Yes, that title is a bit harsh. But while I appreciate most of the various viewpoints on the origins of animal domesticity which Richard Bulliet highlights in his book Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, I have to confess that four chapters in I’m still extremely skeptical. Part of that may have to do with the fact that, while the actual topics Bulliet writes about are of great interest to me, and ones I would like to explore further, his actual writing style is a huge turnoff. His paragraphs are dense, his sentences are wordy, and I find him to be extremely and unnecessarily repetitive. I don’t think of myself as an unintelligent person, but seriously, I’ve read research articles which are easier to digest. Let’s just say it’s not a “light read;” this would perhaps generally not be such an issue, however when combined with the heavy though-provoking content I find the book to be a bit inaccessible, which is a quality I think every author should strive to avoid (after all, the end goal is for as many people as possible to read your book).
But this post is starting to sound like a high school book report. I’m not exactly a great writer myself, so who am I to criticize? Let’s move on to the actual meat of the message (pun not intended, but I do hope it’s appreciated, even if most of you are rolling your eyes).
I think my biggest problem with Bulliet is that he just seems to be flinging every theory ever postulated about the origins of animal domesticity at us, and not really fully exploring their plausibilities. Maybe that’s what he intended, but personally I’d rather focus the those that are the least far-fetched. For example, call me crazy, but I don’t think that changing interpretations of domestication in the 20th century had any sort of causal relationship with an increased societal apprehension (and therefore, fascination) with blood and sex. Yes, humans stopped becoming so involved with the actual killing of animals being used for the meat industry. The growing population of countries such as the US and Great Britain made more industrial methods of harvesting animal meat a necessity to keep up with the growing demand. Avoidance of actually bloodying our hands to get our own beef and pork may have been a byproduct of this change, but attempting to be as uninvolved in watching the light slowly drain out of an animals eyes has been a characterization of advanced societies for centuries. As for beastiality, whatever Bulliet’s sources say, I’m pretty sure that’s been taboo for even longer. It was simply the rise of technology in the 20th century which made it easier for us to know every detail of people’s intimate lives and share them with the world that has sparked a louder, more insistent vocalization of “society’s” opinions about human interactions with animals, sex, and blood that has made us the two-faced society we are today; exclaiming our horror and disgust at blood and sex, and the turning around and becoming enraptured with X-rated HBO crime dramas and sexy vampires. My point is, I don’t see a correlation between our changing societal views on the nitty-gritty parts of human life and changing over from farms to meat factories.
I thought we were finally getting somewhere when Bulliet started discussing the ways in which we distinguish ourselves from animals, and why we see our own species in this elevated light, however some of the views and theories he presented on this topic were a little too impractical for me to swallow. I’m pretty sure our hominid ancestors weren’t concerned about whether the animals they were interacting with had ‘souls’ or not–I think the fact that they needed meat to survive probably had more to do with the origins of domestication. I don’t even agree with his bit about believing we should domesticate and bring animals under our rule because of our own believed superiority; keeping our major source of food and life easily accessible just makes sense. Why would we expend our energy trying to constantly hunt down our meat when it’s simpler and easier to keep it with us? All the religious rationalizations for human domination of the natural world came after the fact.
I found some holes in Bulliet’s list of reasons for why we are different from every other animal species, as well. I’m not saying that humans aren’t unique, but he presents some things as fact which simply aren’t true. For example, humans aren’t the only species to engage in sex solely for pleasure and not for reproductive purposes- dolphins have been shown to do the same thing. And it’s common knowledge that while we can only understand our own speech, that doesn’t mean other animals don’t communicate. We’ve developed a language that can be expressed by symbols scratched on a wall, but honeybees wiggle their butts to give directions. One could actually see language as compensation for our lack of ability to express our thoughts by pheromones or body language. This is because humans are uniquely capable of abstract concept, which isn’t something that can be expressed by butt wiggling or peeing on a fire hydrant. I think this is the main division between humans and other animals, not the development of speech itself, and Bulliet should have mentioned it.
I do agree that cooking our food is a distinctive and important trait not found in other species. I wish Bulliet had explored the possible origins of cooking our meat more–I agree that it must have been accidental. However, I disagree with his theory for why early hominids began to eat meat. I’ve learned that the simplest explanation for something is usually the most correct. Therefore, I believe the carrion-eating theory to be the most likely- we were scavengers, learning what to eat to survive based on what we saw other animals eat, and putting ourselves in as little danger as possible to obtain food. We developed a taste and need for protein, but we were still only killers first in self-defense; however through defending ourselves and reaping the benefits of a fresh kill we came to learn how to hunt.
One more point. I may sound repetitive and a bit obsessed, but in four chapters Bulliet referred to wolves and dogs once. The first domesticated species, and they are continually glossed over in favor of those animals which provide us food. I agree they’re important, but would they even exist as domesticated animals if we hadn’t domesticated the wolf first? I think there’s a huge part of the story missing when dogs are left out of the story of domestication, and when a book about how domestication arose fails to mention them, it definitely makes me question the credibility of the author. I know I sound like a crazy dog lady, and maybe I am a little bit, but that doesn’t diminish their importance.
While bringing up some interesting points of discussion and further thought in his book, I wish Bulliet had gone about it in a different way. Maybe I just don’t like his writing style, but I think content-wise he was missing out a bit as well. I do plan to finish the book, however, so we’ll see what happens.