hand, winning times for the Iditarod have dropped from 20 days to just 8 since the race began in the 1970s, so clearly there are some very fast huskies out there.

Advertisements

Anthropology Friday: Travels in Siberia: Samoyeds (Nenets) and Ostyak Religion

Welcome back to Erman’s Travels in Siberia (Volume 2.) Let’s jump right in:

“As soon as the bays along the shore and the mouths of the rivers are frozen over, the Ostyak and Samoyed inhabitants of the West quit their tents on the sea-side, and withdraw with their reindeer to the mossy tundras of the interior. On the island of Vaigatz indeed, which is known to the Samoyedes only by the name of Khäyodeyä, and is celebrated as their chief place of sacrifice, many owners of reindeer remain the whole year round; other natives, and Russians also, go over to it in summer both to fish and hunt.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The name of the island translates from the Nenets as “alluvial shore”. Until the 19th century, the island was an important shrine of the Nenets people. There were polycephalic wooden idols painted with blood of holy animals, primarily reindeer. Some of their sacrificial piles, consisting of drift-wood, deer’s horns and the skulls of bears and deer, have been observed by travellers. In spite of their conversion to Christianity, the Nenets still regard these piles with superstition.

The website Arctic Russia Travel has some more information on Vaygach Island, and would like to sell you a tour.

Continuing:

“The Samoyedes, on the other hand, are praised by all their neighbours around for the great Variety of produce which they bring back from their hunting excursions. They take the fur animals, not only by the ordinary artifices of traps and weapons adapted to every circumstance, but also by putting themselves as much as possible on an equality with the animals pursued, going on all fours and imitating the brutes in voice and clothing* They contribute by far the largest portion of the skins of the Polar bear brought to the fair of Obdorsk; and in consequence of their more intimate acquaintance with these animals, they do not regard them with the same dread as Europeans.”

*googles Samoyeds* Well this is going to be fun

EvX: The modern Samoyed people are more commonly known as Nenets, while “Samoyed” is reserved for the fluffy dogs. They speak a language related to Estonian, Sami (Lapp) and Hungarian. Erman opines that the current fad for seeking the origins of the Hungarians in Tibet is obviously flawed, as they obviously share a common linguistic origin with these wanderers of the north.

Of course two groups (say, African Americans and Maori of New Zealand,) may speak the same language with out being closely related at all, but the linguistic evidence here is not entirely without weight, whereas there’s no particular reason to seek Hungarian origins in Tibet besides the nation having been faddishly popular. But see this post if you want a more complete run-down of the Finno-Ugric language group.

Continuing:

“About eight o’clock in the evening, the dogs, of which about four hundred are kept here by sixty inhabitants, commenced a loud and mingled howling. It is hunger which daily calls forth, at the same hour, these passionate outbreaks, and then the dogs are sure to chime in together, as soon as one has begun the howl; otherwise they are quite silent, and never bark nor cry, unless at starting on their course when yoked in the sledge, or on coming across a reindeer sledge in their journey. Even during the severest cold, the dogs require no protection from the weather.
They sleep outside round the houses to which they respectively belong, in holes which they have thawed in the snow by their own warmth. The Ostyaks look upon it as a sign of bad weather when the dogs lie very quiet in their icy grottoes; and, indeed, the truth of this prognostication seemed to be confirmed today. Here, as everywhere else along the Obi, they are fed with nothing but fish, which, for this purpose as well as for human food, is first dried in the sun, and then being pounded, bones and all, it is stored up under the name of porsa.”

On the economic logic of keeping different domestic animals:

“It is easy to understand why the dogs kept in Obdorsk should be much more numerous than those in Yeresov ; for in the latter place it is still possible, and usual, to keep horses, but in Obdorsk reindeer take the place of horses, and their increase is incompatible with a settled town life; for although reindeer are to be found at some fixed habitations higher up the river than Obdorsk, where they find suitable and sufficient pasture in the neighbourhood of the yurts, yet in these instances the herds are small, as their owners are few in number. Moreover, every yurt has its dogs, as well as its reindeer, and this is the case, without exception, wherever fishing forms a regular occupation of the people. A fishery, indeed, is an indispensable condition for the keepings of dogs; and hence it is, that the Samoyedes, whose chief business
is the chase, and who obtain their store of fish only by bartering with their neighbours, keep only reindeer. As to the dogs here, it is estimated that they can draw five poods (200 pounds) each, in the loaded nart; but the Ostyak mode of yoking them hardly admits of the employment of more than two at a time, and in this respect it differs essentially from the Tungusian …

“Madness [rabies] among the dogs would be, in this country, a most formidable scourge, and would infallibly cause the destruction of whole races of men; but every one here assured us that the disease is wholly unknown to them. Steiler has stated the same thing respecting the dogs of Kamchatka; so that hydrophobia would seem to be one of the European results of living in towns.”

Nenets Child

Music, art, and religion:

Music, poetry, and a very well-developed kind of pantomimic art, are here inseparably united, but as to the constant
connection of all three with the popular religion, it can be affirmed only so far as every feeling partakes more or less of the religious character. …

In general, the traditional- preservation of a poem seems to be rare among the Ostyaks, and their songs are for the most part improvisations, which they produce at the spur of the occasion, and always accompany with pantomimic action. It sometimes happens, that the same incident continues to be the favourite theme for years together, being treated, however, in various ways according to the individual taste of the singer. Thus, a bear having once dug up from the grave and devoured the body of a child, the Ostyaks, it is said, used for many years to describe in their songs this shocking occurrence, imitating with the greatest fidelity the growling of the bear, with its gestures and looks towards its pursuers, who were endeavouring to drive it from the corpse.

“The wolf and the bear, being looked upon as powerful and highly gifted beings, figure quite as much as men in the Ostyak songs and pantomimic shows, and, like the latter, are sometimes the subject of tragic representation, but much more frequently of droll caricature. And with respect to the rank which these two beasts of prey bold in the estimation of the Ostyaks, it may be observed, that the homage rendered to them is not merely poetic, but assumes at times a decidedly religious character. When one of them has been killed, its skin is stuffed with hay, and the people gather round their fallen enemy to celebrate the triumph with songs of mockery and insult. They spit upon it and kick it, and that ceremony performed, they set it upright on its hind legs in a corner of the yurt, and then, for a considerable time, they bestow on it all the veneration due to a guardian god. …

“The outward forms of religion, which are thus handed down among the Ostyaks from father to son, appear to be in themselves worthy of attention; for it is only by the attentive examination of them that we can hope to arrive at a probable explanation of the doctrines on which they were originally founded ; but, independent of this consideration, I feel myself bound to produce all that I know upon this subject, in consequence of my having discovered, the following year, on the north-west coast of America, and having thoroughly learned, by repeated observation, a system of religious observances identical with this in every particular. In reference, therefore, to the most important of the Ostyak solemnities, for the performance of which they purchase arms, as already stated (p. 33,) I here give the literal translation of a statement made to me in writing by a Russian who witnessed them, and can most conscientiously assert that there is not in this statement the slightest trace of supplementary addition, or of any thing more than the representation of the fact; for this is attested by the complete agreement between the usages prevailing at Obdorsk and those which I subsequently witnessed … among the Kolyuses at Sitka:

The Ostyak Shamans, like the taduibui, or priests of the Samoyedes, bedeck their fur clothing with metal figures of birds, fish, and wild beasts, with the teeth and hones of sea-animals, and with whatever, in short, seems calculated to give them a terrific appearance. Their ceremonies of divination are performed before a fire, round which they go, crying as loudly as possible, and writhing as if possessed. They beat at the same time a kind of drum, and rattle their metal ornaments, while the bystanders also add their lusty shouts, and contribute to the clatter, by beating pots, or other such utensils with their weapons. After the din has lasted some time, the Shaman falls to the ground, whereupon the bystanders throw a cord round his neck, and cover him with skins, by which they would have it understood that he is in communion with the spirits. Two men then take the ends of the cord, and pull it with all their might, while the Shaman, under the skins, slips his hands to his neck to prevent his being strangled. When at last he has had enough of the struggle, he makes a sign that the spirits have left him, and communicates forthwith to the company the required predictions.

In 1805, it happened that a Shaman was in fact strangled in this way, and the affair was brought before the provincial tribunals. He was obviously too slow in placing his hands between his neck and the noose.

