The Mysteries of Evolution: From Dogs to Us

This weeks readings provided interesting insights on the many mysteries that surround the evolution of dogs as well as on our feelings in regards to our own evolution. I really enjoyed both articles and felt that each presented some very valid arguments in addition to posing some thought provoking questions.  I felt like How the Dog Became the Dog by Derr and Zuk’s article Misguided Nostalgia for Our Paleo Past tied together well in many aspects in relation to the complexities of evolution.

In How the Dog Became the Dog, Derr did a great job of presenting the evolution of the wolf to the dog using a variety of evidence from a multitude of different fields of study. He was able to combine the many archaeological findings with all the information on modern species to disprove some of the less fact based theories on how dogs came to be, and in doing so created a lose timeline of how and where the dog originated. Central to his theory is the idea that there are significant overlaps, both in genotype and phenotype, between the stages from the wolf to the dog. I thought this was a very logical way to look at evolution, and it stuck me as strange that this idea wasn’t really a significant part of any of the other readings we have done. Evolution is a very gradual process (in many cases but not all as we saw in Misguided Nostalgia) and it doesn’t make any sense to think of things as black and white, or in this case wolf and dog. There is always a gray, or dogwolf, area in between that is so often overlooked, and Derr picked up on this and used it as the backbone for developing his opinion of the origins of the dog.

In addition, in How the Dog Became the Dog, there was a reference to Buffon’s opinion that species tend to degenerate, not improve, from the parent form. I can see how the argument could be made because in many cases animals in captivity do lose some of the skills that made their ancestors more capable of survival in the wild. For example, the more wolf-like dogs are arguably more capable of survival than the little hairball lap dogs that are common today. But when I began to think about it, the only other examples of degeneracy that came to mind were of domesticated species. In the wild all species seem  to improve, likely due to the pressures of natural selection and survival of the fittest, which, to some extent deflates Buffon’s argument. However, in Misguided Nostalgia, Zuk talked about how we long for the past because we feel like times were better, but in you assume that this feeling was common in people throughout history, you eventually end up back as a single-celled organism. This idea would support Buffon as it suggests that we have slowly degenerated from that first single-celled organism that leads to what we are today. I guess where I am going with this topic is, is there some validity to Buffon’s theory that animals degenerate from the parent form or is there enough evidence in the study of wild animals evolution to disprove him?

Finally, in Misguided Nostalgia, Zuk brings up another interesting question when she mentions that there is an idea floating around that the relative isolation of countries like those in Africa from other places like North America may be leading to evolutionary developments in two separate directions. If this truly is occurring, which is very much up for debate, then we could potentially develop subspecies of humans, just like when a species of animal gets separated from its kin and develops differently as a result. What would be the result of a series of subspecies of humans? Would it result in the development of more capable humans, and if so would this result in the inferiority, or collapse, of the other species? Is speciation even possible in humans with all of the global connection that exists? Let me know what you think!


Divination or Déjà vu?

This weeks reading from Vitebsky’s The Reindeer People falls into a slightly different category from the other pieces we have covered so far this semester. It wasn’t a compilation of research and studies that were constructed into a foundation for some overarching idea about the origins and definition of domestication like we saw with Diamond and Bulliet. It was simply a story. Vitebsky discovered a group of extraordinary people who were so unique from the everyday masses, and he set out to tell their tale. He definitely has his own opinions and theories weaved into the web that is the reindeer people’s lifebut for the most part he allows his experiences to speak for themselves. As a result, I found it very easy to just sit back and enjoy myself while I read about the Eveny and their exceptional way of life.

There were a plethora of intriguing ideas throughout the portions of this book that we covered, but, for the sake of a post that is shorter than the work itself, I decided to focus on just one of these topics. I thought it was fascinating how the Eveny people placed so much value and faith in the actions of animals, both wild and domestic. The concept of Bayanay and of the close spiritual connection of the people and the animals and the land and even possessions like knives and guns seemed like such a foreign idea to me at first glance. However, as I continued reading I began to see many parallels between the Eveny’s cultural ideas and our own. This may seem like a strange connection at first but I will do my best to explain myself.

