Domesticating Endangered Species

When I read and watch things like this I tend to try and find one word that I think sums up a good portion of the phenomena. In this case, I think “mutualism” is the best word for domestication in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. Humans domesticate goats, and even wheat. The humans weed out the less desirable varietals of wheat and the goats eat the remainder, thus increasing the dependency of the goats on humans, engendering a stronger generation of wheat (which means stronger people) and supporting an alternative source of nourishment at the same time. Thus the cycle repeats and benefits all species involved.

I have to wonder how the worldwide populations of certain species (Elephants, for instance) would be different if they were capable of being domesticated. I imagine there are quite a few endangered species that, if domesticated in the past, would not be so scarce today because their lives would be more stable, more controlled. I also find it interesting that some species do very well in captivity while others, such as pandas, rarely deliver healthy cubs when behind bars. Is it just stress?

It’s also worth noting that domestication changes these animals as well. Silkworms, for instance, have been domesticated for thousands of years. Over time, the moth form of the silkworm actually lost its ability to fly because it simply did not need it in captivity. Today, silkworm moths that can fly are considered very rare. The trained dependence on humans has made it so that this species would not be able to survive in the wild. I would also guess, however, that the silkworm’s being an insect and therefore reproducing much faster than mammals will also cause it to adapt to changes in its “Norm” environment much faster than say, a goat, which may not be all that different today than it was in the time of hunter gatherers.

What really captured my interests in the readings for this week were their implications on the present day. I mentioned this briefly already, but in the last hundred years or so, we’ve begun to do something that we either didn’t try to do before or didn’t have the tools to do: namely preserving endangered species. This interference with natural selection is, in my eyes, something new for us. If we’re successful in saving, for instance, the tiger, how will that species change? Does saving an endangered species necessitate domestication or dependence as in the case of the silkworm? If its wild habitat is gone (Which, along with being hunted for their pelts, seems to be the main reasons their population is dwindling), the only alternatives for this animal will be to adapt to other environments or die out. If people intervene in this natural process, the tigers that can adapt to life in some form of captivity will survive and reproduce, and those that cannot, ie the wilder tigers, will die out. Isn’t that a form of domestication? A change in the demographic of a species brought on by human intervention?

I realize as well that a key aspect of domestication is this idea that the relationship between humans and the animal is mutually beneficial. I can’t see any tangible benefit for humans saving tigers; they won’t be plowing fields or doing heavy lifting. But what about the satisfaction for the groups trying to save them? Does that sort of intangible benefit even count?

I could be completely off the mark in my theorizing on this subject. I may well be over thinking this to an extreme degree, so please tell me if you think I’m treading into a different area of discussion.

4 thoughts on “Domesticating Endangered Species

  1. I found the direction you took on the readings/video extremely interesting. The ideas you present in this post hadn’t even crossed my mind during my initial analysis of these pieces. But looking back on it I think your points on endangered species are spot on! Based on the readings I feel like domestication is a very loose term that simply encompasses a variety of cases of mutualism and isn’t limited to humans controlling animals as many people believe. Your arguments, about tigers particularly, provide a perfect example of the wide definition of domestication. Many people are actively trying to save a species of animal, the tiger, and are doing so by taking them in and attempting to boost their numbers by captive breeding, in addition to coordinating efforts set on preserving/restoring their natural environment. Without these interference’s, tigers would surely go extinct. But even if these interference’s do save the tiger, what changes will occur in the tigers? Will they become tame as many other animals we have interfered with throughout history such as dogs, cows, pigs etc? And if they do, won’t that limit their ability to hunt and feed themselves causing them to become dependent on handouts from humans, or some other species, for a source of food? And at that point are they even really tigers anymore? My idea of a tiger is a large fearsome hunting machine, not a house cat that feeds on our scraps and leftovers. It is really interesting that humans are going out of their way to save an animal that doesn’t seem to have a significant ability to improve our lives. It seems as if animals such as the tiger a doomed to a fate of either extinction or perhaps a life as the next family pet. Maybe our interference with animals that are cute or majestic like the tiger or the panda or the polar bear will save these animals from extinction but only as a new species that evolves to go against their natural predatory instincts and befriends humans to survive!

  2. Bill, your post about endangered species is an interesting consideration. The Energy and Ecosystems article explains that all organisms have a constant and never-ending impact on their ecosystems. When considered at surface value this assertion is easily rational and easy to accept. However, when considering the relative importance of protecting global biodiversity this question of influence is more complex.