On the 27th December 1821, (old style,) the Ostyaks kept a solemn festival in the yurts of Pashirtzof, five versts from Obdorsk, in honour of their god Yelan, and I obtained permission to be present at the ceremonies… The ceremonies began about eight o’clock in the evenings and lasted till two in the morning. At first, children ran round to each yurt, to call the Ostyaks to the divine rites. In so doing, they screamed in all manner of wild notes, and seemed as if quite beside themselves: this went on while the people were assembling in the yurt selected for the proceedings. On entering this, each of the Ostyaks turned round three times before the idols, and then took his place on the right side of the room, in the recesses, or on the floor. They talked to one another, or otherwise employed themselves as they pleased.

The recesses on the left side were concealed by a curtain, behind which went certain persons, who on entering the yurt, turned round, like the rest, three times in front of the idols. At length, when all were assembled, the Shaman began rattling with the sabres and iron-headed lances, which had been previously heaped together before the images. He then gave each person present, (excepting the women, who were also behind a curtain,) a sword or a lance, while he took himself a sword in each hand, and placed himself with his back to the idols. The Ostyaks stood in rows lengthwise in the yurt, or packed in the recesses. They then all turned round three times, holding their swords stretched out before them. The Shaman struck his two swords together, and so they all began to scream out Heigh! in different tones, as led by him, at the same time bending their bodies from side to side. This cry was sometimes repeated at wide intervals, some-
times in rapid succession; and with every repetition of the height came the bowing movements, to the right and left; the swords and lances, in the mean time, were sometimes sunk to the ground, sometimes stretched upwards. This … lasted for an hour, by which time the men became excited to such a degree, that I could not look without terror even in those faces which had at first appeared to me to be engaging.

“After they had screamed their fill, they became silent all at once, and ceased too from their oscillations; then turning round before the images, as at the commencement, they gave back the swords and lances to the Shaman, who restored them to their original position. The Ostyaks having settled themselves, some in the recesses, others on the floor, the curtain rose which had concealed the women, and now both sexes joined in dancing to the music of the dombra. The dance … it was often very indecent also, and continued a long time. Next came forward some buffoons and posture makers, in various droll attire, and repeated the chief movements of the dance. At length the Shaman distributed again the swords and lances; the Ostyaks again reeled from side to side and cried Heigh, then turning round three times at the conclusion, and striking three times on the ground with the swords and lances, they gave the arms back to the Shaman, and went off to their homes.

“I shall refrain from any further observation on these Ostyak usages till I come to relate the surprising rediscovery of them in America, where many details of the rites, as I witnessed them myself, — the remarkable dress, for instance, of the Shamans, — appeared in a more characteristically defined and significant light.”

EvX: I assume this further exploration is in Volume 3, though I am having trouble tracking it down (perhaps it has a different title than the others?)

“It may be remarked, however, that an inquiry into the origin of the armed dance, which is usual in some parts of Hungary, seems very desirable … By means of it, and through the intermediation of the Ostyaks, we might be able to arrive at a remarkable and characteristic point of contact between the Hungarians and the American Kolyuzes, and be led even to reflect on the relationship pointed out by Beregszaszi, between the language of the Hungarians and that of the Algonquins.”

Map of Athabaskan Language Distribution

EvX: Personal anecdote: A Hungarian-American acquaintance told me the kids at school used to call him a Navajo.

But who are the Kolyuzes? A Google search returns only two hits, both of them this book. However, after a bit more research, I think the Koyukon of Alaska are probably the same people. The Koyukon speak an Athabaskan language.

To sum: The Ostyaks are now the Ket and the Khanty; the Samoyeds are the Nenets. Khanty and Nenets speak a language related to Finnish, Sami, and Hungarian. The Ket effectively speak a language isolate that is speculated to be related to the Athabaskan (aka Dene) language family. Erman describes religious similarities between Ostyaks and the Kolyuzes, who appear to be the Koyukon, an Athabaskan-langauge speaking people.

(This is why I complain about ethnonymic creep.)

Obviously people see patterns and relationships where they want to, and not necessarily where they actually are, but we have a pretty good idea that Native Americans actually did cross into the Americas from northern Russia, so a connection of some sort is totally reasonable. I would not expect much of a genetic connection (Hungarians are more closely related to their neighbors than their co-linguists, due to the conquering by the Magyars not having resulted in much population replacement, just language adoption. The same may be true for the other groups in question (eg, the the Ket and Khanty, for example, are probably more closely related genetically than linguistically; the Navajo likely absorbed other peoples during their migration from Canada to New Mexico.) But a cultural connection seems entirely possible.

The popular view of the scientific consensus on the peopling of the Americas, which perhaps does not reflect the actual current state of the field, is that sometime around 12-40,000 years ago, a single pulse of people crossed a temporary landbridge across the Bering Strait, moved into the Americas, sat down and never moved again. Today we know that the picture is more complicated than this–the Inuit (Eskimo) at least arrived far more recently, and definitely without the aid of a land-bridge. The Aleuts (denizens of the Aleutian Islands) also managed to get here without a land-bridge. I suspect that whenever we get a full picture of the history, we’ll find not just several major pulses of people, perhaps via multiple different routes, but also a low level of continuous trade and contact with north Asian peoples over centuries.

Nenets people in summer

Anyway, back to Erman:

“About 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when there was a very faint twilight, we saw, on the western sky, (N. 56^ W.,) a very bright ball of fire fall downwards, with a greenish light. …

I had already had occasion to remark, at different yurts, the remarkable longing which reindeer have for man’s urine, but I had never seen it exhibited so distinctly and decidedly as to-day; for just to gratify this desire, some of these shy animals had spontaneously come close to the tent, and, as soon as any one went out to make water, they ran up in full trot to catch the stream in the air, with their under lip protruded; and if the first were driven hack, then others hastened forwards and kept licking with avidity the wetted snow. It is manifest, therefore, that it is not the warmth of the fluid, but its saltiness which awakens this desire, as we sometimes observe it in our he-goats; but in so extraordinary a degree, that the taming of the reindeer, or the power of habituating them to their masters, seems to depend essentially or perhaps wholly upon it. In no other case do they lay aside their natural shyness or their apparent aversion to man; for they will not eat from the hand, however good the fodder, and if fresh moss be plucked and thrown to them on the snow, they only smell it and turn away. …

“It is remarkable that the very composed and grave manner of the inhabitants of this part of the world [Samoyeds] never deserts them, either in familiar intercourse, or in the midst of their enjoyments; for, although we admit that, in general, men who are not far removed from a state of nature laugh less than Europeans, yet, even in this respect there is a wide difference between the seriousness of the people here and the lively gaiety of the Tunguzes, or the ever-cheerful and very refined irony of the Kamchadales. …

“These tent-Samoyedes employ reindeer alone for draught, and a number of little dogs which I saw with them here were not intended for harness, but only for the women, who kill them for the sake of the skin. They were all still young, and though from this circumstance it was impossible to form a judgment as to the regular, full-grown size of the variety, yet it was obvious that they belonged to a breed totally different from that of the Ostyak dogs. They had all long hair, of a fox-red colour, which I had never seen among the dogs of the Obi. They differed from the latter in their behaviour also, for they flew at strangers and kept yelping at them in shrill tones. It can hardly be doubted that this breed is derived from foxes,’ and not, like that of the Ostyaks, from wolves. …

“On my arrival, too, I was asked for my stock of tea, and other articles of food, which were laid by in the general depository till wanted for use.

“The reindeer calf which we had got on the way was killed and cut up in front of the tent, a few minutes after our arrival.
The men now brought the bleeding and reeking flesh into the tent, and began devouring it immediately, quite raw, with the heartiest appetite. The old man was satisfied with sucking the brain from the head, while each of our younger comrades gnawed away a limb of the animal, even to the bone. They laughed at the amazement which my good-humoured Estonian attendant expressed at their blood-stained faces; and when he gave them to understand, through the interpreter, that they were no better than wolves, they seemed quite unprepared for such a reproof; and replied, gravely, that they were at the same time no worse than the wolves, since they shared honestly with them, and left the bones and some scraps of fish merely for their sakes. …

“The Samoyedes whom we had met with in the course of our journey, had all come from the coasts of the Polar Sea; and among the articles in their possession were to be seen many of the productions of that region. The traces of their reindeer, and many other of their leathern moveables, were made of dolphin skin or furred seal-skin; and the mammoth-teeth, with which when carved they ornament their sledges and drinking vessels, are looked upon by all the indigenous tribes here as products of the sea coast, for they are more frequently thrown up by the waves wherever the sea breaks on slopes of alluvial land, and are consequently sought for by the Samoyedes chiefly in those situations.”

