Animal Culture and Genetics

The reading in Animals as Domesticates mainly concerns the process of domestication and spread of domesticates as people spread.  The main points brought up that I found interesting though, were the ideas that animals have their own cultures, that the process of domestication is partly one of retaining juvenile characteristics, and that there is evidence that some animals are genetically predisposed towards domestication.

Animals could be considered to have their own culture in the form of taught behaviors, learned fears, and the social hierarchy of most domesticates.  Wolves have matriarchies while grazing animals have alpha males.  In domesticated animals humans alter the hierarchy to insert themselves at the top, becoming providers and leaders for the group.  I think it would be worth investigating how “wild” dog culture compares to wolf culture to see what kind of lasting effect we may have had on their behavior.  Another thing to investigate would be the culture of animals not domesticated, but very intelligent such as crows and dolphins.

The main factors in how easily an animal could be domesticated seem to be: social structures in the animal populations into which humans can displace or control the leaders, a general lack of skittishness around humans, a reliance on foods found near or around human settlements, and a genetic predisposition to retaining juvenile traits.  Virtually all domesticated mammals have some form of social hierarchy which allowed humans to co-opt the existing mechanisms in place to control a flock, herd, or pack of animals.  Some animals are naturally not as afraid, or not as able to flee humans, predisposing them towards being captured and bred into domesticity.   One example from the text was the goat, which relied more on agility than speed.  Comparatively, some animals lived near us naturally for scraps of food, like wolves may have.  The experiment on domesticating foxes revealed another trait helpful or possibly necessary in domestication, the ability to retain juvenile characteristics in order to either appear more “cute” and therefore desirable as a companion, or to remain submissive, malleable, and trainable.

The genetic predisposition some animals have towards being domesticated may give greater credence to Diamond’s theories, since animals such as the Buffalo or Moose may simply be lacking the right characteristics to be domesticated.  Bulliet touches on more possible prerequisites for the domestication of different types of animals, which I’ll address in a separate post.

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