    If we are fundamentally changing the nature of an endangered animal by attempting to preserve its existence – is the ecological integrity of the animal actually preserved? Beyond that we can too consider whether animal domestication is simply a “war against nature”? Is it possible to distinguish natural selection happening by random genetic change and selection that was human intent?

  3. Bill,
    I think you are asking good questions and making good points. I too pondered what certain species would be like if they were subject to the changes that domestication would undoubtedly cause. Domestication would certainly preserve a species but the effects are completely unknown. Like your silk worm example, we have no way of knowing how species will react. Perhaps some species are not meant to be domesticated or maybe we just have to perfect our techniques of domestication. Improper domestication may have caused silkworm moths to lose the ability to fly, not just domestication. Your proposition with the tigers does seem to be a form of domestication. Willingly or not, those in captivity will evolve in a different way than those who are not in captivity. They may become smaller like fish have over time simply for the reason that they don’t have to be large skilled predator when humans are feeding them. I agree that simply domesticating tigers provides little to no benefit to humans. Saving tigers, to me, could provide some benefits. Extinction in an area can cause imbalance. Whatever the tigers where hunting may have a population explosion and send the ecosystem to unbalance.

  4. As I delved into the assigned readings and video, I found that many questions I had formed while attaining to one would later be answered by another. Relationships between assignments started becoming apparent so I tried to hone in on a central theme besides the obvious common topic of domestication. I became increasingly interested in the relationship between domestication and evolution. The two went hand in hand in more ways than I had thought previously. Evolution, as mainly discussed in the Evolutionary History article, is the root of most that is and most that was. It would seem that such a powerful force would be beyond harnessing but through domestication, humans have wielded the all powerful tool of evolution. Each assignment demonstrates individually and as a collective group that humans have taken it upon themselves to play the part of Mother Nature. With all of her complexities it is no surprise that problems have arose as a result of humans trying their hand at taking charge of the natural balance of all things.

    Guns, Germs and Steel is based upon a seemingly easy question: why are some parts of the world more developed than other. Through his investigations and research, Jarred Diamond comes up with a seemingly easy answer: geography. It is almost frustrating to think that so much can depend simply on location. Are humans simply not able to thrive in certain locations? The journey to this conclusion is interesting and yet again displays the powers of domestication. I enjoyed experiencing the progression of domestication in civilization and how it led to better crops and animals and thus larger population densities. As domestication becomes more efficient, less effort is spent upon survival. With more free time humans become innovative and thus evolve as a species. I found this all interesting but I still could not get over my frustration and in this state I tried to force the possibility of domestication in New Guinea. Are some regions meant to domesticate and reap its benefits while others are striped of even having this chance? I agree that domestication is essential to evolution as demonstrated by the Middle Paleolithic population which became stagnant without it, but is it possible everywhere? The video dismissed the possibility of effectively domesticating insects, a technique that would appear to benefit a place deprived of large game like New Guinea. I thought this was an unfair assumption, just because it has not been attempted does not mean no benefit can be found in the practice. This practice could be perfected across thousands of years just as the domestication of large animals has been in prosperous regions of the world. The video also reflects on the advantages of having temperate animals available for domestication and uses the example of the flighty personality of a zebra to explain the lack of domestication of animals in Africa. Both articles, however, admit that early domestication can be the cause of temperate animals. The domestication of the wolf lead to modern day dogs, so it is possible that the temperament of zebras could mirror that of horses if they had been domesticated.

    Despite these facts, if I were to submit to the notion that domestication is in fact impossible to achieve at a productive enough level to cause prosperous civilizations anywhere in the world, then I would make the argument that there is an imbalance regarding domestication. Furthermore inequality of civilizations as well as the negative effects of domestication proves that the relationship between evolution and domestication is not balanced. I could make the argument that too much domestication occurs in parts of the world just as much as I can argue that not enough domestication occurs in other parts. The article titled “Energy and Ecosystems” addresses the wasting of food and thus reveals the inefficiency of domestication. Why does food go to waste in some parts of the world while it is barely available in others? To this I propose that domestication is growing too fast for evolution. Namely our population as a result of domestication is growing faster than we can evolve to be as efficient as possible. Animals are becoming extinct, resource pools are shrinking and pathogens are becoming stronger. There is an imbalance in nature, we are became kings with our reign over other species and thus began our battle with nature. I believe the key to achieving efficiency and equality is to finding the true balance between domestication and evolution.

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