EvX: That’s all for today. See you next Friday!

Can Ice Packs Stop A Seizure? (epilepsy)

Source: WHO infographics on epilepsy

Ice packs (cold packs) applied to the lower back at the first sign of a seizure may be able to halt or significantly decrease the severity of a seizure.

(If I’m correct, then this is the most important post on this blog, so please share.)

After researching ways to stop seizures, I suggested this to a friend with epilepsy. Her previous seizure lasted for 5 minutes (absolutely terrifying); this time her husband ran to the fridge, got two ice packs on her back, and the seizure immediately began slowing.

Obviously this is only an anecdote, but if you or a loved one has seizures, I can’t imagine it would hurt to try.

Let’s run through the evidence in favor of ice packs:

Seizures can definitely be triggered by being too hot–febrile seizures are somewhat common in children with fevers. Hyperthermia (heat stroke) can also cause seizures. And, yes, you can induce seizures in rats by heating them up. In the rat experiment, note that the seizure-prone rats’s temperatures went up more than the seizure-resistant rats–seizures may be more common in people whose bodies have difficulty regulating their temperatures.

Seizures also independently increase brain temperature in rats, and preventing this temperature increase, at least during hypoxic seizures, appears to protect rats against brain damage. But these are rats, obviously, not humans.

“Status epilepticus” is a seizure that lasts for more than 5 minutes or that recurs within a 5 minute period, and is considered a life-threatening emergency. 10-30% of people with status epilepticus die within 30 days. The immediate treatment for such cases is of course with anti-seizure medications, but some seizures (refractory status epilepticus) don’t even respond to this. In these cases, hypothermia–cooling the patient–appears to stop the seizures. (At least until the patient warms up again, but this gives doctors time to work out a better treatment plan.)

That said, seizure-prone people don’t need to be cold all the time–summer weather doesn’t cause an overall uptick in seizures (and some people’s seizures are actually triggered by being cold. If you are one of these people, ice packs may not be for you.)

I encountered the ice packs trick on forums where people were talking about treating seizures in dogs. (Yes, there are dogs with epilepsy.) There are many accounts of people successfully stopping or preventing their dogs from going into a seizure by grabbing a cold pack at the first warning signs and putting it directly onto the dog’s lower back:

We have a precious little Jack Russell Terrier named Scamp. … he is one of many dogs who have epilepsy. This has broken our hearts over the last three-and-a-half years. …

Recently my husband and I did research on the Internet regarding dogs with epilepsy. What we found was amazing. Something the eight or so vets we have seen over the past years had never even mentioned to us. It’s as simple as keeping a bag of ice in your freezer.

We had never tried this until this morning at 5:00 a.m. when Scamp began seizuring. I’ve never seen anything work so fast in my life. As I write this this morning I’m still amazed and can’t believe that what ended a seziure was as simple as a bag of ice and 2 teaspoons of vanilla ice cream to elevate his blood sugar level.

Here’s how it works: all you do is fill a food storage bag (at least one quart size) with crushed ice and leave it in the freezer. When your dog starts to seizure remove the bag of ice from the freezer and place it firmly on his lower back. Scamp came out of his seizure in about 30 to 60 seconds. …

He came out of the seizure smoothly and with no post-ictal symptoms whatsoever. He began to walk and followed my husband and I right into the kitchen. I went to the freezer and took out vanilla ice cream and took two teaspoons out of the carton. … he lapped it up. He was fine. He wanted to go outside so my husband followed him out to make sure he would be OK. He went to the bathroom, roamed around the yard for a bit and came in and went back to sleep on our bed. I’m still in shock.

The ice cream is to help get the dog’s blood sugar levels back up to normal. Humans might also find this useful.

Here’s another testimonial, from one of the links above:

We have been using ice packs to help manage our girl’s seizures for over a year now. From what I have heard first hand from others is that it either doesn’t work at all or it works fabulously. With our girl it “works fabulously”. It is not the miracle cure and it does not prevent future seizures but it definitely stops her grand mal right in its tracks. It is the most amazing thing I have ever seen. I would love to get it on video but as you all know a seizure is such a highly emotionally time that grabbing the camera is the last thing on my mind. If we get the ice pack on her within the first 15 seconds or so, the grand mal just suddenly stops. Like a light switch. All motor movement comes to a halt. She continues to be incoherent for a bit but all movements stop.

“Lani” is a 65 lb. Lab with a pretty thick coat. Our first attempts did not go so well because those little blue ice packs or baggies did nothing. So I custom made her packs using large seal a meal bags with water and rubbing alcohol that I keep in the freezer. It is perfect because its super cold but pliable so you can form it over their back. Every seizure she has is treated with the ice packs. She is also on high doses of meds, supplements, etc. but my personal belief is that the ice pack treatment helps to significantly reduce the length of the seizure.

The Journal of American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association published an article on the use of ice packs to stop seizures in dogs, A Simple, Effective Technique for Arresting Canine Epileptic Seizures, back in 2004. You can read it for a mere $95, or check out the highlights on Dawg Business’s blog:

Fifty-one epileptic canine patients were successfully treated during an epileptic seizure with a technique involving the application of ice on the back (T10 to L4). This technique was found to be effective in aborting or shortening the duration of the seizure.

And of course, in a study of rat seizures, the cold rats didn’t have any while the warm rats did.

The technique doesn’t work for all dogs, but it works for enough that it really seems like there must be something there.

But I haven’t read any cases of people using ice packs to treat seizures in humans–the (small quantity of) veterinary literature doesn’t appear to have made it over to human trials. But if it works for dogs, why not try it on people? It would be simplest, cheapest, least side-effect-inducing option for millions of people whose seizures can’t be fully controlled by medication.

Why does it work?

I don’t know. The ice packs probably aren’t in contact with the dogs for long enough to significantly lower the dog’s brain temperature, although they might lower the temperature of spinal nerves.

Perhaps the sudden cold just has an overwhelming effect on the brain that interrupts whatever feedback loop is causing the seizure.

From The Hidden Genetics of Epilepsy

Why not just medicate the seizures away?

Seizures are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions (actually, a friend of the family who had epilepsy died of a seizure that occurred while taking a bath.) Seizure medications, by necessity, are also serious and can have major side effects. According to the WHO, 70% of epileptics respond well to medication and live normal lives–leaving 30% of people who don’t. For many people, especially children, treatment is about trying to find a balance between minimizing harm from seizures and minimizing harm from anti-seizure medications.

So for anyone out there with epilepsy or another seizure condition, please consider ice packs as one more tool in your arsenal. And for any doctors out there, please do some research on this; there’s got to be some medical award for anyone who can prove it.

Good luck.

Anthropology Friday: Reindeer Economies

1024px-reindeer_pulling_sleigh_russiaHello, and welcome to Anthropology Friday! Today we’re having a look at Tim Ingold’s Hunters, Pastoralists and Ranchers: Reindeer economies and their transformations. (1980)

Ingold’s book is not a colorful, entertaining account of life in a reindeer herding community, but an academic attempt to explain why (and how) some arctic peoples have transitioned to reindeer-based pastoralism and some have continued their hunting lifestyle (not a whole lot of gathering happens in the arctic.)

According to Ingold, the most well-documented (as of 1980) arctic Eurasian pastoralists are the Lapps (aka Sami,) Nenets, Reindeer Chukchi, and Reindeer Koryak. Ingold cites several authors whose works may be useful for further reading on the subject, including Manker’s “People of Eight Seasons,” Bogoras’s “The Chukchi of Northeast Asia,” and Jochelson’s “The Koryak.” (On the Nenets, I substitute Golonev and Osherenko’s “Siberian Survival: The Nenets and their story.”)