The first interesting overlap that hit me was in connection to our modern cinema. The whole idea of Bayanay and ever-present spirits is very similar to the views of the Na’vi people of Pandora in the movie Avatar. I thought this was a very interesting connection because in the movie the idea of our “connected-ness” to nature was portrayed a strange and foreign, yet the Eveny people are an example of human beings who have extremely similar views on nature. As I compared the movie and the book, I began to see so many similarities between the two that I started to wonder if maybe Vitebsky and James Cameron had gotten together at some point wrote the movie together haha. I won’t go into too much detail about it all because I feel like I am straying off topic, but just to provide some examples; the mining of unobtainium on Pandora vs. the mining of precious metals by Russian miners in the Eveny territories of Siberia, the close ties of people to animals which is taken so far as to be a literal connection between the Na’vi and the species of Pandora when they intertwine their braids with the animals the are riding, and the pressures of invading individuals on maintaining an established culture (communist Russians for the Eveny and humans for the Na’vi).

Another interesting thought I had had to do with the Eveny use of reading into animal symbols to see the future. There were many examples throughout the text of Eveny people  seeing strange behaviors of animals as omens for things to come. For example, Kesha tells a story of a swan landing on a lake in front of him when he was out hunting one day which he later took to symbolize that he would meet his wife Lyuda. At the time, there was no way that Kesha could have known what the strange swan sighting was meant to symbolize, if anything at all, but it so happened that an event in the future (the meeting of his future wife Lyuda) made the symbolism of the swan evident. I couldn’t help but think of a fortune cookie when I read this story. A fortune cookie is a seemingly meaningless phrase at first, but as the future unfolds, an event often occurs that seems to validate the fortune. For example, you might get a fortune that says “A pleasant surprise is in store for you” which makes no sense until your old friend from grade school surprises you with a visit a couple weeks later. This struck me because it shows a sort of similarity between our culture and that of the Eveny people, when on the surface there doesn’t seem to be anything even remotely similar between the two groups lifestyles. I continued to think about this concept and a thought provoking question hit me. Do these animal signs and fortunes that we come across in everyday life cause us to act different subconsciously as a means of fulfilling whatever it is that we think the sign represents? Or to word it another way, do we make different choices than we might normally have because we have a lingering feeling in the back of our heads from the strange swan we saw or open-ended fortune we read last week? In relation to the book, there is a story about a girl, I can’t remember her name at the moment, who finds an Eveny knife and is told by those around her that she has actually found a husband because the knife often symbolizes this. It turns out that she does end up marrying an Eveny man in the future. To tie this into my question, does the fact that she found an Eveny knife make her more likely to give Eveny men more of a chance in the future, while at the same time blocking out attempts by Russian or Sakha men? I suppose this wasn’t really the type of question Vitebsky was trying to get us to ask but I thought it might be an interesting discussion all the same.

The last two parallels that I thought of between us and the Eveny peoples had to do with their ability to see the future in dreams and their lack of telling people about a good omen in a dream for fear that it won’t come true. In relation to the first parallel, I think that the ability to see the future in a very ambiguous form, like in Varya’s story about how she dreamt that she was walking next to a river in a strange place with her sister-in-law making a garland of flowers which ended up coming true when she was brought to see her dead brother, could be described in our society as déjà vu. The idea that you have already experienced the present at some point in the past happens to many people, and this may be what Varya is describing here. Maybe we all have some deep connection with nature and the Eveny people have just realized it to a larger extent than others which has led them to their different way of life. Finally, my second parallel about the fear of spoiling a good omen seems to relate to the idea we have about not “jinxing” things. In a conversation Vitebsky had with one of his many Eveny friends, the idea of keeping a good omen secret until it comes to pass is brought up. Vitebsky is told that telling someone else of a good omen will cause it not to come true. This is similar to when someone today predicts a positive outcome and is told “Don’t jinx it!” No matter whether you live in a cabin in Siberia or an apartment in Blacksburg, there is a natural fear of spoiling a good thing by voicing it too early. Are we all subconsciously worried that we will offend Bayanay if we get too cocky?

