The Oatmeal, a popular webcomic, recently published Having a Baby vs. Having a Cat. This is my response:
Ironically, the main reason I don’t have a dog or cat is that I don’t like cleaning up poop.
The Oatmeal, a popular webcomic, recently published Having a Baby vs. Having a Cat. This is my response:
Ironically, the main reason I don’t have a dog or cat is that I don’t like cleaning up poop.
Humans have been around for about 200,000 years–longer if we include other members of our genus, such as Homo Erectus–and it took us about 199,800 of those years just to make one billion of us. It took about 120 years to make the second billion of us, and 100 years to make the next six billion.
When will we stop? Will our population stabilize, keep climbing, slowly decline, or suddenly crash? I have no idea. I do know, however, that humanity’s growth–and industrialization–shows no sign of slowing in the short term, putting increasing pressure on the other species we share our planet with.
I like animals. I don’t want elephants or panda bears to go extinct. But how much good can conservation efforts do in a world of increasing numbers of hungry people who also want to use the animals’ habitats?
Since there is nothing I can do about the number of people in the world, I propose a different solution: mass domestication.
Wikipedia estimates that there were about 60 million buffalo (American bison) in the US in 1800. Today, there are about 90 million cattle. Domesticated cattle far outnumber their ancestral species, the auroch. Dogs outnumber wolves. Corn has gone from a dinky little plant growing in Mexico to one of the world’s most common plants. Even rats and pigeons have benefited from their association with man.
How many species could be preserved by mutually-beneficial domestication?
Many species of deer or other large herbivorous herd animals could be raised for meat, such as the Pere David’s deer, virtually extinct in the wild:
In the late 19th century, the world’s only herd belonged to Tongzhi, the Emperor of China. The herd was maintained in the Nanyuan Royal Hunting Garden in Nan Haizi, near Peking. In 1895, one of the walls of the hunting garden was destroyed by a heavy flood of the Yongding River, and most of the deer escaped and were killed and eaten by starving peasants. Fewer than thirty Père David’s Deer remained in the garden. Then in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, the garden was occupied by troops and the remaining deer were shot and eaten, leaving the Père David’s deer extinct in its native China.
I hear it’s difficult to farm or raise cattle in marshlands, so why not raise marsh-adapted deer?
The scimitar oryx, similarly extinct in the wild, has lovely horns and lives comfortably in large herds in dry areas.
The Axolotl is an incredible “amphibian” that never develops lungs and spends its entire life underwater:
As of 2010, wild axolotls were near extinction due to urbanization in Mexico City and consequent water pollution. They are currently listed by CITES as an endangered species and by IUCN as critically endangered in the wild, with a decreasing population. Axolotls are used extensively in scientific research due to their ability to regenerate limbs. Axolotls were also sold as food in Mexican markets and were a staple in the Aztec diet.
And if you want an axolotl in your aquarium, perhaps you’d also be interested in an Alabama cave fish.
Imagine a future in which tortoise races are an official function of government. Or diplomats engage in slow-motion jousting matches.
Since turtles and tortoises are temperature sensitive, each government would want to highlight a local species, not an imported one (unless no local species were available.)
The Brazilian merganser:
is a duck in the typical merganser genus. It is one of the six most threatened waterfowl in the world with possibly fewer than 250 birds in the wild and currently 4 kept in captivity at 2 different Brazilian locations. The origin of its name is from its long, sharp-edged beak that has a great number of teeth-looking edges.
I’ve eaten duck eggs. They’re tasty–a lot like chicken eggs, actually.
Pygmy elephants, rhinos (if you could breed a non-grumpy variety) and giraffes–imagine delicately proportioned miniature giraffes being taken for a walk through Central Park by their gliteratti owners.
Flightless birds like the kakapo have been decimated by the introduction of invasive hunters like cats. Since they cannot fly, they seem already better suited to being pets than flying birds like cockatoos.
Most primates seem too intelligent for domestication–they’d use their thumbs and smarts to get into trouble–but maybe a few, like lemurs, could make good companions.
Pangolins, seals, and otters are obviously high on my list:
Obviously this post has been somewhat lighthearted, and there are probably good reasons why some of these animals actually aren’t well-suited to domestication.
But I am also serious; I would far rather live in a world with miniature pet pandas and giraffes than a world where these animals have gone extinct.
If we’re stuck on this planet–and it looks like we are–let’s make it a pleasant place to live.
Which animals do you think we should domesticate?
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:
“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.
Two ravens flew from Óðinn’s
shoulders; Huginn to the hanged and
Muninn to the slain corpses.
