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.
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July 23, 2015 @ 1:18 pm
February 3, 2014 @ 4:55 pm
I agree with your criticism of Bulliet’s writing style. Throughout the reading we did for this week, I felt like I was getting whiplash trying to keep up as Bulliet veered and zoomed through various topics that were very difficult to pull a point out of. I’m sure our class discussion will lend various perspectives, but part of my concern with my blog post for this week was that I had taken the complete wrong meaning away from what Bulliet was getting at…although I can’t be too sure due to the fact that his writing is bogged down with a lot of fluff. I don’t know about you, but I was a little confused as to why it seemed like much of this section of the reading consisted of movie and cartoon titles. I do understand the metamorphosis of entertainment as our views of animal cruelty have evolved, however I don’t get why that point was made through the listing of pretty much every cartoon that contained animals.
I also am glad that you mentioned the development that Bulliet lacks. As I commented on in my post, I think Bulliet fails to examine the details of societal development that would underline some of his points on changing from a domestic to postdomestic society. I’m glad you brought up the change to reliance on machinery for farming purposes, because I think these large scale meat production farms are the real problem with what Bulliet calls our postdomestic society. However, the explanation of societal changes and the development of the problems with current society and an answer to what needs to be done are all things that are missing from Bulliet’s writing. I understand the book is only beginning, but I think this was necessary in setting up the background for his book. Like you, I remain unconvinced and unimpressed by Bulliet so far.
February 3, 2014 @ 11:45 am
I concur about this book being somewhat difficult to follow. My post reflected on it as a very abstract history lesson, linking (somewhat mindlessly) the domestication of animals to human sexuality and violence. While he does support his claims with various examples of the time periods (hence my history lesson title), he could be throwing around claims he has either assumed or completely made up. I think it’s accurate, genius, and hilarious that you pointed out his basing an entire novel off a term he coined himself. While reading it, I felt skeptical of his overgeneralized claims that the level of domesticity accounts for the sexual preferences of society. He brings up interesting and unique points, but I too had to keep re-reading until I finally got what he was trying to say. He also failed to include specific dates, such as when he described Utopia, and I would really like to know exactly where he gets his information from. I have probably never heard of some of these periods, such as the one of open bestiality, due to the taboo nature of the topic, but I do not understand how he seems to know the sexual history of society. Furthermore, he does not always define which area of the world he is referring to; did the whole world act this way? He will say things like the farmers of “blank,” but what about everywhere else? I liked the beginning of the first chapter when he referred to specific time periods readers are familiar with, such as the late 60’s (1969 to be exact), but he becomes more ambiguous and complex after those first few paragraphs. Do not think I don’t find this book interesting or insightful, I just agree that SOME of his claims are a little shady and pretty overgeneralized.
February 3, 2014 @ 10:03 am
I agree with Kelly about your terrific title and funny pun…and about the curious reluctance to deal with the elephant (Bull Mastiff?) in the room. You’re also likely onto something interesting in many of your concerns about Bulliet’s theories. But much of what he presents is pretty well documented (the correlation between attitudes toward violence and the removal of livestock and slaughter / butchering from public spaces, for example). It would be worth finding some evidence to support your hunches about some of this. The topic clearly has you mobilized!
Kara Van Scoyoc
February 2, 2014 @ 11:52 pm
I agree that a lot of it was spewing every theory ever written at us and hoping we were able to digest it. I think he certainly dived into some interesting topics that I have never been exposed to before which in that respect made me want to keep reading. All in all I thought it covered different transitions in history well too in terms of a timeline but I think some of the bigger trends, again relating to the discussion of dogs, left out which is off putting.
February 2, 2014 @ 4:50 pm
Two things right off the bat: Great title, and fantastic pun.
I totally agree with the lack of discussion about dogs. Will someone please stop ignoring the elephant in the room here? It’s a huge hit to credibility in my eyes when discussing domestication if you don’t mention the single longest domesticated animal…
I think you’re right on a lot of the points, but I don’t know about us being killers in self-defense first. To start, you’d have to define when you consider us to be defensive creatures only. 3 million years ago? 10? At a certain point you go back far enough that I think you can’t really call whatever creature it is you’re talking about a close ancestor of man, and therefore it wouldn’t really make a difference how he killed. That may be confusing when I type it out but I think it would be interesting to talk about.