I’d like to start by just quoting Tim Ingold’s opening paragraph here, as he offers a very succinct summary of a few points I’d like to tackle throughout this post.
“Just as humans have a history of their relations with animals, so also animals have a history of their relations with humans. Only humans, however, 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. In this chapter I aim to show that the story we tell in the West about the human exploita- tion and eventual domestication of animals is part of a more encompassing story about how humans have risen above, and have sought to bring under control, a world of nature that includes their own animality.”
So why exactly do humans create stories about their relationships with animals? Why is our history of animal relations told primarily through stories and not the standard template of facts, records, and concluded trends and themes?
First, we posses exceptional communication abilities; we create languages. Regardless of how sophisticated or close other primate and animal communication systems are, humanity is quite clearly above other species in at least some manner in this category. As Ingold notes, our ability to tell stories is one of the main qualifiers of this proclaimed superiority. We should note, however, that fictional storytelling is rather unique to more primitive societies, societies that rely more on superstition, myth, and stories than science. And these stories go beyond human-animal relations; such stories are used to explain the world and environment in which the creator lives. With this in mind, stories between human-animal relationships are just another piece of a broader list of phenomena that societies explain without science.
Now certainly there are unique qualities regarding human-animal stories. Firstly, there are a great deal of them, and I suspect they played a particularly important part in primitive societies. A casual example might be the cave paintings of ancient man that seem to place a significant emphasis on animals they came in contact to.
Let’s discuss this section section of Ingold’s essay – “humans have risen above, and have sought to bring under control, a world of nature that includes their own animality. In this story, a special role is created for that category of human beings who have yet to achieve such emancipation from the natural world: known in the past as wild men or savages, they are now more politely designated as hunters and gatherers. I shall be looking at how hunter-gatherers have come to be stereotypically portrayed, in Western anthropo- logical accounts, as surviving exemplars of the ‘natural’ condition of mankind.”
I disagree wholeheartedly that the hunter-gatherer necessarily represents man’s ‘natural’ state. I believe that while man has a kinship with animals and the wilderness, he cannot survive in the same ‘natural’ state that other animals seem to be comfortable with. Perhaps this is because we have no adaptions to make us comfortable. Our adaption of intelligence allows us to mold or create our environment, rancher than our environment molding us. We are both belong and do not belong to nature. Before the influences of western society (or any society), humanity has sought to tamper with its environment, to escape its harshness. I suspect this is was the precursor to ‘enlightenment’, to that state of detachment from nature. Together, we might tentatively conclude that man has two competing drives: that to be a part of nature, and that to rise above it. Many a society’s stance on how people should live in regard to their habitat, and the surrounding natural world is a reconciliation between the two. I feel comfortable stating that what we consider to be morality and enlightenment are mutually divisive against natural urges and animal desire (or at least what this animal relationship lens call ‘animal’).
Bulliet, in Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgersalso quotes enlightenment authors as he discusses the western philosophy of humanity being separate and above the rest of the natural world. While he applies the conclusions to the development of two separate lifestyles in post-domestic society, it’s interesting to see this discussion of man’s natural or unnatural place in nature reappear in several different works. This is one of my favorite topics in the subject of domestication, and while I don’t entirely subscribe to Bulliet’s presentation of the enlightenment philosophy of human superiority, I certainly feel there is something to be said for man’s awkward place in nature, rather than calling the hunter-gather his inherent and intended state.