Answer: We do. We couldn’t live without it.
In our modern society, it’s easy to look out at the world and take for granted that life as we know it has always been the way it is today. I’m not talking about technology, or medicine, or even politics; I’m talking about how we see ourselves as human beings as compared to the every other living thing out there. It could be very easily argued that we are and always have been superior–we can drive other living beings to our own purpose, create and maintain a sustainable life for ourselves and our loved ones, and change the biological makeup of the world around us (for better or for worse). And while that may mean we have more power than any other being to control our own lives and the lives of others, it is important to remember that our current state of “superiority” has not always existed. Our origin story is the same as every other creature: a combination of dumb luck and countless one-in-a-million events that somehow made us the being we are today.
Ok, so, that’s pretty deep for a first blog post. And admittedly, it doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with domestication. But I’m getting there. I think it’s important to understand how we developed to the point that domestication became not only an option, but a necessity for the survival and growth of our culture. We all know about Lucy, the first significant ape-human link in evolution ever found. Many people even know about Ardi, Lucy’s ancestor, who lived millions of years before she existed. And while these two links in the ape-to-human chain of events can tell us overwhelming amounts of information about how we evolved, I think the most important thing to take away from their discoveries and stories is that we did. Just like every other creature, plant, and living organism on earth, we evolved from something that looked and lived in completely different way than we do. But at some point in that journey of chromosome recombination and genetic mutations, we became the people we are today. And not long after that, we learned how to use our big brains and thrive as a society.
As explained (quite well, in my opinion) by Jared Diamond in his documentary Guns, Germs, and Steel, the biggest step forward in our species’ road to dominance had to do with food. As a lover of all things edible, I personally find no reason to question that logic. However, it does make sense. When we learned to farm and store our own food, we gained a HUGE advantage over every other species. And when we began farming, domesticating, and using animals, that advantage grew exponentially. We became a self-sustaining community, and domestication of animals gave us that ability. We had access to meat, milk, hides, and horsepower, without having to expend energy by hunting it down, allowing us to devote our concerns and brainpower to more ambitious endeavors such as building homes and creating artwork that would last millennia.
Although I recommend watching (or reading) GG&S (if only to gain a different perspective on how civilization developed), I did find that it excluded some pretty important details regarding domestication. For example, Diamond referred to farmed animals as the first ever to be domesticated. In reality, the first animal domesticated was the wolf. This is a pretty important milestone, not only for all my fellow dog-lovers out there, but for us as humans. It offered a completely different dynamic in the way we could interact with the world around us, because the first dogs were not used as food, fur, or animals of labor, but as companions. I’m sure I’ll post more on dogs later in the semester, but this seemed a pretty big detail to leave out.
So there are some of the whys, hows, and whats of how domestication began. We wouldn’t be the “superior,” world-domineering species we are today without it. Through obscure biological chance, we became beings that could bend the world around us to our will, and that has been our greatest advantage in establishing our position in the world today. And without goats, cows, and horses, we couldn’t have done it.
January 27, 2014 @ 4:22 pm
I love the “depth” of the first paragraph! You are so wise to remind us that our current view of how omnipotent, powerful, and entitled we are is, after all, a specific kind of historical construction. As Dunn notes, in terms of our evolutionary past, we were prey long before and for a lot longer than we’ve been predators or agriculturalists.
And yes, on Diamonds’ glaring omission of dogs – the oldest domesticate and certainly one of the most interesting. I’m looking forward to your future posts about them!