Ingold is something of a Marxist (he cites Marx explicitly in the prologue) and sets out to prove that cultures (or at least the cultures he examines) don’t evolve in the Darwinian sense because one cultural approach to economic production doesn’t actually produce more babies than a different approach, and thus there is no biological selective mechanism at work. (Rather, he asserts that there are cultural factors at play.)

“Social Darwinism is wrong” is a pretty typical attitude from a Marxist, so with that caveat, let’s head to the book’s interesting parts (as usual, I’m using “”s instead of blockquotes.) Ingold begins with a question:

“Some years ago, I undertook a spell of anthropological fieldwork among the Skolt Lapps of northeastern Finland. These people were, so I imagined, reindeer pastoralists. Yet when I arrived in the field, the promised herds were nowhere to be seen. On inquiry into their whereabouts, I was assured that they did exist, scattered around in the forest and on the fells, and that before too long, a team of herdsmen would be sent out to search for them. Well then, I asked, should I purchase a few animals myself? Certainly not, came the reply, for the chances of ever getting my hands on them again would be remote. They could, after all, take refuge in every nook and cranny of a range of wilderness extending over several thousand square miles. … What kind of economy was this, in which live animal property roamed wild over the terrain, quite beyond the ken of its possessors, and in which simple common sense appeared to dictate against owning any animals at all? …

“[W]hy, if the herds are wild, do we not find a hunting economy[?] …”

EvX: Ingold then backtracks into some necessary ecological background on reindeer and their hunters:

Odin, king of gods, flanked by his ravens Hugninn and Muninn, and his wolves Geri and Freki
Odin, king of gods, flanked by his ravens Hugninn and Muninn, and his wolves Geri and Freki

“Of particular interest is the close, symbiotic association between the raven and the wolf. Flying above the herd, the raven guides the predator to its prey, in the expectation of receiving a share in the pickings… A similarly close relation exists between human hunters and their domestic or semi-domestic dogs, whose partnership with man in the chase is rewarded with left-overs of meat.”

EvX: Man the hunter follows the wolves, and the wolves follow the ravens, and the ravens track the prey. Give man a horse, and he is formidable indeed.

O’er Mithgarth Hugin and Munin both
Each day set forth to fly;
For Hugin I fear lest he come not home,
But for Munin my care is more.[5]

–Poetic Edda

ravens_and_wolves_see_email_3-28Two ravens flew from Óðinn’s
shoulders; Huginn to the hanged and
Muninn to the slain corpses.[9]

–Third Grammatical Treatise(?)

 

Moving on, Ingold outline the traits which make the reindeer suitable for domestication. They are, first of all, herd animals, a necessary prerequisite for pastoralism. (Pigs, by contrast, don’t form large herds, preferring to live in groups of <10.) This was not surprisng; the importance of predators in making a species suitable for domestication, however, was:

“The association between a pack of wolves and a reindeer herd on which it preys is a very close one. Packs are known to follow wild herds throughout their nomadic wanderings and seasonal migrations, whilst the deer are so accustomed to the presence of wolves that only those deer in the immediate vicinity of a wolf show any concern for their safety…

“Wolves are able to gorge enormous quantities of meat in a short time, and then to go for two weeks or more without food … This ability overcomes the necessity for meat storage in the face of irregularities in food supply.”

EvX: Ingold notes that wolves generally pose little threat to healthy, full-grown reindeer, but exact significant losses among fawns.

raven-pecks-at-reindeer-carcass-scandinavia-video-id1b08577_0005“Very heavy losses are recorded among reindeer fawns during the first months of life under ‘wild’ conditions. McEwan (1959) estimated that 33.5 per cent of fawns of both sexes died in the first three months among barren-ground caribou, and similar figures (33 to 44 per cent in the first four months) are given by Nowosad (1975) for the introduced reindeer herd of the Mackenzie Delta. Among Labrador caribou, fawn mortality over the first nine months (June to March) was found to be as high as 71 per cent, compared with an annual adult mortality rate of only 6 per cent (Bergerud 1967:635). These figures, although not strictly commensurable, present a striking contrast to the 12 per cent fawn mortality recorded by Skunke (1969) during the first six months under pastoral conditions in Swedish Lapland. It is clear that the surveillance of fawns, to the extent that it confers protection from the principal agents of mortality, represents a critical factor in pastoral herd growth. …

Very young fawns may be taken not only by wolves but also by smaller predators such as fox and wolverine, as well as by birds of prey. They may also succumb to wind chill and other adverse weather conditions encountered whilst on the fawning grounds.”

EvX: Until recently, there was little in animal husbandry which quite compares to agriculture’s direct human involvement in plant reproduction, but both agriculture and pastoralism involve human effort to deter our food’s other natural predators. In agriculture, we protect plants from bunnies, worms, insects, and stampeding herds to increase yields. In pastoralism, we protect animals from death by exposure, starvation, or predation by wolves to increase herds.

(I am reminded here of my grandfather’s dog, a German Shepherd, who killed all of the male coyotes in the area and then mated with the females, resulting in litters of hybrid coydogs.)

Interestingly, Ingold notes that:
“At this stage, losses of male and female fawns are about equal… However, sex ratios in adult herds always favour females by a large margin. The figures tabulated by Kelsall (1968:154) for barren-ground caribou of breeding age show a variation of between thirty-four and sixty-four males per hundred females, despite a roughly equal ratio at birth. …”

EvX: But enough about wolves; what about human hunters? Ingold argues that it would be nigh impossible for even the most nomadic humans to actually keep up, as wolves do, with a herd of reindeer:

caribou_feed_on_lichens_and_moss-_the_bird_is_an_alaskan_raven_-_nara_-_550384“Rather, the strategy is to intercept cohorts of the moving herds at a series of points on their migration orbits. The route connecting these points may cover the same distance as that travelled by the herds, or only a small part of it, but in no case is it identical to the itinerary of any one group of reindeer. Thus, hunters will frequent one location as long as game are present or passing through, building up a store of food if the kill is more than can be immediately consumed, and moving on to another location once supplies are exhausted. The strategy requires that hunters are able to anticipate rather than follow the movements of their prey and that, once located, enough animals can be killed to tide them over until the next encounter. …

“The wolf preying on reindeer has no difficulty in locating its resource, the problem is to isolate vulnerable targets. On the other hand, for human hunters, who are not in continuous
contact with the herd, the problem lies entirely in being in the right place at the right time. Once located, reindeer are remarkably easy to kill, even with primitive equipment … Moreover, the uncertainty of location encourages hunters to kill when they can;…

“In summer and autumn, deer can be hunted with dogs: the dog scents and chases the deer, holding it at bay until the hunter arrives within shooting range. This is perhaps among the most widespread of all human hunting practices, combining the superior strength of dogs as coursers with the ability of men to kill from a distance.”

EvX: The domestication of the dog and its long cooperation with man is a fascinating subject in and of itself. According to Wikipedia:

The closest living relative of the dog is the gray wolf and there is no evidence of any other canine contributing to its genetic lineage.[4][5][33][7] The dog and the extant gray wolf form two sister clades,[7][8][9] with modern wolves not closely related to the wolves that were first domesticated.[8][9] The archaeological record shows the first undisputed dog remains buried beside humans 14,700 years ago,[34] with disputed remains occurring 36,000 years ago.[35] These dates imply that the earliest dogs arose in the time of human hunter-gatherers and not agriculturists.[5][8] The dog was the first domesticated species.[9][10]

Where the genetic divergence of dog and wolf took place remains controversial, with the most plausible proposals spanning Western Europe,[36][5] Central Asia,[36][37] and East Asia.[36][38]

Further:

The Newgrange and ancient European dog mDNA sequences could be largely assigned to mDNA haplogroups C and D but modern European dog sequences could be largely assigned to mDNA haplogroups A and B, indicating a turnover of dogs in the past from a place other than Europe. As this split dates older than the Newgrange dog this suggests that the replacement was only partial. The analysis showed that most modern European dogs had undergone a population bottleneck which can be an indicator of travel. The archaeological record shows dog remains dating over 15,000 YBP in Western Eurasia, over 12,500 YBP in Eastern Eurasia, but none older than 8,000 YBP in Central Asia. The study proposed that dogs may have been domesticated separately in both Eastern and Western Eurasia from two genetically distinct and now extinct wolf populations. East Eurasian dogs then made their way with migrating people to Western Europe between 14,000-6,400 YBP where they partially replaced the dogs of Europe.[16]