Well, I may have gotten a little carried away there and I apologize if I swayed off of the domestication topic, but I think we have all come to realize that nothing is really too far off the mark in this class, haha. To summarize the meanderings above, I just think that maybe at heart, we really aren’t all that different from the Eveny people, we just have a different way of explaining natures phenomena.

Finding Common Ground

Over the past few weeks it has become very evident to me that to give domestication a singular definition is nearly impossible. Every week we read another anthropologist’s or philosopher’s or historian’s account of the history of human-animal relations and each one is distinctly unique from the others. Week after week I find in each new perspective, a series of compelling ideas different from the previous week, which in turn sways my opinions and ideas on the matter. I always end up feeling like at the end of our discussions I am close to finding the answer to and ending the debate on human-animal relations once and for all; but then I pick up the reading for the next week and I am back to square one again. It creates a combination of frustration and intrigue in me. It is frustrating how something that seems so simple at first glance can have so much controversy surrounding it, but then in the same vein, all of these different ideas are new and intriguing and force me to pick up the reading for the next week to try to learn more!

To tie this little rant to our readings for the week, I will discuss Ingold’s article From Trust to Dominion. I think that of all the articles we have read, I agree, or rather sympathize most with Ingold’s. And it is not because I think his ideas are the most accurate that we have read, or because he has the best evidence for his arguments; it is simply because he takes the ideas of so many other people and ties them together into one central idea. This is not to say that the other pieces we have read didn’t incorporate others’ ideas into their works because they did. I just think that Ingold pulls ideas from such a diverse variety of people on either end of the spectrum and sows them together into one simple, coherent point better than the other works we have read, or watched, thus far.

I think he understands that there are so many different views on human-animal relations, that to try to create an all-encompassing opinion on the matter is futile. Instead, he looked into a series of other studies and notions and drew out a common theme that was hidden in all of them, whether their authors knew it or not. This hit home with me because I realized that I have been going about this course the wrong way. I have been taking each separate article as its own entity to a large extent, when what I really should be doing to understand human-animal relations is to look for the common ground between each piece. Only through comparisons and contrasts of the many feelings out there on the subject can we hope to get any closer to answering the great questions of human-animal relations.

I may be way off in my views here, and if so feel free to correct me. It just felt different reading Ingold’s article to me and this was my shot at trying to explain that feeling. But anyways Ingold’s article was only a small piece of what we read this week and I feel like I should at least touch on Animals as Domesticates and Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers.

In Animals as Domesticates, I really liked the timeline that they provided throughout. It was helpful to see a logical time frame presenting when each animal was domesticated in relation to when others were and also in terms of what the climate of the earth was like when things were occurring. Also I thought Clutton-Brock’s discussion on why wolves were the first domesticated animal made a lot of sense. They are very similar to us in many aspects such as the hierarchical structure of the packs and the acceptance of dominance as well as in their ability to survive in a diversity of habitats. These facts combined with their ability to work together with humans for mutually beneficial hunts make a very strong case for why dogs are likely the first truly domesticated species. In addition, I think it is crazy how much information they can come up with from carbon dating techniques and bone analysis. I have always known that you can learn a lot about the past using these techniques but when they were able to show that a bear was domesticated based on a marking caused by a rope in its jaw, I was very impressed. Maybe after a few more centuries of findings like this we will be able to piece together a much more accurate timeline of human-animal history.

Finally I just have a quick point about Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers. I hoped to get to this topic last Tuesday in discussion but there was just so much to talk about that there was no way to get to everything.  In watching the video about Guns, Germs and Steel, as well as through some of the other readings we have done, we have gained a pretty good idea of Diamonds ideas on the advent of domestication. In summary, he seemed to think that the process of the domestication of plants and animals happened together and as a result of one another. He had his theory that animals were domesticated shortly after the advent of agriculture for food at first but then quickly became used for everything from clothing to plowing the fields as beasts of burden. This contradicts rather strongly with Bulliet’s arguments in Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers. Bulliet suggests throughout his book, at least up to where I am at, that animals and plants were domesticated separately. His evidence includes how animals such as the dog were domesticated long before agriculture, as well as that animals such as horses and donkeys, which Diamond would argue were domesticated for work such as plowing fields, were not domesticated until thousands of years after the advent of agriculture. I thought both points had valid arguments; however, both ideas cannot be entirely correct. Who do you guys think is closest to the truth, or are they both right in some aspects and wrong in others? Just some food for thought!

