Dogs, Early Humans, and Destiny

The two readings for this week, the beginning of How The Dog Became the Dog by Mark Derr and “Misguided Nostalgia for our Paleo Past” by Marlene Zuk, are peripherally related to each other, in that they address the history of the dog and the history of the human species, respectively. However, as we learn in the first reading, the history of our species and the history of the dog are inextricably linked. I address the history of the dog directly and the history of the human race indirectly in the first section of this post. Then I directly address human history and ideas related to destiny in the second section.

Dogs were always dogs

Logically, it makes sense that the dog was always in the wolf, and emerged very easily to befriend us. Wolves are highly sociable animals and live in packs with complicated hierarchy-based social structure. Or, alternately, you could just as easily say: humans are highly sociable animals and live in groups with complicated hierarchy-based social structure.

Social structure. What exactly do I mean? Wolves have a single alpha in a pack. Primitive humans often looked up to a single leader. Wolves in a pack all help to raise the pups belonging to the alpha and his mate. Humans look after others’ young. The lowest ranking wolf in the pack often retains some puppy-like characteristics for its whole life. This returns to the idea discussed in an earlier post–the idea of humans domesticating animals successful in part because they are such good nurturers. They nurture their own young and the young of others of their species, so nurturing animals of other species was not a particularly large change. I believe that modern humans view their pets almost in the same way that they view their own young.

My point is that wolves were naturally compatible with us before they became dogs. I am planning to read the rest of How the Dog Became the Dog (probably after school is over), because I like the author’s tone, but also because I am curious as to whether he agrees with my theory–that wolf social structure produced animals predisposed to incorporate into human social structure.

 Paleolithic man (Or: Are Our Genes Our Destiny?)

Is there truly anything that we are “meant to be”? Is that even a thing? If we are meant to eat diets and live lives like our paleolithic ancestors, then aren’t dogs meant to be wolves? Aren’t all livestock animals meant to run free and feed upon wild plant materials? Maybe we are all meant to return to the primordial soup.

I jest, but I am also quite serious.

I do not believe in destiny. I do not believe that I am meant to be anything, least of all a paleolithic human. Zuk’s points are valid, and I agree with him that humans are evolving more rapidly than they are often given credit for. Evolution can happen quite rapidly, particularly in response to environmental stresses. However, at the root of the argument that Zuk makes is the idea that our genes are our destiny and that we must do what our genes require us to do. I am a scientist, but I cannot believe that. We all are more than the sum total of our parts, more than our genes. An Olympic champion will not necessarily produce an Olympic champion. a genius will not necessarily produce a genius. There are countless stories of people rising to fame from completely unremarkable backgrounds (and equally unremarkable genetic material).

I do not think that our genes bind us to any certain fates. I think that it is silly, in this day and age, to make life decisions based upon what we are “meant” to do. I would argue that the human race is meant to do anything that it can innovate. If we are meant to do anything, we are meant to make choices.


“If The Reindeer Do Not Come”

Domestication as a mutualism

This week, our readings returned to an idea discussed in week 1‘s readings: that of domestication as a close mutualism. However, the perspective presented in The Reindeer People is a different one than those presented in Energy and Ecosystems and Evolutionary History because, in The Reindeer People, author Piers Vitebsky is describing an actual population, the Eveny people, with whom he has lived and who he has long studied.

The Eveny people, native to Siberia, have lived intimately with domesticated reindeer for 1000s of years. They are semi-nomadic in that they follow the reindeer as they migrate on their natural routes. They rely on the reindeer for transport and food, and in turn, the reindeer rely on them for protection. They Eveny need the reindeer as much as the reindeer need the Eveny. In the concluding chapter, Vitebsky quotes an Eveny song with the line:

“If the reindeer do not come
If the herd turns away
If the reindeer do not come
There will be no more Eveny!”

The Eveny obviously recognize their need for the reindeer and treat the reindeer with according respect. They do not fence the reindeer in and then mass-produce them for food, as we have with cattle and swine in this country. The dual nature of their relationship with the reindeer–both as a food source and as a mount and beast of burden–makes their relationship more complicated still. If you have established a bond with an animal in which you trust it as a mount, you are unlikely to want to eat that animal.

Perhaps the Eveny have a relationship with their reindeer that is similar to the relationship that early humans had with their domestic animals. They respect and even love and worship their animals and then eat them out of necessity.

Selection, domestication, and genetic variability

The domestic reindeer of the Eveny people lives side-by-side with the wild reindeer of siberia. However, the Eveny believe that domestic reindeer are entirely different animals, originating from different stock (according to legend) than wild reindeer and have two distinct words in their native language for wild and domesticated reindeer. Attempts have been made to tame wild reindeer, even calves, without any success.