Indicating that: 1. Humans + their dogs likely wiped out all of the wolves in their area, the same wolves their dogs were descended from, and 2. Modern European dogs are likely descended from dogs who accompanied the original Indo-Europeans, the Yamnaya, when they conquered Europe (also Iran, India, etc.) Continuing:

Ancient DNA supports the hypothesis that dog domestication preceded the emergence of agriculture[2][5] and was initiated close to the Last Glacial Maximum 27,000 YBP when hunter-gatherers preyed on megafauna, and when proto-dogs might have taken advantage of carcasses left on site by early hunters, assisted in the capture of prey, or provided defense from large competing predators at kill-sites.[2] … The earliest sign of domestication in dogs was the neotonization of skull morphology[78][79][80] and the shortening of snout length that results in tooth crowding, reduction in tooth size, and a reduction in the number of teeth,[55][78] which has been attributed to the strong selection for reduced aggression.[78][79]

As the Taimyr wolf had contributed to the genetic makeup of the Arctic breeds, a later study suggested that descendants of the Taimyr wolf survived until dogs were domesticated in Europe and arrived at high latitudes where they mixed with local wolves, and these both contributed to the modern Arctic breeds. Based on the most widely accepted oldest zooarchaeological dog remains, domestic dogs most likely arrived at high latitudes within the last 15,000 years. …

In 2015, a study found that when dogs and their owners interact, extended eye contact (mutual gaze) increases oxytocin levels in both the dog and its owner. As oxytocin is known for its role in maternal bonding, it is considered likely that this effect has supported the coevolution of human-dog bonding.[120]

I recall asking some time ago whether the domestication of animals had influenced the evolution of human empathy. In order to profitably live and work with dogs, did we develop new, inter-species depths to our ability to understand and be moved by the needs of others?

In 2003, a study compared the behavior and ethics of chimpanzees, wolves and humans. Cooperation among humans’ closest genetic relative is limited to occasional hunting episodes or the persecution of a competitor for personal advantage, which had to be tempered if humans were to become domesticated.[75][129] The closest approximation to human morality that can be found in nature is that of the gray wolf, Canis lupus. Wolves are among the most gregarious and cooperative of animals on the planet,[75][76] and their ability to cooperate in well-coordinated drives to hunt prey, carry items too heavy for an individual, provisioning not only their own young but also the other pack members, babysitting etc. are rivaled only by that of human societies.

But what does this tell us about cat people?

Hunting dogs make major contributions to forager societies and the ethnographic record shows them being given proper names, treated as family members, and considered separate to other types of dogs.[135][136] This special treatment includes separate burials with markers and grave-goods,[135][137][138] with those that were exceptional hunters or that were killed on the hunt often venerated.[135][139] A dog’s value as a hunting partner gives them status as a living weapon and the most skilled elevated to taking on a “personhood”, with their social position in life and in death similar to that of the skilled hunters.[135][140]

Intentional dog burials together with ungulate hunting is also found in other early Holocene deciduous forest forager societies in Europe[141] and North America,[142][143] indicating that across the Holarctic temperate zone hunting dogs were a widespread adaptation to forest ungulate hunting.[135]

While browsing Wikipedia pages about dogs, I happened across this strange gem of human behavior:

In ecology, the term pariah dog refers to free-ranging dogs that occupy an ecological niche based on waste from human settlements. … All authentic strains of pariah dogs are at risk of losing their genetic uniqueness by interbreeding with purebred and mixed-breed strays. To prevent this from happening, some strains of pariah dogs are becoming formally recognized, registered, and pedigreed as breeds in order to preserve the pure type.

Eskimo (Inuit) girl with her dog -- http://www.canadianinuitdogs.com/
Eskimo (Inuit) girl with her dog

Sure, they’re feral dogs who eat trash, but their bloodlines mustn’t be sullied by mixing with common strays!

Throughout the world, wherever there are men there are dogs: the Arctic-dwelling Eskimo have dogs; Native Americans have dogs; Aborigines have dogs (even though the dogs arrived in Australia after the Aborigines;) the Basenji hails from the Congo rainforest; etc. The only major group I know of that isn’t keen on dogs is Muslims. (Though Muslims probably have mixed attitudes on the matter. After all, Verse 5:4 of the Quran says “Lawful for you are all good things, and [the prey] that trained [hunting] dogs and falcons catch for you.”)

But enough about dogs. Let’s get back to Ingold:

“Upper Palaeolithic men, exploiting herds of gregarious big game principally by battue methods, had little use for hunting dogs, whilst packs of wild dogs could scavenge the waste discarded on the sites of human kills without having to enter occupied camps. … In Europe, on the other hand, the advantages for both species of close partnership gave rise to a process of unconscious selection on the part of man in favour of those qualities enhancing the efficiency of dogs as hunting aids. This contrast could account for the fact that in the tundra and taiga regions of the Old World, hunting dogs are found only in Europe and Siberia west of the Yenisey—Khatanga divide. However, as Meggitt (1965) has shown in the case of the relation between Australian aborigines and dingoes, co-hunting does not necessarily give rise to domestication in the sense of either taming or breeding. Human hunters may equally well follow behind wild packs on their predatory forays; and dogs, as habitual scavengers, derive a concomitant return through their interaction with man.”

EvX: As a bit of an aside, Ingold notes the effects of modern technology on ancient ways:

“The introduction of the gun throughout the circumboreal region has greatly modified the balance of traditional hunting practices by encouraging solitary stalking and coursing techniques at the expense of trapping and collective ambush drives. Possession of a rifle so increases the penetrating power of the individual hunter as to enable him to obtain all the meat he needs without recourse to co-operation beyond the dyadic partnership. Moreover, the consequent dependence on external traders for firearms and ammunition tends to disrupt traditional sharing relations, so that hunting on one’s own is made not only possible but desirable.”

EvX: But back to the Deer. Ingold enumerates the variety of uses circumpolar people have fo reindeer and the difficulties with obtain sufficient fat (humans can’t eat more than about 40 or 50% of their diets as protein without going into starvation mode, and dead deer can only be preserved effectively in the winter months, so lean deer killed in the summer are not consumed very efficiently.) He then compares the nature of hunting in different climes:

“In a number of respects, hunters of the arctic and subarctic are in a very different position from their counterparts in warmer climatic zones. It is now recognized that most so-called hunting peoples derive the bulk of their subsistence from gathering, horticulture or fishing, whereas game provides only a protein supplement to the diet (Lee 1968). Consequently, hunting activity tends to be sporadic, undertaken in response more to whim than to pressing need. Once a hunter has decided to embark in search of game, he may take the first animal of whatever favoured species that comes his way (e.g. Woodburn 1968:53). No attempt is made to kill more animals than can immediately be shared and consumed in camp; meat is wasted only if the victim is too large to be consumed at once. …

“Starvation appears to be all but unknown to such people, whilst the birth-spacing requirement imposed on women by the burdens of gathering and the necessarily long period of lactation renders the growth of population almost imperceptible … Taking into account the great diversity of prey species available to human hunters in tropical biotic communities, as well as the variety of non-human predators competing for the same resources, it follows that the impact of human predation on any one species of prey must be extremely small, and that it could not possibly operate in a density-dependent way. …

1024px-archangel_reindeer3“Consider now the reindeer hunter. He is primarily dependent on a single game species: hunting is for survival. It provides not a supplement but a mainstay to his diet, as well as materials for his clothing and shelter. For this reason, as we have seen, he must slaughter more animals than he can possibly consume in their entirety. Storage over the winter months is not only possible but vitally necessary. Food may be there in nature, but certainly not spread all around. On the contrary, it is both concentrated and highly mobile; whilst abundant in one locale, it may be completely absent from another. …

“The Nganasan, for example, obtain virtually a whole year’s supplies from only four months of hunting…

“If the herds change their accustomed routes, as they frequently do, and if the hunters
fail to locate them, people may starve. …

“It follows that even if we assume a constant human population, the size of the kill will fluctuate in relation to prey abundance. …

“On the basis of repeated reports of starvation among Eskimo and Naskapi reindeer hunters in the Ungava region of Labrador, Elton inferred that the human and reindeer populations must have been subject to linked oscillations of the Lotka—Volterra type: For hundreds of years the Indian population must have starved at intervals, giving the deer opportunities to increase, then killing deer heavily until another failure to cross their erratic tracks caused more Indians to starve . . . We see here the Indian population suffering a slow cycle, lasting over a generation, in much the same fashion as the shorter cycles of the wolf, lynx, fox and marten. It is to be supposed that such cycles among the caribou hunters had from the earliest times helped the elasticity of the hard-pressed herds.”

reindeer being milked
reindeer being milked

EvX: The differences in tropical vs. arctic hunting may help explain why megafauna such as elephants and giraffes have survived in Africa and virtually nowhere else.

