Rats as Humanity’s Twin

This week’s readings were very interesting.  One would think that things as ubiquitous as mice and rats deserve consideration and thought.  I’ll admit, though, that before these readings I never thought very much or very hard about rats or mice, and I now realize how little I knew about them.

The idea that I found most interesting out of these readings was the idea that rats and humans are very closely linked.  The Burt reading introduced the idea of rats being humanity’s twin in many ways.  While crazy at first, this idea really appealed to me.  Rats are very tied to us.  They go where we go because they live off the networks that we create.  They come with us even to places where they would not be able to survive on our own, and they survive off the food and shelter they get from us.  War and imperialism took rats all over the world.

Rats also resemble us in their ability to adapt.  They can live almost anywhere, just as we can.  They can evolve relatively quickly to adapt to new environments.  They can dominate an environment in a way few other animals can.  They seem so similar to us, that at first I wondered where our distaste for rats came from.  I assumed that our hatred for rats was a holdover from their days as plague bearing embodiments of filth.  The Burt reading revealed the flaws of this idea.

First, rats are apparently clean animals.  They live in dirty places, but apparently the rats themselves are relatively clean.  I find this hard to believe, but I’m not the expert.  Secondly, while rats were associated with disease, people did not know that rats themselves could bring disease.  Intense distaste for rats started, as so many other intense distastes for things, in the Victorian era.  Disease and dirtiness were not nearly as lamentable as the rats insatiable appetites for food and sex.  Rats’ excesses made them an object of hatred.

Burt also described the relationship between rats and humans as almost parasitic.  Rats gain so much from their association with humans, food and shelter, but humans gain nothing.  The rats exploit humans for their own gain.  This is so radically different from humans’ relationships with other animals.  Humans exploit the animals, not the other way around.  I was intrigued by this relationship because it challenges the idea of humanity as a master of nature, because, try as we might, humans can’t kill all the rats.  The rats’ exploitation of humanity, in my mind, shows that humans are a part of nature, not above it, as many people want to think.

Here are some other questions for us to consider in our discussion on Tuesday:

How do changing attitudes toward rats help explain changing cultural values and vice versa?

In what ways is humans’ relationship with rats similar to our relationships with other animals?  Is the way rats exploit humans similar to the way humans exploit other animals?

Have scientists turned laboratory rats into a commodity?  What effects does this have on the rats?  What are the moral implications of such a process?  Is this different than any other domesticated animal?

How do laboratory rats differ from other domesticates?

Shapiro talks about the deindividuation of laboratory animals.  Does a similar process take place with other domesticated animals?



Domestication and Home

First, an apology.  I apologize for the lateness of my blog post.  I mistakenly thought that this week we were working on our projects and had a break from blogging.  I’m glad I found this to be untrue in time to write a blog post at all, but I apologize for being late with it.

That being said, I found the Brantz reading to be incredibly interesting.  First off was the bit of language.  Domestication comes from the Latin word for home, “domus.”  Having never made that particular connection, I found this to be interesting and slightly problematic.  Domestication is the human desire to turn wild animals into animals that we could keep in our homes.  Francis Galton thought that early domestication came from the human desire to keep pets.  This was interesting to me because pets, domesticates we actually do keep in our homes, are very different from other domesticates.  As Brantz points out, we do not eat them or turn them into products, and even go so far as to turn them into individuals by giving them names and such.

So, my question becomes, why does the word domestication come from the word for “home” when most domesticates are not kept in our homes?  It seems to me that other readings have argued successfully that early humans did not domesticate animals to keep them as pets, but for food.  Why then is the word used for the process so tied to the idea of the home?  Could it be just a general idea of living with humans in general?  Most dictionaries I looked in for the definition of “domestication” simply offer two definitions.  One is to make something suitable for the home and the other is to make an animal or plant accustomed to a human environment or be useful to humans.  This proved to be unsatisfying because it did not really answer my question.  This connection with the home seems to important to me.

I thought maybe the word “domestication” originated in the 18th or 19th century and was somehow tied to the emerging bourgeois values that Brantz talked about.  Everything I could find, however, pointed to the word domestication being used before that in the 17th century, which lessens the likelihood of this possibility and left me still wondering.  I’m tempted to become a linguist to figure this out.

The rest of Brantz’s work was interesting as well, I was intrigued by the place of pets in society as a moral force because it is held over to today.  It is still common to get a dog or cat to teach a kid responsibility.  We may have come off the rigid morality of Victorian England, but apparently we still teach responsibility the same way.

Like a few others, I was also pleasantly surprised by the readability of Darwin.  I expected him to be stuffy and inaccessible, but that is of course not the case.  In the Introduction we read, Darwin talked about domestication and how humans can affect it but are ultimately still unable to fully control nature.  The idea of control and power seems so central to domestication, but how much control do humans really have in the process.  I’m curious to see what everyone else thinks about this.