Vitebsky basically implies that wild and domestic reindeer are two different strains and are genetically distinct. I did a bit of looking around and couldn’t find any population genetics papers to back that up. However, I would be willing to believe that this is simply because no one has done any specific research on reindeer genetics.

Genetic variability is a measure of differences in genotypes of individuals in a population (or, in more simple language, it is an indicator of how similar individuals are, genetically). Genetic variability is what allows us to select for different traits in breeding populations of animals. If we have high genetic variability, we can select for a trait for many generations and make progress (if we are selecting for heavy body weight, for example, the animals will get bigger every generation if genetic variability is high enough). Behavior (including tractability) is a genetic trait, so it follows that populations with higher genetic variability should be more domesticate-able. Domesticate-ability should be a quantitative trait–not just something we speculate about, but something we can actually measure.

I wonder how genetically divergent domestic and wild reindeer are. all we know is that they can interbreed and that domestic reindeer can go wild, but wild reindeer cannot become domestic. I would postulate that they came from a common ancestral population, but diverged long ago. The more tractable reindeer (all of them) could have taken up an intimate mutualism with humans and since have been selected for domestic traits. The wild reindeer, on the other hand, were those selected for their unwillingness to take up  an intimate mutualism with humans and have continued, each year, to be selected for this trait. If the original population, particularly the wild population, didn’t possess that much genetic variability (or if variability has decreased since the original divergence occurred, perhaps because of some sort of population bottleneck), it would be difficult to successfully domesticate the current wild population.

Clearly, regardless of original cause, there are two distinct strains of reindeer. I would be really interested to see a genetic analysis of the two strains, to see genetic differences between and among individuals of the two populations.


To be quite honest, I’m at a bit of a loss here. I am not religious and I have never been religious. I only understand religion in the context of “well, I can tell that it is very important to you.” However, I’ll do my best to understand the religious aspect of the Eveny people’s relationship with the reindeer.

I think that the spiritual connection that the Eveny believe that they share with reindeer stems from the fact that they rely on the reindeer for their livelyhood–they ride reindeer, eat reindeer, and live with reindeer year-round. Thus, because they rely so completely on reindeer, they have formed religious beliefs surrounding them. Of course, if you depend on a herd of animal, it is bad if one dies. It then logically follows, I guess, that this “bad thing,” bodes ill for your future and health–that is, it is a bad omen.


I guess that is has become clear in this blog post where my area of expertise are and where the holes in my expertise are. I really enjoyed the readings for this week and hope to, in my spare time, read the rest of The Reindeer People. I also hope to learn more about how the domestic and wild strains of reindeer came to be and about the genetic differences between the strains. This human/animal relationship, more than any other that we have discussed so far, is a fascinating one, because of the co-dependence between the humans and the reindeer. Reindeer have domesticated the Eveny people as much as the Eveny people have domesticated the reindeer and they are live together in a mutually beneficial way.

I Think I Wasn’t Talkative Enough This Week

Or: Camilla, Why are You Blogging Extra?


After leaving class this week, I realized that I had failed to communicate two of my highly relevant thoughts during our (slightly meandering) discussion. Maybe I was thinking too hard about taking notes or maybe I just think slowly. I don’t know. Anyway, here they are, in no particular order.

1. I do not dislike Bulliet. I actually think that Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers is eminently readable and presents a lot of really interesting ways of looking at (and categorizing) the past. I think that our class (including me!) has beaten up on Bulliet because he is an easy target–he is highly and unapologetically opinionated. However, I do not always think that that is bad. Sometimes, particularly as an older academic (as Bulliet is), you can and should express your opinion without apologizing for it.
2. I think that there is a huge amount of value to knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Of course, application is important, but what is application based upon, if not knowledge? What inspired us first to understand the inner working of an atom or to fly to the moon? Knowledge. Poets don’t write poems because they are useful. I would argue that similarly, true scientists don’t do science because it is useful. How can we be of any service to the world, anyway, until we have a solid knowledge of its workings? If knowledge is not a high priority, the application or utility of the knowledge will certainly be second-rate.

Creating questions

Why and when and how exactly did domestication happen?

This week’s readings were about creating questions more than they were about answering them. In reality, we do not know how exactly animals came to be domesticated.

In Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers (for initial discussion of this work, see last week’s post), Bulliet argues that domestication happened as much because of religion, ritual, and sacrifice as because of a need for food. I find this to be highly improbable.The arguments in our first set of readings, describing domestication as a mutualism that developed almost naturally seems liker to me. How could religion and sacrifice take precedence over food procurement? Central to Bulliet’s argument is the suggestion that human males would be reluctant to give up hunting in favor of domesticating animals. I do not think that this is a reasonable supposition. Domestication was as favorable for the species domesticed as it was for

Bulliet’s argument for the use of animals for riding and heavy work is much more probable. I have ridden horses since I was little, and it seems very natural to me that humans would use animals for transport and heavy work. However, I do wonder how the initial riding or plowing training was done. I have broke horses to ride. The first time you get on an individual domestic horse is a little frightening–you don’t know quite how it will react. How frightening must it have been to mount a horse for the first time ever? What circumstances allowed for this to happen?

I do know that it was common practice among cowboys in the 1800s to bring colts in off of the range (2 and 3 year old horses that had rarely been handled), knock them down and castrate them (without any kind of anesthetic) and then get them up and ride them. Though this was traumatic for the young horses, it made the breaking to ride process much easier, because the colts were thinking harder about how much their surgery cuts hurt than they were thinking about how weird it was to have a person riding them. I wonder if a similar process allowed people to ride horses for the first time? Could people have initially gotten on a sick or hurt animal that would have a harder time hurting them?

In general, the arguments presented in Clutton-Brock’s Animals as Domesticates seem much more probable and reasonable to my mind than are Bulliet’s. Clutton-Brock uses a much more even-handed tone than Bulliet does–she is not passing wisdom down from on high, as Bulliet sometimes sounds like he is, but rather is presenting information that she has gathered from a variety of sources. I was interested to learn (after I had finished the reading) that she is in the zoology department at her university–apparently I have a bias towards the writing of those in fields similar to my own.

In particular, Clutton-Brock’s description of humans as nurturers was very compelling and I would like to hear her expand upon it. Humans care for their own young and for the young of other humans. The common saying “it takes a village to raise a child” really expresses this–culturally, we are OK with other people raising our children and with raise children for others. A clear modern-day example of this is human’s tendency to take their children to daycare centers. We aren’t really raising our own children in today’s society.

However, to return to the original point: humans are nurturers and we (today, at least) nurture our animals like we nurture our own young. People refer to their dogs or cats as their “children” and to themselves as their dogs’ “moms” and “dads.” It isn’t too large a jump, then, to imagine that early humans were more likely to want to care for another species than, say, early chimpanzees. Ingold touches on this point also, but in a slightly different sort of way, saying that hunters knew and cared for their prey in much the same way that they knew and cared for their fellow humans. Could humans have domesticated animals because of some sort of nurturing instinct over which we have no control?

Overall, these readings do not explain how domestication happened. Rather, they show that we do not know how it happened, exactly, and we really never will know, because history has happened–we can’t go back and check to see how it happened. Ingold sums up my opinion on the matter very eloquently in the introduction to his essay From Trust to Domination:

“Only humans… construct narratives of this history. Such narratives range from what we might regard as myths of totemic origin to supposedly ‘scientific’ accounts of the origins of domestication. And however we might choose to distinguish between myth and science, if indeed the distinction can be made at all, they have in common that they tell us as much about how the narrators view their own humanity as they do about their attitudes and relations to non-human animals. “

Every story we tell about how domestication happened is just that–a story. We do not know how exactly domestication happened and we never will. We can only theorize. I am beginning to realize that history is a discipline with many more questions than answers. In the study of history, you get a finite amount of evidence from which you must draw conclusions and, depending on who you are, those conclusions can vary widely.

Are Categories Useful?

Or Camilla Tells the Story of Her Life, Disguised as a Blog Post


Oh man. Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers is so highly relevant to my interests. This blog post isn’t going to be brief, nor is it going to be unbiased. I am an animal science major and I am a vegetarian. I have many opinions on the ideas discussed in Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers.I guess I will begin by telling about my background (how I reached the opinions I have) and then I will discuss my reactions to the first four chapters of Hunters, Herders and Hamburgers.