Ingold then goes into detail about different reindeer hunting methods, such as setting up “fences” made of flapping cloth that “funnel” the reindeer into a pen and then killing them. It seems to me only a short step from here to deciding, “wait a minute, we can’t freeze these carcases today because it’s too warm out, but if we just kill a couple of deer now and keep the rest in the pen for a few weeks, it’ll get cold and then we can kill them,” and thence to, “Hey, what if we just keep them in the pen all the time and only kill one when we need to?”

Continuing:

“At first glance, the wolf and the pastoralist might be seen to have much in common (Zeuner 1963:47, 124). Both follow particular bands of reindeer, more or less continuously. Both slaughter for immediate needs, keeping their stores of meat ‘on the hoof. Both are selective in their exploitation of the herds. …

“A herd-following adaptation may be a necessary condition of pastoralism, but it is certainly not a sufficient one. There are three critical differences between the exploitation of herds by wolves and by human pastoralists. Firstly, pastoralists protect their herds against wolves, whereas wolves never offer protection against man. Secondly, pastoralists select intentionally, whereas selection by wolves is unintentional. Thirdly, the impact of pastoral selection on different age and sex classes in the herds is quite different from that of wolf predation. …

“The selection strategy of wolves … tends to maximize the sustained yield of meat from the herd. This is achieved primarily through the slaughter of a large proportion of the annual crop of fawns … Pastoralists, on the other hand, are reluctant to slaughter fawns, though some may have to be killed for their skins. Otherwise, the rule is to castrate males surplus to reproductive requirements, allowing them to survive well into maturity; and not to slaughter females at all unless or until they have become barren. This is a strategy for maximizing not the productivity but the numerical size of a herd, or the ‘standing crop’ of reindeer. It cannot be accounted for on the basis of human demographic pressure, since the yield is no greater than that which would be obtained by a random pattern of exploitation.”

EvX: So here is Ingold’s Marxism bleeding through. He wants to prove that pastoralism supports no more people than hunting, because reindeer function like currency for pastoralists, and so they become obsessive reindeer hoarders, preferring to grow their herds rather than produce more children.

He doesn’t cite any anthroplogical/ethnographic evidence on this count, though, and I am, frankly, skeptical. I recall, for example, a study of a spontaneous economy that sprang up in a POW camp in which inmates used cigarettes as currency which they used to trade for food, and the authors noted in passing that the camp’s smokers were thinner than everyone else because they were trading away their food to get currency just to smoke. Just because something is valuable doesn’t mean you won’t consume it. Ingold wants to prove that the preference for hunting or pastoralism stems from cultural factors–do people want to be pastoralists?–and not from one or the other offering biological, Darwinian advantages in the form of producing more children, as this would support the idea of Social Darwinism, which of course is evil Nazi heresy.

But this theory is dependent on the idea that, in fact, pastoralists and hunters have the exact same number of children–which I am not convinced of.

But let’s let Ingold have the last word (for today):

“To sum up: comparing the ecological relations of hunting and pastoralism, we find the latter to be chronically unstable, and unable to support a human population any higher than the former. Indeed, human population density under pastoralism may be lower than that which could be sustained by a hunting economy. It is for this reason that the pastoral association between men and herds is unique, having no parallels amongst other vertebrates. There is no selective mechanism on the Darwinian model that could account for a predator’s stimulating the increase of its prey at the expense of its own numbers. …

“From this contrast, I deduce the ecological preconditions of pastoralism: the herds must be followed, protected against predators and exploited selectively. Comparing the pastoralist and the wolf as exploiters of reindeer, I conclude that pastoralism cannot be regarded as an ‘intensification’ of hunting, and that the transformation from hunting to pastoralism marks a step towards overall ecological instability whose rationale must be sought on the level of social relations of production.”

Pets, part 2

Picture 5

Americans really love dogs.

So much so, that it feels really dickish to point out that dogs aren’t actually humans and we don’t actually treat them like full family members. Maybe this is just the American difficulty with shades of gray, where such an argument is seen as the moral equivalent of eating puppies for breakfast, or maybe extreme dog affection is an instinctual mental trait of healthy people, and so only abnormal weirdos claim that it sounds irrational.

As we discussed yesterday, pet ownership is normal (in that the majority of Americans own pets,) and pet owners themselves are disproportionately married suburbanites with children. However, pet ownership is also somewhat exceptional, in that Americans–particularly American whites–appear globally unique in their high degree of affection for pets.

Incidentally, 76% of dog owners have bought Christmas presents for their dogs. (I’ve even done this.)

Why do people love dogs (and other pets) so much?

The Wikipedia cites a couple of theories, eg:

Wilson’s (1984) biophilia hypothesis is based on the premise that our attachment to and interest in animals stems from the strong possibility that human survival was partly dependent on signals from animals in the environment indicating safety or threat. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that now, if we see animals at rest or in a peaceful state, this may signal to us safety, security and feelings of well-being which in turn may trigger a state where personal change and healing are possible.

Since I tend to feel overwhelmingly happy and joyful while walking in the woods, I understand where this theory comes from, but it doesn’t explain why suburban white parents like pets more than, say, single Chinese men, or why hunter-gatherers (or recently settled hunter-gatherers) aren’t the most avid pet-owners (you would think hunter-gatherers would be particularly in tune with the states of the animals around them!)

So I propose a different theory:

Pets are (mostly) toy versions of domestic animals.

Europeans–and Americans–have traditionally been engaged in small-scale farming and animal husbandry, raising chickens, pigs, cattle, horses, sheep, and occasionally goats, geese, turkeys, and ducks.

Dogs and cats held a special place on the farm. Dogs were an indispensable part of their operations, both to protect the animals and help round them up, and worked closely with the humans in farm management. Much has been written on the relationship between the shepherd and his sheep, but let us not overlook the relationship between the shepherd and his dog.

Cats also did their part, by eliminating the vermin that were attracted to the farmer’s grain.

These dogs and cats are still “working” animals rather than “pets” kept solely for their company, but they clearly enjoy a special status in the farmer’s world, helpers rather than food.

For children, raising “pets” teaches valuable sills necessary for caring for larger animals–better to make your learning mistakes when the only one dependent on you is a hamster than when it’s a whole flock of sheep and your family’s entire livelihood.

Raising pets provides an additional benefit in creating the bond between a child and dog that will eventually transform into the working relationship between farmer and farm-dog.

Empathy has probably played an important role in animal domestication–the ability to understand the animal’s point of view and care about its well being probably helps a lot when trying to raise it from infancy to adulthood. People with higher levels of empathy may have been better at domesticating animals in the first place, and living in an economy dependent on animal husbandry may have also selected for people with high levels of empathy.

In other words, people who treated their dogs well have probably been more evolutionarily successful than people who didn’t, pushing us toward instinctually treating dogs like one of the family. (Though I still think that people who sell cancer treatments for cats and dogs are taking advantage of gullible pet owners and that actually treating an animal just like a human is a bad idea. I also find it distasteful to speak of adopted dogs finding their “forever homes,” a phrase lifted from human adoption.)

However, if you’ve ever interacted with humans, you’ve probably noticed by now that some would give their dog their right kidney, and some would set a dog on fire without blinking.

(I am reminded here of the passage in Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect in which the anthropologist is shocked to discover that violent Nuyorican crack dealers think torturing animals is funny.)

I have been looking for a map showing the historical distribution of domesticated animals in different parts of the globe, but have so far failed. I’d be most grateful if anyone can find one. To speak very generally, Australia historically had no domesticated animals, South America had llamas, North America had dogs, African hunter-gatherers didn’t have any, African horticulturalists had a chicken-like animal, and then Europe/Asia/The Middle East/India/other Africans had a large variety of animals, like camels and yaks and horses and goats.