Domestic, Postdomestic, Post-postdomestic?

Bulliet’s Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers is an interesting take on human-animal relationships that divides human history into four stages: Separation, Predomesticity, Domesticity, and Postdomesticity. He argues that separation is the period in history when humans first differentiated themselves from animals, leading to predomesticity. This period is simplified as the time when humans primary lifestyle consisted of hunting and gathering. Predomesticity turns into domesticity with the “Neolithic revolution,” which is essentially just a term the describes humans domesticating certain plants and animals. Finally this period of domestication, consisting of daily contact between humans and animals, evolves into postdomesticity, during which humans and animals are separated both physically and psychologically. Interestingly enough, postdomesticity seems to be most similar to the predomestic stage by Bulliet’s definition, suggesting a sort of cycle in human-animal relations.

In the first chapter, Bulliet presents some…. unique examples of the progression from domesticity to postdomesticity in his discussions of sex and blood. He ties in a variety of topics from bestiality and pornography to animal slaughter and gory movies, which at first glance seem to be very unlikely candidates for emphasizing the change of humans from a domestic society to a postdomestic one. However, he manages to show how in almost all of his examples that humans have changed from a society that was very hands on and involved in the many facets of life to one that is more disengaged and focused on fantasy. Whether it is our shift from boxing to wrestling or our removal from the slaughter of farm animals for food, humans have exhibited this change. The question that arises is what do these changes mean for humans-animal relations, especially pertaining to domestication.

Bulliet continues in the next few chapters to go into detail about the development and origins of each of the stages he created to cover the progression of human-animal relations over our entire existence as a species. As a result of this huge span of time he covers, the major issue that Bulliet runs into with this work is that the majority of the arguments that he makes are based almost solely on conjecture and educated guesswork. There is no way of truly knowing what early humans were thinking millions of years ago, and no way to pinpoint the specific dates when these changes that Bulliet claims define each stage actually occurred. However, the opinions in Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers are very strong despite the lack of any real factual basis. This leaves the door open for debate as to whether his opinions, although well founded, are accurate.

In respect to our discussion on Tuesday afternoon, here are a series of questions that are posed directly by Bulliet or extrapolated from the ideas that he presents in the first chapters of this book. These are some starting points for everyone to consider before we get together on Tuesday.

  • What are the major drawbacks or benefits that arise from children’s later exposure to  sex and blood? In the domestic era, a majority children grew up seeing animals lives firsthand from mating and birth to slaughter. In more recent history, children are   far more sheltered from these things for better or for worse. How does this effect the lives of these children as they grow up and develop into adulthood?
  • Many of the issues that Bulliet discusses in relation to the shift from domesticity to postdomesticity revolve around the movement of humans from direct, “real,” experiences to more withdrawn fantasy. How does this idea affect peoples views today?  Is this the cause of the major movements like vegetarianism and animal rights, or are these things completely separate? Is this a reversion back to the separation era that Bulliet describes?
  • The progression in the stages that Bulliet describes started out with very slow, ambiguous change from one to the next; however, the shift from domesticity to post domesticity occurred relatively quickly in the grand scheme of things. Is postdomesticity just another stage in Bulliet’s theory? Is there a post-postdomestic era to come? What will it entail? Will it be similar to predomesticity or domesticity or entirely new? How soon will it happen?
  • There were some very strong parallels drawn throughout the first four chapters, including the comparison of animal treatment and the meatpacking industry to the Holocaust as well as the animal rights issue to slavery and civil rights. Are these comparisons accurate? Are they acceptable?
  • The cornerstone of Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers is the separation between humans and animals. How separate are they? Has the degree of separation stayed relatively static or is it ever-changing? Does Bulliet accurately depict the separation of humans and animals throughout history?

These are just a few questions to consider and get the discussion going but I think there are a lot of other great ideas to debate. I look forward to Tuesday and cannot wait to hear everyone’s opinions on Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers.