Final thoughts

I like tidy endings. I like tying up loose ends and finishing things well. Therefore, you get this blog post. I just want to say this: Deep History and Domestication was one of the best classes I’ve taken at Virginia Tech.

I really want to teach when I grow up (probably some sort of animal physiology, zoology, or something in that vein), so whenever I take a particularly good class, I pay attention to how it is run, so I can aspire to teach like that in my future. Usually, I can break it down to a few things: clear explanations, abundant resources, an interested instructor. In this class, I wasn’t quite able to do that. Everything just worked. Of course, Dr. Nelson is awesome and did a great job teaching the class and selecting the readings. She also has a remarkable ability to express her own opinion and still let her students have theirs. She deserves nearly all of the credit for making this class excellent.

However, everybody else in the class was great too. We came from a wide variety of backgrounds and majors and were all able to bring our experiences to the table–both figuratively and literally, since we met in the Hillcrest meeting room, around a table. The final projects really express this wide variety of backgrounds and abilities, which all bring something interesting and worthwhile. Erica’s chicken project (the class winner!) is extensive and covers everything from factory farming to the ethics of dissection. Her description of dissecting a recently killed chicken is particularly compelling. Alex’s donkey project and Ben’s reindeer project were fun to read and compare to my own horse project, noticing differences and similarities between these large, herbivorous domesticates. Humans still do not control the movement of reindeer, which fascinates me. And while horses have become more and more widespread, donkeys are actually becoming endangered. Bill’s bee project moves seamlessly from plant biology to modern medicine, making me realize that bees touch our lives in more ways than I ever thought possible. Casey’s goldfish site, with its stunning design (enter the Goldfish!), is full of interesting information about the ancient world and today’s world (and includes a really cool goldfish training video!). Chris’s cat project talks about internet cats, Egyptian cats, and everything in between. It made me wonder whether cats will ever become fully domesticated. Last, but more certainly not least, Connor’s pigeon project, a fascinating discussion of how pigeons gained their terrible reputation, covers lots of cool things including (my favorite!) Darwin and pigeons.

I can’t really do these projects justice by describing them, but they are really impressive. I really enjoyed having a class format in which everybody’s work was available to everybody else–then we could all learn from each other’s ideas. The freedom we were allowed on the final project was also really refreshing–I loved getting to do basically whatever I wanted on my final project. I was able to make it want I wanted and, for one of the few times in college, I am really proud of what I produced.

I may be rambling now, so I suppose that I ought to quit and say goodbye to Deep History and Domestication. However, like in all excellent classes, I won’t lose what I learned. I’ll carry the knowledge with me and, hopefully, weave it into my increasingly large tapestry of “how life works.”

I’ll leave you all with this:

At age 7, my best friend and I were very serious about our domesticates: Elizabeth (front) and Margaret (back).

At age 7, my best friend and I were very serious about our domesticates: Elizabeth (front) and Margaret (back).

Inequality, Domestication, Evolution, and Studying Outside of Your Discipline

Following is a discussion of some main themes from our readings, for discussion. Erica discussed some others in her post.


Scientists are usually just scientists and historians are usually just historians. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel is an interesting exception. His training was as a physiologist (my own area of interest), but he embarked on an intellectual journey to find the roots of inequality in deep human history, with the idea that once there was no inequality–once we were all in small hunter-gatherer tribes. Where did inequality come from? Why do some people “have so much cargo while others have so little”?

Diamond argues that it mainly stems from geographic luck. Those who ended up in regions with climates conducive to agriculture, and domesticate-able plants and animals ended up with the more advantages. They had a constant source of protein, energy, and fiber. In addition, eventually, they had animal to use for draft purposes. What makes a plant or an animal domesticate-able?

Diamond notes that medium-sized or large, herbivorous animals generally make better domesticates. Further, out of about 150 potential domesticates from this category, only 14 have been domesticated, with the big four being cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs. Why these?

In their article Energy and Ecosystems, Mary C. Stiner and Gillian Feeley-Harnik have an interesting answer. They argue that it was inevitable, based upon all other circumstances. As a result of our traits and the traits of those species that we have domesticated, our association with them was as inevitable as the association of algae and fungus in lichen. It wasn’t a result of our intelligence or of some great mastery we have had over other species, but rather a result of our characteristics and those of the animals we domesticated. As far as I could tell, reading their article, they define domestication as a close mutualism between two species. They don’t even limit the definition to a mutualism between humans and another species, citing the relationship between ants and aphids. What, then, is domestication? This seems to indicate that it is a close mutualism in which one species protects and exploits the other, but ultimately both benefit.

Edmund Russell, in his article Evolutionary History: Prospectus for a New Field, tackles similar issues and questions in a very different way. His article focuses on the idea that we need to study evolutionary history, a field between history and biology. The field of evolutionary history looks at evolution, but takes into account the effect of human history on that evolution. It would also look at how evolution may have shaped human history.

To me, the main theme of Russell’s article was the great importance of interdisciplinarity when studying domestication, evolution, and history. This brings us back to Jared Diamond, who, as a physiologist, he attacked one of the largest questions of our time with great success.