Peter Frost has written a lot on empathy (and guilt), and the possibility that it varies between populations:

…a deletion variant of the ADRA2b gene. Carriers remember emotionally arousing images more vividly and for a longer time, and they also show more activation of the amygdala when viewing such images (Todd and Anderson, 2009; Todd et al., 2015). … Among the Shors, a Turkic people of Siberia, the incidence was 73%. Curiously, the incidence was higher in men (79%) than in women (69%). It may be that male non-carriers had a higher death rate, since the incidence increased with age (Mulerova et al., 2015). … The picture is still incomplete but the incidence of the ADRA2b deletion variant seems to range from a low of 10% in some sub-Saharan African groups to a high of 50-65% in some European groups and 55-75% in some East Asian groups. Given the high values for East Asians, I suspect this variant is not a marker for affective empathy per se but rather for empathy in general (cognitive and affective). [source]

The Shors are a small, formerly semi-nomadic group from Siberia. I haven’t found out much about them, but I bet they had dogs, like other Siberian groups.

Frost hypothesizes that extensive empathy developed as part of the suit of mental traits that made life possible in large communities of bronze-age hunter-gatherers along the Baltic:

This weak kinship zone may have arisen in prehistory along the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic, which were once home to a unique Mesolithic culture (Price, 1991). An abundance of marine resources enabled hunter-fisher-gatherers to achieve high population densities by congregating each year in large coastal agglomerations for fishing, sealing, and shellfish collecting. Population densities were comparable in fact to those of farming societies, but unlike the latter there was much “churning” because these agglomerations formed and reformed on a yearly basis. Kinship obligations would have been insufficient to resolve disputes peaceably, to manage shared resources, and to ensure respect for social rules. Initially, peer pressure was probably used to get people to see things from the other person’s perspective. Over time, however, the pressure of natural selection would have favored individuals who more readily felt this equivalence of perspectives, the result being a progressive hardwiring of compassion and shame and their gradual transformation into empathy and guilt (Frost, 2013a; Frost, 2013b).

Empathy and guilt are brutally effective ways to enforce social rules. If one disobeys these internal overseers, the result is self-punishment that passes through three stages: anguish, depression and, ultimately, suicidal ideation. [source]

Someone has been reading a lot of Dostoyevsky. But I’m wondering if the first ingredient is actually farming/animal husbandry.

To sum:

1. People with high levels of empathy may have had an easier time domesticating animals/raising domesticated animals, creating a feedback loop of increasing empathy in farming populations.

2. This empathetic connection was strongest with dogs and cats, who aren’t meat to be slaughtered but human partners.

3. Children assigned the task of raising dogs and cats bonded with their charges.

4. Modern “pets” are (living) toy versions of the working dogs and cats who once helped manage the farms.

 

Poll time!

1. Do you have a pet?

2. Do you think pets should be treated like family members/humans?

3. Would you shoot your pet for a million dollars?

A. Never!

B. Yes, but I would use the money to raise 100 abandoned animals out of suffering.

C. Yes.

D. That’s a terrible question! What kind of sick fuck makes up a question like that?

Why are people so keen on pets?

The Lady with an Ermine
The Lady with an Ermine

Don’t get me wrong. I like animals; I just don’t like them in my house. Every time I petsit for friends with cats, I am reminded of why I don’t own cats: scooping feces is repulsive (and don’t get me started on toxoplasma Gondii!) Dogs are marginally better, in that the homes of dog owners don’t always smell of feces, but unfortunately they often smell of dog.

For this post, I am defining “pet” as animals that people keep solely for companionship. Animals kept because they do useful things or materially benefit their owners, like seeing eye dogs, egg-laying chickens, mouse-hunting cats, race horses, or dancing bears are not “pets.” Medical “therapy animals” are basically pets. It makes plenty of sense for people to keep around work animals, but pets seem to be kept around simply for the enjoyment of their company.

According to Wikipedia, Americans own approximately 94 million cats, 78 million dogs, 172 million fish, and 45 million small mammals, fish, reptiles, etc. (Though of course some of these are “useful” animals that I wouldn’t count.) This comes out to about 4x as many pets as children, concentrated in 60% of the households (most pet owners have more than one.)

Pets cost quite a bit of money–the average small dog costs about $7,000 to $13,000 over its 14 year lifespan; the average large dog costs $6,000 to $8,000 over its much shorter 8 year lifespan. [source] (Note that it is cheaper per year to own a small dog; the lower lifetime cost is due entirely to their shorter lifespans.) Cats cost about the same as dogs–people don’t spend much on “outdoor” cats, but “indoor” cats cost about $9,000 to $11,000 over their lifetimes.

Just making some rough estimates, I’d say it looks people spend $700 per year per dog or cat, which comes out to about 120 billion dollars per year. That’s a lot of money! (And this doesn’t count the expenses incurred by shelters and animal control agencies to take care of the excess pets people don’t want.)

Americans are probably exception in the number of pets they have. According to Wikipedia, 46% of the world’s pet dog population lives in the US. (By contrast, only 4.4% of the world’s human population lives in the US.) The ratio gets even more skewed if we break it down by race–63% of America’s whites own pets, versus only 49% of the non-whites. [source]

However, other countries similar to the US don’t seem as keen on pets: the %pets/%people ratio for the US is 10.5, for Canada 7.5, and for Britain, 5.8. This might have to do with factors like Britain being a more crowded country where people have less space for pets, or with the Wikipedia data being inaccurate. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that pets are very characteristically American, and especially a white American thing.

One theory about why people own so many pets is that they’re substitute children/companions/friends for lonely people who don’t have kids/spouses/friends, perhaps as a side effect of our highly atomized culture. I came into this post expecting to confirm this, but it looks like Crazy Cat Ladies are actually a relatively small percent of the overall pet-owning population.

According to Gallop, 50% of married people own a dog, and 33% own a cat (some people own both.) By contrast, only 37% of unmarried people own dogs and only 25% own cats. People with children under 18 are more likely to own pets than people without. And people from the “East” are less likely to own pets than people from the “West.” (Interestingly, “westerners” are disproportionately more likely to own cats.)

So it looks to me like most pet ownership is actually motivated by the idea that kids should have pets, with pets more common in suburban or rural areas where they have more room to run around. This is probably particularly so for cats, who are probably more likely to be “outdoor” pets or mouse-catching farm cats in rural areas (ie, the “West.”)

There is an extensive belief–perhaps folk belief–that pet ownership is good for people. Gallop found that 60% of people believe that pet owners lead more satisfying lives than non-pet owners; numerous studies claim that pet ownership–or even just occasional interaction–makes people healthier. There even exists an “animal therapy” industry. Unfortunately, the studies on the subject look rather unreliable–the ones about pet ownership are confounded by healthier people being more likely to have pets in the first place, for example.

And yet, there’s something about the notion that I find appealing; something about playing with happy puppies or petting a bunny that I find downright pleasant. Maybe it’s something as simple as animals being nice and therefore making people happy.

It’s getting late, so I’ll continue this tomorrow.

Animal Morality

I know it shouldn’t surprise me when people post outright, bold-faced lies about, say, the nature of humanity, but somehow I still stare in shock for a split second or two before struggling with whether or not to respond.

It’s generally a bad idea to respond, another thing you would think I’d have learned by now. No one likes the guy who starts every comment with, “Actually…”

Today’s lie was, to paraphrase slightly due to memory being imperfect, “Animals are so loving and compassionate, even to members not of their own species! Humans totally fail at compassion. We should learn from our ape cousins and ancestors!” The sentiments were accompanied by an adorable picture of an orangutan holding a baby tiger.

Okay, the exclamation points are my own additions.

First, the obvious: This shit is a baldfaced lie. If animals were regularly compassionate and loving to members of other species, lions would be vegans and running adoption agencies for baby gazelles whose parents had fallen victim to unfortunate accidents. If animals were regularly loving and compassionate, we wouldn’t make a big deal out of it every time a hippo and turtle hang out together. Does someone write a picture book documenting every set of human kids who become friends? Or every human who feeds a pet? Of course not. We only document these animal stories because they’re unusual.

Reality is boring. Lies entertain.

“But wait,” I hear you saying, “My dog totally loves me.”

