Although I enjoyed both Brantz and Darwin, I’d like to focus more on Brantz’s topics of analysis in my blog post, as it’s a more unfamiliar field to me. That being said, Darwin’s work and the depth of his study has always intrigued me. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to study different varieties of honey bee, and yet he sounds almost disappointed that he can’t do more to artificially control their breeding! He couldn’t have known the near-impossibility of obtaining any usable data from an experiment like this anyway, considering the way bees reproduce, but I wonder what we would have discovered sooner about genetics if he had found a way to do it?
Anyway, on to Brantz. Other than his comment about the dog days of summer (I’m pretty sure they’re named after the prominence of the Dog Star during those particular weeks of summer, not brutality to stray dogs, but correct me if I’m wrong), I liked his analysis. I thought it was similar to the very first reading we did on post-domestication relationships between humans and domestic animals. The part that most fascinated me, however, was the acclimatization section.
While under most circumstances I would consider the ability to acclimate and adapt to new situations as a good thing, in reading Brantz’s chapter on domestication I saw nothing but the downsides to the whole process. Brantz briefly mentions the failings of acclimatization, but I don’t think the spin he puts on this really makes the reader aware of the devastating effects acclimatization and domestication of foreign animals had. In class we’ve discussed how some animals are better for domestication than others simply due to genetic predisposition, however the major problem with acclimatization wasn’t that some animals just can’t be domesticated, it was that you can’t displace hundreds of animals to a completely new climate and expect everything to be ok, either for them or for the people already living there.
Brantz does mention the “rabbit plague” of Australia, but here’s a little more background on the story for those of you who may not be familiar with it: Some guy in England moved to Australia and decided he wanted to continue rabbit-hunting there, only Australia didn’t have any native rabbits. I don’t know much about him, but I’m guessing he looked like this:
So he shipped less than 20 over from Europe to fuel his hobby, thinking it couldn’t possibly do any harm. The rabbits bred like, well, rabbits, and the population exploded and covered the entire country, devastating the ecosystem. I’m surprised a horror movie hasn’t been made of out the story. The government tried increasingly drastic methods to exterminate the rabbits, eventually hitting on one that worked in the latter half of the 20th century, more than 100 years after they had been introduced. The method was basically biological warfare on the rabbits- a virus called myxoma was introduced to the population. Other biological control methods had been tried before, but myxoma was the first to actually work- it reduced the population to less than 20% of what it had been. However, the effects didn’t last. The remaining resistant rabbits bred, and the population grew again. Finally, a different virus was found that worked in the 1990s. (Funnily enough, it escaped by accident from a research facility where they were testing its efficacy, but it still worked.)
All this mess because some guy wanted to hunt rabbits. The many reasons anyone could possible have for acclimatization and domestication of foreign animals are far outweighed by the risks involved. We’ve only mentioned ecological damage, which is bad enough, but there are health risks too. Rabbits are reservoirs for diseases that not only affect them, but other animals and people as well. I don’t even need to mention the risk that wild rats and birds pose. It’s fascinating to me how these downsides did nothing to stop the fad of acclimatization and bringing over of foreign animals to “civilized” countries- all for a bit of entertainment and (probably mostly) profit. I can’t imagine how many new diseases were brought over as well.
This has been a pretty one-sided blog post, so I welcome any differences of opinion- it wasn’t intended to be a rant about the folly of invasive species ecology. Pretty much all of my opinions are probably skewed just because of my current studies, but I mention them because I wish Brantz had spent a little more time on that aspect of the acclimatization movement and its impact.
Ratting Around 8
by corim14 • January on April 26, 2014
As a general rule, I don’t like rats. With a few exceptions, most people I know are of the same opinion. I appreciate what they’ve done for science, and they can be cute sometimes, but like most of humanity, I don’t think I will ever get past my negative conception of them. The readings this week (particularly Burt) made me question the roots of my disdain for these creatures, something I’ve never thought about before. For me, I’m sure its mostly a product of societal views projected via literature, film, and language, but how did society come to have those views in the first place? I liked that Burt went into the many reasons mankind started demonizing Rattus sp., but I think he missed something. Sure, they carry disease and live in the shadows and are usually surrounded by sewage and death and destruction, but I think there’s a more basic root of our dislike for rats, and those factors just intensified it. I think it comes down to biology (I am a biologist, so big surprise there). We are genetically programmed to be more attracted to species that are more similar to us- and rats may not be that different, but they’re different enough. They have a long pointed snout; we have a flat face. They have small eyes; we prefer large ones. They have a long tail, sharp teeth, are nocturnal, the list goes on. There is a similar distaste among people for animals with similar habits and feature- the mongoose, for example, or the ferret. However, although hamsters and gerbils (even mice) are pretty closely related to rats, the instinctual aversion isn’t there. What’s different about these animals? Their features are a bit more similar to ours, so they’re cute. So we excuse other behaviors which may not otherwise endear them to us, and focus on their evil twin, the rat.
Burt seems to think that we should give rats a chance. In Radar’s writings, Little also believes they should be viewed more positively for the good they are doing mankind (by the way, it seems crazy to me that at one point in time scholars of medicine and genetics refused to acknowledge the interrelatedness of their work, considering how integrated it is today…that’s really another story though). But is the demonization of rats in general necessarily a bad thing? For one thing, it has had health benefits. We tend to avoid rats or drive them away, and so reduce our exposure (and the exposure of our pets and food animals) to the disease-carrying arthropods they ferry around. Our distaste for them has encouraged us to put more effort into their extermination (there was a whole profession and breed of dog created specifically for that purpose), which may have helped make sure the population is controlled and not about to explode. Forget about robots and zombies, we’re more likely to be overrun by rodents if we don’t keep their numbers down. But I think the most important consequence of our society’s demonization of rats is that we don’t really care about their rights- at least, not nearly as much as we care about other animals which are considerably cuter or more human-like- so we can use them in countless aspects of medical and psychological research without dealing with an ethical dilemma. Rats and mice aren’t nearly as protected as other lab animals, and as Radar and Shapiro point out, their use in experimental procedures has been behind huge breakthroughs which have led to an infinitely better understanding of the human body, mind, and disease. Where would we be today without the use of lab rats? I believe that turning the rat into a friendlier face would diminish their historical efficacy as a useful and convenient research tool- as Shapiro says,
I’m not trying to advocate prejudice, but there are a lot of good reasons why we might want to keep rats in a more negative light, even if it may not seem fair to their cute little faces. When speaking of the similarities of man and rat, Burt quotes:
We’ve changed that for rats- they’re incredibly important to us. Would that still be true if we had viewed them as animals with equal rights to dogs and cats? I’m not sure it would, and personally I’m ok with less rights for rats if it could mean curing cancer.