–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.
“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:
“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. The dog and the extant gray wolf form two sister clades, with modern wolves not closely related to the wolves that were first domesticated. The archaeological record shows the first undisputed dog remains buried beside humans 14,700 years ago, with disputed remains occurring 36,000 years ago. These dates imply that the earliest dogs arose in the time of human hunter-gatherers and not agriculturists. The dog was the first domesticated species.
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.
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 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. … The earliest sign of domestication in dogs was the neotonization of skull morphology and the shortening of snout length that results in tooth crowding, reduction in tooth size, and a reduction in the number of teeth, which has been attributed to the strong selection for reduced aggression. …
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.
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. 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, 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. This special treatment includes separate burials with markers and grave-goods, with those that were exceptional hunters or that were killed on the hunt often venerated. 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.
Intentional dog burials together with ungulate hunting is also found in other early Holocene deciduous forest forager societies in Europe and North America, indicating that across the Holarctic temperate zone hunting dogs were a widespread adaptation to forest ungulate hunting.
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.
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. …
“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.”
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?”
“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.”
It’s hard being a cat person in a dog-person world. 70% of Americans describe themselves as “dog people,” versus only 20% who claim to be “cat people.” Even among people who only own cats, a full 26% of them are “dog people.” (By contrast, only 3% of people who only have pet dogs are “cat people.”) [source]
The dog gets to be man’s best friend, while the poor beleaguered cat is associated with crazy cat ladies.
(I decided to give you a picture of cats instead of cat ladies.)
Dogs were the first domesticated animals, accompanying hunter gatherers on their exploits some 40,000 years ago. We’re not sure exactly how the first dogs began, but pretty soon people began actively selecting for certain traits in their dogs to make them more useful to humans.
Cats appeared much later–less than 10,000 years ago–and appear to have become tame via a very different route.
There is a special class of animals that have become semi-domesticated without humans actually wanting them, which includes mice, rats, and pigeons. These are not tame animals, but neither do they live in the wild , having become adapted to life in and among humans.
Long after humans domesticated dogs, they domesticated grain, and with grain came cities, granaries, and trash; and with those, rats, mice, and pigeons. The animals that could stand to be in close proximity with humans (but out of reach) thrived in the new niche–don’t underestimate just how many mice a bountiful harvest can feed:
From a more recent account:
First to the mouse plague which has invaded three states and damaged hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops. The rodents may be a familiar pest for farmers but the volume of vermin visible across parts of WA, Victoria and SA hasn’t been seen in more than 15 years. …
CHERYL WILLIAMS, BAYVIEW STREAKY BAY SA: I reckon the other morning I would have got two bucketfuls and there would have been near enough to 2,000 in it because it was piled high. … I had them in the house earlier on and they were climbing the walls and on the furniture. Just everywhere. On the beds, gives me the willies. I’ve had enough of it. I can hardly stand it. …
ALLAN WILLIAMS, BAYVIEW STREAKY BAY SA: … We’ve been taking out 20 to 40 litres every day for the last 100 days which that’s 2,000-odd litres of mice which is – I’ve never seen that amount of mice in me life. …
LEON WILLIAMS: You come out here at night time and it’s just literally a moving mass of mice. By the millions.
Mice and rats are interesting in and of themselves, but I will have to discuss them later. For now, let’s just say they were soon followed by an opportunistic predator:
Early cats probably moved into human settlements to hunt for rodents, and after a while, humans decided this was a useful behavior. Even today, many “pet” cats are expected to earn their keep, catching the mice in and around their homes–unlike the average dog.
(Reports of Medieval Europeans massacring cats are probably overstated–the famous “Cat Massacre” was actually an anti-aristocrat French mob murdering noble pets.)
While dogs have diverged significantly from wolves, the average house cat still looks quite similar to its wild relatives:
Distinct breeds of cats–including most if not all of the more unusual looking ones–are extremely recent, perhaps less than 200 years old, but domestic cats do differ from wild ones in several important ways. They are smaller, lighter, and they meow.
Interestingly, adult wolves do not bark and adult wildcats do not meow. Kittens meow at their mothers, and cats meow at their people, not each other. These are neotenous traits–baby behavior. Dogs will always be wolf pups, never adults, and a cat is always part kitten.
I shall leave you with a bit of light verse, from 9th century Ireland:
I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.
‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
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.
…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.
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.
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?
B. Yes, but I would use the money to raise 100 abandoned animals out of suffering.
D. That’s a terrible question! What kind of sick fuck makes up a question like that?
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.