Darwin is a cool dude.

I am even more impressed with Darwin than I was before. He is a good and entertaining writer and explained his ideas clearly. He said “I hope that the reader will pause before coming to any final and hostile conclusion on the theory of natural selection.” I wonder what is must have been like to be Darwin? His ideas were not highly popular. I thought it was adorable and honest (and highly untypical of modern science writing) to encourage readers to consider his ideas. I was also surprised by his mention of a Creator in the last part of the second part of the Darwin reading. Nobody would mention a Creator, for any reason, in modern scientific writing. Attitudes towards religion were obviously very different then than they are now–the existence of a Creator was basically accepted in society.

Darwin uses of bees as an example of un-selectable animals. Since people cannot contain them, they cannot mate certain females with certain females. This, he says, domesticated bees are much like un-domesticated bees. This is an interesting idea, but I wonder if it is really the case. Surely bees would at least be affected by “natural” selection in domestication. Perhaps they couldn’t be selected to possess certain traits, but they would be changed by being kept by people, a sort of unnatural “natural” selection.

Of course, natural selection acts on domesticated animals. I had just never really thought about it, though. This idea of what happen at the interface between natural selection, methodical selection, and unconscious selection really fascinates me, because for most of the history of domesticates, this is how animals have been bred. The idea that different strains of cattle, sheep, and pigs developed in different parts of England is clear evidence for this. Different natural environments selected for certain traits. Then, people both intentionally and unintentionally selected certain animals for certain traits. Of course, modern poultry production depends mainly on methodical selection. However, even in that case, there must be some unconscious selection and natural (or, like I mentioned earlier, unnatural natural selection). Unconscious selection is inevitable unless selection is for one single trait and is done based upon numerical values for this trait (like weight at a certain age). And of course, animal ill-suited to their environments will die off, no matter what that environment is.

Pangenesis is a weird theory. I find old scientific theories very entertaining. Why did people think that this was feasible? How did they even come up with it? Why did they not object to the complete lack of evidence?

The Brantz reading was very interesting, particularly the portions on keeping pets and keeping animals in zoos. Reading things like that makes me wish that we had another semester of studying animal domestication–there are so many more interesting things to learn about.

This transition from keeping animals out of necessity to keeping animals as novelty items is an interesting one. Perhaps, people have co-evolved with animals so long that they have some some of innate need for the company of domesticates. Perhaps when  farming became unnecessary for the upper classes, they chose to keep pets to fulfill that innate need.

This process of acclimatization that Brantz discussed is one that would not be acceptable in today’s society–or at least, to today’s scientists. There is, increasingly, a focus on keeping animals and natural spaces as they were “meant to be.” What, though, does “meant to be” really mean? Ecosystems are constantly changing. We humans are but another animal in our ecosystems. Perhaps I am playing devils’ advocate here…
I would love to know more about the early history of zoos. How interesting that zoos originally attempted to “civilize” animals and now attempt to make their environments as natural as possible. I wonder what zoos will be like in 100 years or even 200 or 300. WIll they still exist? Will we conclude that it is unethical to keep animals in cages at all?

Asses, Horses, Bits, and Chariots

Disclaimer: Like I said in class last week, I am generally very comfortable talking about sex. I want to study reproductive physiology in graduate school, and a prerequisite for studying in that area is the ability to say the words penis and vagina in any situation without flinching. I’m not trying to be vulgar or flippant, I just think it is easier to talk about something directly than to skirt around the topic.

Discussion questions are bold-ed throughout. Apologies to Erica for stealing this excellent format. Alex is my co-discussion leader–his blog should have additional questions.

I am not sure why Bulliet is so enthused about beastiality. Perhaps enthused is the wrong word, but it keeps coming back up. Honestly, from Bulliet’s descriptions in this section of the reading, it sounds as though beastiality really was not frowned upon in the same way it is today. Particularly compelling was his description of the Greek myth involving the girl who fell in love with Lucius in his donkey form and is disappointed when he returns to his man form. This would not be OK in our society. Why do you think that beastiality was so much more acceptable then than it is now? Bulliet would say that it was due entirely to the close proximity in which humans and animals lived. Do you agree? Do you have other ideas?

They penis, especially the donkey penis, was apparently a very powerful symbol. My first thought about why this might be related to the size of a donkey penis–it is as long and thick as a child’s arm. However, in ancient Greek art, people are often depicted with very small penises, presumably because was thought of as good. Why were donkey penises so important? Why was the penis such a powerful symbol? We laugh about phallic imagry today, but is the penis still also an important symbol in our society?  For some excellent wikipedia-ing, go to this page. Slightly, but not exactly, relevant to this course and really weird and hilarious reading.

