Saving the best for last

Man. These readings were great. I have enjoyed everything about this class, but these readings (and hopefully, this week’s discussions) are particularly excellent.

Algernon, the rats of NIMH, and other rodents as humans

Rats are like humans, says Burt (from this week’s readings).

When I was a young teenager, I was fascinated with books about the humanity and intelligence of rodents. You will have to forgive me while I write meanderingly about some of these books. Three books that made particularly big impressions on me were Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Flowers for Algernon, and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. A main theme in all of these books is the similarity of rodents to humans.

Mrs. Frisby and The Amazing Maurice are similar in that they describe human-like populations of sentient rodents. Both are YA fiction and both make make rats and mice seem very human. Interestingly, it seems that is really much easier to write compelling about human-like rodent civilizations than it is to write about human like civilizations of other species, like horses, dogs, or cats. Rats exist in a different realm than we do, but a parallel realm. We don’t really know what rodents do in the sewers or the walls, we just know that they do something. They are there, they survive, they reproduce. We have this sense that they could have human-like civilizations down there.

There is this sense, at the end of both novels, that these rodent populations are struggling against some formidable evil and that they will eventually, inevitably fall. And then, so will we.

Flowers for Algernon is different than Mrs Frisby and The Amazing Maurice in that it doesn’t describe a population of human-like rodents. In Flowers for Algernon, Charlie Gordon realizes what his fate will be when he sees the fate of the mouse (Algernon) which underwent the medical procedure that he underwent. Again, rodents are us, and we are them, but this time much more obviously. Charlie’s fate is Algernon’s fate.

Rodents survive anywhere we survive. We cannot rid ourselves of them. If rodents were wiped out, so would we be wiped out. Like us, rodents are omnivores and are opportunists.

“The rat is a clean animal living in the middle of filth, a cunning and intelligent creature of no discernible use, a parasite rather than a producer,” writes Burt. Is that not as true of humans as it is true of rats? Culvier, who classified the animal kingdom in 1817 said that rats have an “extraordinary capacity for destruction disproportionate to their size” (Burt). Is this not also true of humans?

The mouse as a lab animal

Wow. Before DNA had been identified as the genetic material, people were already doing complex studies to determine whether cancer had a genetic component. To do this, they were using the mouse as a human model. Again, mice as humans. If this medication will cure mouse cancer, we say, it should cure human cancer.

Our distaste for mice and rats has made it very easy to make them subject of our (perhaps cruel) scientific experiments.Don’t get me wrong. I support animal research more than your average American. I’m going to do research on animal when I grow up. Also, most of us are alive due to animal research. But, we must admit that it is sometime cruel. Intrntionally breeding mice that will inevitably die of cancer is cruel. Necessary? yes. Highly useful? yes. But also cruel. I’m not here to discuss the ethics of animal research, however.

Mice came to be a staple model animal because of one researcher, Little, who bred a strain of inbred “oncomice” and because of the American anti-cancer movement. Without Little, what would research look like? How different would it be?

Names: animal as individuals and as objects

Names impart human characteristics. Apparently, there is some evidence that dolphins call each other by name, but (as far as I know) few (if any) other species do. By giving something a name, we are giving it a small piece of our own humanity. We are saying “you are one of us.” Of course laboratory animals are not named, just as meat animals are not named. Once we have named an animal, we have in a way, “humanized” it, and then we couldn’t use it as if it were an object, rather than a living thing.

When we consider laboratory animals, just as with meat animals, we don’t want to consider the idea that animals we use could be anything like us.

Is this wrong? I don’t really know, honestly. If we first say that the use (as food or as a model) of the animal is necessary and further we say that people must be involved in the maintenance of the animal, then these people must somehow get around the fact that the animals for which they care every day will eventually die. This is very possible. We become affectionate selectively in our lives with good reason. If I cared for every person I met as much as I care for my brother, I would not be able to function. Similarly, if I cared for every animal as much as I care for my pony, I would always be filled with despair.

Finally, I’m going to go ahead and say that I’m with Shapiro on the lack of necessity of laboratory animals in psychology. Why are we modeling psychological conditions in something as different than a human as a rat? Medical conditions, yes. I get that. Our physiological systems aren’t tremendously different that those of a rat. Our mental systems, however, are very different and the use of a rat model seems generally irresponsible (not in every case, obviously. But in many, if not most cases).

Moscow Canine Commuters

Hey everyone! I found this great article on the semi-domesticated Moscow dogs that we talked about in class. It’s pretty interesting; the pictures really help convey just how cool this behavior is.

Thoughts on the Darwin Discussion

I think we had a really good session today and covered quite a range of topics. Not often do string theory and Korean politics get tied into a conversation about domestication but somehow we found a way. I feel like there was so much more to cover but you can only do so much in an hour and fifty minutes I guess. Anyways, I just wanted to see if I can get a post onto the mother blog to make sure whatever glitch happened on Sunday is fixed. See you guys next Tuesday.

