Caging Wolves

I really enjoyed the article about our collective Paleofantasies.  I think it is a rather common idea that at one point in our evolutionary history, humans were perfectly adapted to our environment.  I have probably thought that myself.  The article does a good job of pointing out the obvious flaws in that line of thinking.

I found the reading about dogs and wolves to be more interesting.  The story of wolves becoming dogs was very interesting and, as the author showed, very relevant in our dog centered world.  I found two points to be most interesting.  The first was the author’s discussion of early interactions between wolves and dogs.  At that point, humans did not have the means to restrain wolves in any way.  Their ability to physically control what wolves did was very limited.  Humans did not have metal for cages or strong collars or anything like that and wolves could easily chew through any restraining device that humans could create.

This lack of control meant wolves could come and go from groups of humans as they pleased.  The author put it in terms of wolves knowing when humans were beneficial and when they were not.  If associating with humans stopped being mutually beneficial, the wolves could leave and return to hunting by themselves.  As long as the humans kept being beneficial, the wolves would stay.  The fact that wolves stayed with humans long enough to become dogs is interesting to me because it ascribes a great deal of agency to wolves.  Wolves chose to remain with humans long enough to become dogs because it was beneficial to them.

We have mentioned this idea of animals deciding to become domesticates because it is beneficial for them, but I think this is the first time an author has so explicitly put so much emphasis on the animal making a conscious choice.  I am so interested in this idea because it ascribes so much agency to animals, which is something very new to me.  As a historian, I am so used to reading about humans doing this or that, reading about an animal made such a momentous choice is very interesting.

The second point I found interesting was something Derr only briefly mentioned.  During his discussion of feral animals and stray dogs, Derr mentioned wolf “culture.”  This piqued my curiosity because, for me, culture has always been the sole domain of humans.  Animals don’t have culture because they are animals.  This notion is becoming increasingly problematic as I consider it more.  Culture as a shared legacy of practices and behaviors is obviously not limited to humans.  What does everyone else think?  Is culture limited to humans, or do animals have culture too?  As of now, I’m leaning towards animals do have culture, but I’m curious as to what everyone else thinks.

On Folktales

Vitebsky described two Eveny folktales in the reading.  Both had to do with how reindeer and humans came to have the relationship that they do.  In one, a woman lures reindeer closer and closer because they like the salt in her urine.  Eventually the woman is able to touch them and milk them, thus beginning centuries of human reindeer relationships.

The second folktale is more interesting to me.  In that one, humans help create reindeer by birthing them from trees.  The reindeer get older and have two calves.  Eventually the reindeer are attacked by wolves and the older reindeer cower in fear and call on the God Hovki for help.  The younger reindeer kill the wolves with their antlers and Hovki asks why the older reindeer could not do it themselves.  Their answer was that they had been born with human help and now needed human help to survive.  Hovki sent the older reindeer to live with humans the younger reindeer into the wild, never to mingle together again, thus explaining the difference between wild reindeer and domestic reindeer.

Folktales and folk practices are important because they serve as a link to a time for which few other records exist.  I’ve taken a class on Russian folktales and practices in general before and the light they can shed on early history and religious beliefs is interesting.  Very little is known about Slavic pagan belief is known, except for information that could be gleaned from folk tales and practices.  For example, a recurring character in Russian folklore in St. Elijah.  St. Elijah is a Christian figure, but the way he behaves has led scholars to believe that St. Elijah is a character from older Slavic myth, Perun the Thunder God, with a veneer of Christianity.  Scholars are able to learn a great deal about Perun and other pre-Christian Slavic beliefs based on folktales.

My point with that bit of unrelated knowledge is that the Eveny folktales might tell us something about how reindeer actually first came to be domesticated.  The two folktales in the introduction have a few elements in common that also line up with arguments that Bulliet made and with a point that we have talked about in class.

In the first folktale, domestication is based on a mutually beneficial relationship between reindeer and humans.  The reindeer wanted the salt the woman could give them and the woman wanted the reindeer milk.  This vision of domestication lines up with Bulliet’s idea that domestication was not a process that early humans discovered and mastered, but instead was more of an accident.  The woman in the folktale didn’t even know that the reindeer was useful until after it was comfortable around her.

The second folktale is similar.  The reindeer want to go with humans because humans can protect them from danger.  The humans can use the reindeer as pack animals and the hundred other things that reindeer are good for.  It is even more interesting because humans don’t really play any part in the domestication aspect of the folktale.  In class we have discussed the idea of animals “choosing” to become domesticated because it is useful for them.  The second folktale is interesting because the reindeer literally chose to go to the humans when Hovki asks them.