Bulliet postulates that donkeys may originally have been domesticated for religious purposes or because of some sort of religious regard. Although initially I thought that this was absurd, it is indeed the case that cattle, sheep, and goats are better sources of meat and milk that donkeys are. Additionally, Bulliet suggests that you wouldn’t want to use an undomesticated animal as a beast of burden–strapping your valuables to it, only to have it run off. This argument is compelling, but it is the case that (even today) draft animals are trained by harnessing them to something so heavy that they cannot run off. Donkeys could have originally been tamed in this way. How reasonable is the theory that donkeys were tamed and them domesticated for religious reasons? Do you have an alternate theory?

Donkeys were regarded well and even respected and worshiped in ancient history. However, by the time that Shakespeare was writing his famous plays, the idea of the “dumb ass” has appeared. Why did this idea appear and what has caused it to persist?

Ah, the utility of categories. According to David W. Anthony in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, archaeologists can’t exactly agree on when the Bronze Age started, but generally think that it started in different places at different times. Later in chapter 7, Anthony discusses horizons. A horizon is a very broad trend, such as the t-shirt-and-jeans trend begining in the 1960s and 70s. Do we need “Bronze Age” (or other categories) as a classification? Why is it useful to classify historical eras in this way, if we can’t classify them across the board or agree on exactly how we ought to classify them? Are horizons more useful than absolute categories?

Radiocarbon dating revolutionized the study of ancient anthropology and archaeology, but also was met with much uncertainty and mistrust, because modifications and improvements in the procedure could (and did, on a couple of occasions) prove all previous results results incorrect. I had never really thought, before, about how historians feel about using various scientific technologies. As a scientist (or at least, a “wanna-be”!), I am used to the idea that a new technology–one that could dramatically change my field and even the significance of many earlier studies–could appear at basically any time. However, unless I am wildly mistaken, historians work with fairly reliable and unchanging resources (basically, stuff that has already happened) and could find a new scientific technology to be very untrustworthy and unpredictable. Not a criticism in either direction, just a thought I had. What does this mean for interdisciplinarity? Where else do you think that science and history can benefit from working together?

And now, we reach the portion of the reading that is highly relevant to my own interests: the domestication of the horse, for riding. Imagine the thought process of those first riders. What would it be like to get on a horse (a very fast, strong animal), for the very first time, when no one had eve done it before? Could that horse have been compromised in some way (injured or ill), to keep it from running away? Anthony was the first person to seriously study bit-wear patterns on horses teeth as a way of determining when riding originated. Initially, he was told that a properly fitting bit would not affect tooth wear at all. However, he pursued the idea further and found that there are distinctive patterns of tooth wear for horses that have been bitted regularly and, in fact, even soft bits made of materials like leather and hemp create wear patterns.

(Relevant only to my own interests: I would have loved to be involved in the portion of the study in which wear pattern on horses bitted with soft bits was examined. Four horses were ridden exclusively in 4 different non-metal bits for 150 hours each. Soft bit are not used in any modern riding disciplines. The horse trainer in my asks: how did the training process work? How did the horses respond? was it easier to to get these horses to “go in a frame”–or work with their necks and backs arched and noses tucked in–than it generally is? We don’t have to discuss these in class, but I think that they are interesting questions.)

My main concern about this system is that it assumes that the first horses ridden were ridden with some sort of bit. Riding horses with no bit, in a type of bridle known as a hackamore, is very common, even today, in many disciplines. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that it is much easier to teach a young horse the basics of steering and stopping with a rider aboard in a hackamore. However, the goals of early riding were probably very different than those today. Horses were certainly less tame and control was a higher priority than cooperation. However, as Anthony states, lack of bit wear patterns really say nothing about whether riding occurred. What did you all think about the bit wear patterns? What do you think about this type of measure–a measure that only tells you when something did happen, and not when something did not happen?

I saw many parallels between the domestication of horses and the domestication of reindeer. Did you all see these parallels? Why might this pattern of riding the animals you eat have appears in reindeer and horses, but not in the other large (ride-able) domesticates?

Anthony explains a theory of the original domestication of horses (for food) based upon genetic data. This theory suggests that the original population of domesticated horses originated from a population with one single foundation stallion and 70-80 mares. What do you think of this theory? Does it make sense based upon the logistics of keeping and breeding horses?

Behavior and temperament are highly heritable in horses (I speak from personal experience and from knowledge gained in genetics courses in my major). Additionally, stallions (even modern, domesticated ones) are really a pain to deal with. Therefore, I do not find the idea that people would only have kept a single, docile stallion and bred him to many mares to be a particularly surprising one. This begs the question, when did castration of horses appear? How did it revolutionize horse breeding? Geldings (castrated male horses) are well known today as the easiest-going, most trainable riding and driving horses.

Finally, I want to talk a little bit about chariots and driving, discussed in the final chapter. We can only assume that chariots came about after horses were used to pull heavy loads, because horses are prey animals and will run away from something that they perceive is chasing them–like a large, clattering chariot, fast-moving chariot–until they get used to it. As I discussed above, an effective strategy for training horses to pull is to hitch them to to something too heavy to move. Were the first chariot horses also draft horses that were used to pulling loads? What was the advantage of the chariot over riding?