Your dog is the result of thousands of years of selective breeding specifically for friendliness to humans. Also, you give it food. Does your dog give you food?

No.

Anyway, how nice are animals?

“Altruism” is defined (by the Wikipedia, anyway,) as, “behaviour by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor.” Wikipedia defines “compassion” as a, “response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help.”

I’m not going to even try to define “love.”

Now, the definition of altruism itself hints that inter-species altruism probably isn’t a thing you’re going to see very often, because if the altruist increases the genes of another species at the expense of their own genes, then whatever genes originally drove the altruist to be altruistic become less common. Over time, the inter-species altruist gets replaced by everyone else, and altruism disappears.

This doesn’t mean that no one can ever be altruistic–altruism works just fine if it’s directed at your near kin. Animals that have a strong instinct to care for their family members and a certain level of intelligence can even apply that caring instinct to non-family. But I wouldn’t expect much friendliness from a crocodile.

It does means that claims about widespread altruism among animals toward other animals that aren’t family are probably nonsense.

The vast majority of observed instances of animal altruism involve close kin, pack members, or behavior that would normally be directed toward one’s kin but happened, by accident, to involve a non-related individual. The Wikipedia list on the subject, while incomplete and imperfect, gives a good impression.

In reality, the vast, vast majority of animals in this world do not give a shit about members not of their own species. Most of them don’t even care about members of their own species who aren’t family, and some will even eat their own children.

What about claim two, that humans suck at compassion?

Certainly some of us do. Humans aren’t as nice as I wish we were. Compassion, trust, kindness, etc., are all traits I would like to see more of in humans. But compared to animals, we look like Mother Theresa. How many animals set out little houses, baths, and seed-filled feeders for other animals? How many animals buy cancer treatments for their pets? For that matter, how many animals feed and care for a pet, period?

These behaviors are almost exclusively human.

Humans adopt orphans, run into burning buildings to rescue each other, fund social welfare nets, and spend a lot of time trying to prove to each other just how much they care about each other. Movies and novels basically wouldn’t exist without our capacity to empathize with strangers.

Humans support this level of altruism because our societies have bred us, like dogs, for it. (And since different societies are different, that means that different societies have bred different types/levels of altruism and compassion.) It is only in modern, first-world societies that we see anything resembling wide-spread altruism. Slavery–generally outlawed throughout the West in the late 17 or 1800s–is still common throughout many parts of Africa and the rest of the third world. If you really want to break your heart, just go read about Cambodian children sold as sex slaves at the age of 5. (Clearly the solution is more orangutans.)

(Seriously, what is the point of having a military if we don’t occasionally swoop into those brothels, behead everyone running the place, and then leave their heads on pikes about the city as warnings to everyone else?)

How about the final claim: Should we learn from the other apes?

Which do you think is friendlier, your dog or a wolf? The dog, obviously.

Human society has been getting steadily less violent for about as long as we’ve managed to account. Everyday life in non-state and pre-state societies is/was about as violent as Russia during WWII, only a bit more spread out. Chimpanzees, like wolves, are well-known for their violence. They wage war, form alliances to overthrow their leaders, and murder chimpanzee babies in order to breed faster with their mothers.

But what about bonobos?

I’ll grant that they have a lot of sex. They’re also known to be less aggressive than chimpanzees. This is not the same as being less aggressive than H sapiens. Until I see some data on bonobo homicide, I’m going to continue suspecting that bonobos are more violent than humans. Remember, some human societies–25 of them, though several of those are teeny–have gotten their murder rates down below 1 in 100,000 people. Since 50,000 is the high end estimate of number of bonobos on earth, if even one bonobo kills another bonobo once every two years, they’d still have 6x the homicide rate of Japan.

Not to mention that, unsurprisingly, empathy and “emotional intelligence” appear to correlate rather well with regular intelligence–and since humans are noticeably smarter (on average) than chimps, gorillas, bonobos, or tigers, this implies that we are probably better at empathizing with others, feeling compassion, and being generally altruistic.

This is pretty obvious to just about anyone who has ever had to deal with a bully, or looked at the average IQs of criminals.

 

All of which leads us back to our initial quandary: Why do people tell (and believe) such obvious lies?

I posit two reasons:

1. The other is but a foil for the self, and most people don’t really process words into their exact meanings, but into internal feeling-states. So when they say, “Animals are so caring and compassionate; we should be more like them,” they actually mean, “I like being caring and compassionate; you should be more like me.”

2. People who are caring and compassionate tend also to be caring and compassionate about animals, so thinking nice things about animals because it makes them happy.

Most of the time, people seem to remember that crime rates are actually lower among humans than among wild animals, and so don’t get too close to bears. (Sometimes they forget, but Gnon has his way with them.) But I do occasionally encounter people who really, truly seem to believe this. They really think that humans are irredeemably evil, and the world would be better off without us. But a world without humans would be a world with even less empathy and compassion than our current world, not more.

 

Species is a Social Construct: Or my Grandfather’s Totally Badass Dog

Coydogs
Coydogs, Wyoming

My grandfather was a badass kind of guy, so of course his dogs were awesome, too.

He lived in a part of the country where coyotes were still a problem for livestock producers (it’s always a bummer when your favorite chicken gets eaten,) so he got this German Shepherd.

The German Shepherd proceeded to kill all the male coyotes in the area.

The next spring, we kept spotting half-German Shepherd, half-coyote pups.

 

Unlike mules, coydogs are fertile, and can continue making more generations of coydogs–or whatever they happen to mate with. In fact, it appears that most species of the Canis genus–various wolves, domestic dogs, dingoes, coyotes, and some jackals–can interbreed. Foxes and other less-closely related members of the family Canidae, however, cannot breed with canids–they have different numbers of chromosomes, which makes the genetics not really work.

(This is what is up with mule, btw. Horses and donkeys have different numbers of chromosomes.)

The history of different canid species actually gets kinda complicated when you look at the inter-species mixing. According to the Wikipedia:

“…melanistic coyotes have been shown to have inherited their black pelts from dogs likely brought to North America through the Bering Land Bridge 12,000 to 14,000 years ago by the ancestors of the America’s indigenous people.”

” Northern Canada’s Aboriginal populations were mating coyotes and wolves to their sled dogs in order to produce more resilient animals as late as the early 20th century.”

(Well that explains the wolf admixture in National Geographic’s article on dog genetics! I’ve been wondering about that.)

“Some 15% of 10,000 coyotes taken annually in Illinois for their fur during the early 1980s may have been coydogs based on cranial measurements… Of 379 wild canid skulls taken in Ohio from 1982 to 1988, 10 (2.6%) were found to be coydogs.”

From the article on coyotes:

“Coyotes have hybridized with wolves to varying degrees, particularly in the Eastern United States and Canada. The so-called “eastern coyote” of northeastern North America has been confirmed to be of mixed wolf-coyote parentage, and probably originated in the aftermath of the extermination of wolves in the northeast, thus allowing coyotes to colonize former wolf ranges and mix with remnant wolf populations.”

” In 2011, an analysis of 48,000 SNP chips in the genomes of various wolf and coyote populations revealed that the eastern wolf …and the red wolf… both previously labeled as species distinct from the gray wolf, are in fact products of varying degrees of wolf-coyote hybridization. The wolf-coyote admixture resulting in the development of the eastern wolf may have occurred on the order of 600–900 years ago between gray wolves and a now extinct pre-Columbian coyote population. The eastern wolf has since backcrossed extensively with parent gray wolf populations. The red wolf may have originated later, approximately 287–430 years ago, when much of the southeastern U.S. was being converted to agriculture and predators were targeted for extermination. During this period, declining local wolf populations would have been forced to mate with coyotes, with the resulting hybrids backcrossing to coyotes as the wolves disappeared, to the extent that ~75–80% of the modern red wolf’s genome is of coyote derivation.

And jackals:

“…since 1975, Russian scientists have bred quarter jackal hybrids, initially from jackals and Lapponian Herder reindeer herding dogs, called Sulimov dogs in order to take advantage of the jackal’s superior olfactory abilities combined with the Lapponian Herder’s resistance to cold. They are owned by Aeroflot – Russian Airlines and trained as sniffer dogs for use in airports. According to the breed’s creator, first-generation hybrid pups could only be produced by male dogs and female jackals, as male jackals refused to mate with female dogs.”