I was brought up in Blacksburg. I’ve never lived on a farm, but when I was 8 I started riding horses, and after that time, spent huge amounts of my time on two farms. when I was 11, I raised a bunch of chickens and kept a few as laying hens and pets. Around that time, I also became a vegetarian–I didn’t want to eat my pet chickens (they were my friends), so why would I eat other chickens? I have always (even when I was a child) tried to be consistent and logical, so I decided that I also shouldn’t eat mammal species, because they are more highly intelligent than birds, in general. At that time, I read a lot about the animal right movement, and to me, as a soft-hearted 12-year-old, it seemed reasonable. I was a child who formed strong bonds with animals and didn’t see how they were so tremendously different than humans that they should be killed and eaten or used for production of eggs, milk, or wool. Fast forward about 6 years–I was 18 and had seen enough animal blood and suffering that I became much more hard-hearted. However, I argued that the animal production industry in this country was corrupt and I shouldn’t support it by eating meat. Then I became an animal science major and was truly exposed to farm animals, livestock production, and the realities of generating the food we eat.There isn’t anything evil about it.We have evolved to eat animals for 1000s of years. We raise animals, we treat them well, and we kill and eat them. (Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t anything wrong with the meat industry. There is a lot wrong with it. But this isn’t the place and time for that discussion. Generally, at its heart, there isn’t a thing wrong with killing and eating animals and that is my point.) However, I still do not eat meat. Richard Bulliet would call me an elective vegetarian and a product of post-domestic society and, actually, I would agree very strongly. In fact, I would say that my choices are, perhaps, more of a product of post-domestic society than most people’s choices are.

In post-domestic society, we are far removed from animals. We are not in contact with their excrement or their copulation. We do not see their suffering, their blood, and their death, but neither do we see their natural behaviors and contentment in life. Meat is no different than any other product that we buy at the store–we don’t know where it came from and we don’t really care. Ethically, should we be eating something that we know nothing about? If you eat a steak, you have had a part in death. If you don’t want to think about that death, should you be eating that steak?

Bulliet discuss the animal rights movement at length. However, he doesn’t really discuss the other side of the movement–the animal welfare advocates in animal agriculture. The animal welfare movement is made up of people who, by and large, still live a domestic lifestyle, rather than a post-domestic one, and who farm and produce the meat we eat. They state that we eat animals because we naturally are omnivores, and that food animals wouldn’t produce good food if they were suffering. However, I believe that I was slightly inaccurate when I said, earlier in this paragraph, that those who believe in animal welfare, rather than animal rights, are a movement. They are farmers. They are hardworking. they feed our country. They aren’t a movement in the same way that the animal rights movement is a movement, because they don’t really have time to be.

Based on my observations of the world and the general knowledge I have, I would postulate that many of the people involved in mainstream agriculture never left domestic culture. They grew up on farms and then decided to become farmers. However, a more interesting phenomenon is that of those who grew up in decidedly post-domestic culture–towns and cities–returning to small-scale, organic farming. Although I do not know whether this phenomenon has been documented, I have observed it in people I know, on several occasions.They want to return to the earth and raise their own food. They want to know where their food comes from. Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of her family (including her two daughters) returning to domestic culture (although she doesn’t call it that) in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Of course, Bulliet doesn’t (or hasn’t) made the distinction that post-domestic and domestic can be applied to individual lifestyles. He is making broader societal distinctions. However, I think that the difference that he describes can be as easily applied to individuals as to entire societies.

Central to Bulliet’s thesis is the idea that post-domestic society is more sensitive to sex and blood than domestic society was. I think that while his reasoning is sound, this idea really isn’t that surprising. If you are exposed to blood and sex, blood and sex aren’t shocking anymore. However, is it preferable to be shocked by blood and sex? is it better to exist in a world where those things are seen as taboo or in a world where those (very natural and normal) things are seen as normal and natural?

I think that humans have been becoming increasingly sensitive to discussion of human sex for a much longer time than we have lived in a post-domestic world. Our society is fascinated by sex and unwilling to talk about it, but that has been true of many societies throughout history. However, I do agree that never seeing animal sex makes us more fascinated by sex (I, personally, saw quite a bit of horse reproduction when I was 10-14 and was never quite as impressed by the idea of human sex as my same age peers were).

An interesting idea and one I would like to hear Bulliet discuss at more length is the idea that conservation efforts are a product of post-domestic society. Do we have to have some sort of distance from animals to decide that they are worth preserving?

Bulliet’s discussion of separation and per-domestic society is interesting, but not partticulatly earth-shattering. Of course pre-humans had to realize that they are different in some way from animals, and of course humans were hunter-gatherers before they domesticated animals. However, I suppose that  in order to have the later classifications, the earlier ones were necessary.

This blog post hasn’t moved in one direction. It has no thesis statement and is basically a reflection. However, if I have one main idea that I derived from the readings, it is that I don’t know whether categories (like domestic, post-domestic, and pre-domestic) are that useful. I think that it is useful to look at the effects of animals on human society, but with every label or category comes many exceptions to that label.