 

Also, here‘s one of my favorite poems. It’s about learning to ride, but it could almost be about getting on a horse for the very first time.

On Goats and Farming, Practicality and Pastoralism

I have spent enough time with animals to know that there is nothing rosy and romantic about farming. The perfectly clean farm girl, in her lacy frock, leading lambs out to pasture? She does not exist. Her frock would be dirty, one of the lambs she leads would be eaten by a coyote, and later, when those lambs go to slaughter, she would weep bitterly.

Brad Kessler suggests, over and over again, in his book Goat Song, that farming and milking goats is somehow spiritual, that it is a way to connect to the people we humans once were, thousands of years ago. He romanticizes every bit of goat farming, from the haying that produces the goats’ food to the breedings that produce the goat kids themselves.

In reality, farming is just a lot of hard work. Farming is waking up before the sun, in the freezing cold, to break ice on your animals’ water and knowing that you’ll have to do it again twice before bed. Farming is trying two days and two sleepless nights to save a sick animal and then watching him die and brushing yourself off and saying “better luck next time, eh?” There is beauty in farming. There is nobility and grace in a person who makes his living with his own hands, in a person strong enough to take all of the failures that come with farming and keep on keeping on.

However, Brad Kessler doesn’t describe this nobility. Quite honestly, I don’t think he would know it if it stared him in the face. He is a novelist, not a farmer. That is perfectly OK–there is a place for everyone in the world, and for some, that place is as a novelist. However, once he made some money as a novelist, he decided to live out in the middle-of-no-where-Vermont and raise and milk goats and then write a book about it.

Now, key parts of farming are practicality and pragmatism. For thousands of years, living with and feeding from animals were necessary to survival. When you are trying to survive, you have got to make difficult, practical decisions. Brad Kessler and his wife, Dona, aren’t trying to live off of what their animals produce. They are already well-off financially and are doing a fun project. Perhaps one could call they goat-hobbyists. This is most evident in their treatment of their animals. Each goat has a name and is loved as a companion animal and an individual. Brad and Dona’s relationships with their goats are much more similar to the relationships that humans generally share with dogs than those that humans generally share with the animals that produce their food.

I am proud of the (small amount of) farm work I have done. More than that, I am proud of those I love who farm: my two closest, dearest cousins and their respective husbands farm for a living. My best friend also is currently studying agriculture and working at a farm and intends to farm when she finishes college. One of the things that I love about all of these people is their practicality and pragmatism, their ability to say: “oh well, better luck next time” after a catastrophic failure. Kessler doesn’t even begin to discuss the failures and the tragedies always present in farming. He doesn’t tell about being bone tired, itchy, and beat up and still having to work 7 days a week.

I also take issue with the accuracy of some of Kessler’s assertions. For example, he implies that a male goat would be intensely interested in a menstruating woman. Even if human pheromones worked on goats (which I do not believe that they do–pheromones are generally species-specific), male goats would be intensely interested in human females during ovulation, which generally takes place about two weeks prior to menstruation. Although this is but a small inaccuracy, it draws many of his other assertions into question–if this guy doesn’t understand female cyclicity, is there also other stuff that doesn’t understand, that I might not catch?

Kessler quotes Jim Corbett, a Quaker, saying that a herder perceives food as a gift that  regenerates itself. Forgive me if I am mistaken, but I believe that herding animals, when done on a scale large enough to feel oneself completely, is a tremendous amount of work and that really, nothing is a gift. The animals must be fed properly, which means that if adequate food is not available, it must be procured–grown or found elsewhere. Cows, does, and ewes must be bred, calves, kids, and lambs delivered. Adequate water must be found. Fences must be build and then maintained. Milk, meat, and eggs are only a gift if they are a gift in trade for all of that work.

I recognize that the work of raising and keeping animals is a very different kind of work than the work of growing plants and grains. However, it is still difficult work, and not the paradise that Kessler depicts. Keeping goats as pets, in order to write a book about them, is very different than keeping animals to make a living–and it doesn’t matter if we are talking about farmers in today’s world or about people who lived 1000s of years ago.

There were valuable aspects of Goat Song. I really enjoyed the descriptions of cheese making. In addition, Kessler does a decent job of making his experiences accessible to post-domestic society (to return to an idea that we discussed early in the semester). His research on and discussion of pastoral people was interesting and thorough, if not quite as academic in tone as I would have liked.

I do not mean to bash Goat Song. However, I really did not find it to be partucularly useful to me. I think that, in general, Kessler’s experiences (and, more importantly, the way that he tells of them) simply propagate incorrect ideas present in post-domestic society and do nothing to create an awareness of what animal agriculture was (1000s of years ago) or what it has become.