After my post last week regarding my distaste for the first four chapters of Bulliet’s Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, it may surprise you (as it surprised me) to learn that I found the next few chapters much more interesting and accessible. It probably helped that he finally started mentioning animals that were not domesticated for farming, such as DOGS (admittedly a bit of a sore spot for me). I also was surprised to read his critique of our old friend Jared Diamond’s take on the history of domestication, and to find that I agreed with Bulliet’s opinion of it- interesting, but too flawed to really be persuasive. As I have no prior knowledge of the domestication of rats, I found the passage on Dr. H. D. King’s experiment intriguing. I wonder if it would be possible to conduct similar experiments with other wild animals which we have domesticated over the years? It would of course be impractical and an expensive procedure to conduct, especially given the amount of time it would take before any publishable results were made, but wouldn’t it be interesting to watch a wild population turn domestic before our very eyes? I can’t help but wonder how enlightening it would be to try and replicate the process of turning wolves into dogs, if the wolf population were not as threatened as it is today. I wonder if it would be similar to that of Dimitry Belyaev’s research on the fox population he studied.
Despite my new gradual acceptance of Bulliet’s writings and theories, I still have my complaints. I wish that Bulliet had spent more time on the “secondary uses” of animals, since I find domestication in animals used for more than just food to be the most intriguing. I’d never thought about it before, but why did humans start drinking milk from other species? Who first came up with the idea of simply shearing a sheep, instead of skinning it, to use its wool? Bulliet places a lot of the blame on religion, but skeptic that I am I’m not so willing to believe that that is the case. Perhaps, as Tim Ingold suggests in Chapter 4 of his book Perceptions of the Environment, it came about due to an unwillingness to waste possible resources. It only takes the ingenuity of one person to try something new, so it’s not surprising that secondary uses of domestic animals arose. Seeing the accomplishments of those who came before us makes me wonder if those who live in our time are still just as resourceful. I believe they are, however, significantly less egalitarian. We are not so willing to share everything we have with everyone in our community. So what does this mean in terms of sharing knowledge and creativity? Is society progressing at a slower rate than it might if the world were more egalitarian?
I found it interesting that both Bulliet and Ingold mentioned society’s perception of other human cultures considered “less” than human. It highlights the importance we assign advanced culture in distinguishing ourselves from animals. Can it be said that any animals have culture? Recent research suggests that chimpanzees, in fact, to exhibit behavioral patterns akin to basic culture among separate populations. If we delved into the behaviors of other animals with higher degrees of intelligence than most (for example, dolphins), would we find primitive cultural behavior there as well?
Once last thought inspired by Bulliet’s writing. Are our domestic animals fundamentally more or less intelligent than their wild counterparts? One would think that a tendency to trust rather than run away would be indicative of an animal which may not survive long. We do slaughter most of our domestic animals- perhaps it’s not as obvious as when our ancestors would hunt them down with bows and spears, but the end game is the same. Yet we often consider our domestic animals to be of higher intelligence. One of my favorite comparisons between wolf and dog: when you point at something, a dog will look where you’ve pointed, however a wolf will continue to look at you. Is this an inbred tendency to trust and understand? We are able to train our animals to do amazing things, lauding their intelligence in their ability to learn new tricks, but is this really intelligence? Or does “train-ability” indicate a lesser inherent concern for safety and survival?