I don’t mean to say that these folktales should be taken as literal, just that the ideas presented in them may not be so farfetched.  The first one paints the picture of a mutually beneficial relationship that, I think, we have decided is a good basis for domestication.  The second describes the split between wild and domestic reindeer.  It doesn’t seem impossible to me that older reindeer would have been easier to domesticate, it seems fairly likely.  I think these folktales can give a lot of insight into the early relationship between humans and reindeer.

The Idea of Progress

Reading Ingold’s article about trust and domination made me think about an issue that has come up in many of my classes and in conversations with people outside of class.  This happened during our first discussion as well.  The issue is a problematic idea of what progress is and what it means and implies.  I apologize in advance if this doesn’t make much sense, but I’ll do my best.

Progress is a term that has many ideas wrapped up in it that don’t seem incredibly obvious at first glance.  Progress implies a movement toward in a direction that is better than the current state of things.  The better that is implicit in this turns the idea of progress into a value judgement.  Progress is a good thing because it leads to something better.

The problem with this idea is that the way that we, being us in the class, define better is very subjective and based on our own cultural experiences.  Our idea of better is not the same as another culture’s idea of better.  Therefore, our ideas about progress can not be applied to other cultures because of the disconnect between idea’s of what is good.  When we lose sight of this disconnect, we try to superimpose our idea’s of progress on other culture’s and end up being judgmental in an unfair way.

Ingold mentions this in the first part of his article.  Darwin talked about the hunter-gatherers he encountered on his voyage around the world and compared them to the culture he knew and deemed them backwards and without many redeeming qualities.  The rest of Ingold’s article discusses why this is an unfair judgement.  Hunter-gatherers were and are not any worse than other cultures because they lack technology, they simply live differently.  Judging their progress as a culture or civilization based on the Western standard of how much can they produce is unfair because, as Ingold describes, production as we see it is irrelevant to the hunter-gatherers.  Their conception of nature as something to be trusted to provide as opposed to something to be dominated is so different from what Darwin knew as good, that his judgements ultimately do not mean anything.

Unfortunately, unfair judgements like Darwin’s are not limited to 19th century naturalists.  It seems that many people in the present day do the same thing to Native Americans.  In my experience, many people think Native Americans were backward because they did not have the technology that colonists had.  The colonists helped Native Americans progress by introducing their technology to North America.  They helped the Native Americans progress beyond their unsophisticated hunter-gatherer ways.  This narrative is unfair because it imposes a Western cultural standard on the Native Americans.  It is also unfair because Native Americans lived much better than early colonists.

I don’t think that people do this purposefully.  I think it is mostly that people don’t think about the implications of the word “progress.”  By more closely examining what we say in class, I think we can better analyze the arguments that we read.  Again, I apologize if this seems like a rant.

Postdomestic Guilt

Bulliet’s stages of human-animal are very interesting and mostly correct.  It seems obvious that societies change over time in regards to their relationships with their animals.  I for one have only been on an actual farm once, and that was a grade school field trip.  Other than that, my closest contact with domesticated animals is petting my cat or seeing some cows or horses while driving down 460.  I probably have very different feelings concerning animals than  someone who had grown up on a farm.

I do disagree with his idea that our postdomestic separation from animals explains our fascination with graphic violence.  Humans enjoyed graphic violence before people moved off farms.  Ancient Romans made a spectacle of brutal violence in the Coliseum.  Public executions are common throughout history and make a display of violence.  Bulliet mentions these as part of being desensitized from violence, but I fail to see how they are meaningfully different from a violent film or other modern depiction of violence.  People went to see these things because people like to see violence.  I think it has less to do with how we interact with animals and is just a basic part of being human.  I don’t mean to imply that we all enjoy seeing violence all the time, just that, at some level, some part of us enjoys seeing violence.

Bulliet’s description of vegetarianism is somewhat shallow.  He characterizes elective vegetarianism being based on a feeling of guilt, which is a totally reductive claim.  Elective vegetarianism is based on a wide variety of moral and health reasons.  Bulliet’s claim that people become vegetarians just because they feel guilty about the way animals are treated simplifies the matter unfairly.  Guilt can play in to the decision to become a vegetarian, but it is more than a simple knee jerk reaction to being guilty about animals being treated poorly.  Being a vegetarian myself, I can say my choice was driven by more than just guilt.

How do non vegetarians feel about Bulliet’s claims?  I’m interested in how someone who isn’t a vegetarian felt about it because I feel like I might be biased.  So, how does everyone else feel about guilt and vegetarianism?