Evolution, domestication and civilization

The relationship between civilization or progress and evolution is a topic that we have discussed before but it is intriguing enough to address again.  Early on in the reading, Brantz defines these concepts and the relationship between these concepts in a way that I understood more than before.  Evolution and progress on their own are topics with no concise boundaries or definitions.  Thus the undertaking of understanding the relationship between these two is understandably difficult.  I was pleased with the way Brantz described evolution as a broader concept that includes variability caused by nature while progress is mostly a human controlled element with some influence from nature.  By now the importance of domestication is apparent even if it definition is not, so it is easy to believe that domestication can be the link between these two concepts.  Even if the effect of these concepts is different on human-animal relationships, the fact that they both influence the same bond shows some correlation that deserves further discussion.  The statement that evolution brings human and animals closer while civilization drives them further apart really struck me because it seems to finally tie three complex ideas in one true statement: evolution, domestication and civilization.


Early on in the reading I developed a theory that I hoped would remain intact by the end of the reading.  I came up with my own, simple way of tying civilization, domestication and evolution together.  It seemed to me that evolution, being influenced extensively by nature, could be thought of as the first of these three ideas to exist.  In early history Humans had little effect on the complex concept of evolution.  As evolution continued, however, it provided us the means and the reasoning to use it as a tool.  Domestication was the product of this stage of evolution.  As early human’s evolved they began the transition from being a product of their environment to manipulating and changing the environment, or civilization.  This transition is marked by domestication, the moment when humans used evolution as a tool against nature.  Once humans began manipulating nature and were no longer subject to its will, progress and civilization ensued.  I don’t know if I am making much sense but I am basically wondering if evolution led to domestication which then led to civilization.  I know that is a simple way to put things and there must be more overlap but I hope my understanding isn’t too far off the mark.  It is more obvious how domestication was able to lead to progress and civilization that how evolution led to domestication.  Was mastery of one species over another destined to come from evolution?


The integration of pets and the social changes brought about by animals in the home seem to contradict Brantz’s earlier statement that civilization drives humans and animals further apart.  The way in which pets where treated as members of a family and the social groups advocating morality towards pets clearly prove that civilization does not drive a gap in human-animal relations.  As we become more civilized I believe our awareness of animal rights is increasing and thus human-animal relations are actually getting closer.  This only pertains to domesticated pets, however.  The relationship between humans and wild animals does seem to drive further apart at first in our history.  This is evidenced by examples in the text of countries across the world killing strays in various ways.  In modern society I don’t believe the relationship between humans and wild animals is still driven apart.  Wild animal conservation is becoming a larger discussion in our moral duties and is finally gaining appreciation.  The only human animal relationship that seems to drive apart as civilization progresses is the one between humans and livestock animals.



Domestication and Home

First, an apology.  I apologize for the lateness of my blog post.  I mistakenly thought that this week we were working on our projects and had a break from blogging.  I’m glad I found this to be untrue in time to write a blog post at all, but I apologize for being late with it.

That being said, I found the Brantz reading to be incredibly interesting.  First off was the bit of language.  Domestication comes from the Latin word for home, “domus.”  Having never made that particular connection, I found this to be interesting and slightly problematic.  Domestication is the human desire to turn wild animals into animals that we could keep in our homes.  Francis Galton thought that early domestication came from the human desire to keep pets.  This was interesting to me because pets, domesticates we actually do keep in our homes, are very different from other domesticates.  As Brantz points out, we do not eat them or turn them into products, and even go so far as to turn them into individuals by giving them names and such.

So, my question becomes, why does the word domestication come from the word for “home” when most domesticates are not kept in our homes?  It seems to me that other readings have argued successfully that early humans did not domesticate animals to keep them as pets, but for food.  Why then is the word used for the process so tied to the idea of the home?  Could it be just a general idea of living with humans in general?  Most dictionaries I looked in for the definition of “domestication” simply offer two definitions.  One is to make something suitable for the home and the other is to make an animal or plant accustomed to a human environment or be useful to humans.  This proved to be unsatisfying because it did not really answer my question.  This connection with the home seems to important to me.

I thought maybe the word “domestication” originated in the 18th or 19th century and was somehow tied to the emerging bourgeois values that Brantz talked about.  Everything I could find, however, pointed to the word domestication being used before that in the 17th century, which lessens the likelihood of this possibility and left me still wondering.  I’m tempted to become a linguist to figure this out.

The rest of Brantz’s work was interesting as well, I was intrigued by the place of pets in society as a moral force because it is held over to today.  It is still common to get a dog or cat to teach a kid responsibility.  We may have come off the rigid morality of Victorian England, but apparently we still teach responsibility the same way.

Like a few others, I was also pleasantly surprised by the readability of Darwin.  I expected him to be stuffy and inaccessible, but that is of course not the case.  In the Introduction we read, Darwin talked about domestication and how humans can affect it but are ultimately still unable to fully control nature.  The idea of control and power seems so central to domestication, but how much control do humans really have in the process.  I’m curious to see what everyone else thinks about this.