Happy Earth Day, domestication scholars! Celebrate on campus during Earth Week at Virginia Tech. Now, to the RATS.

In 9th grade I memorized this monologue from the Miracle Worker Anne Sullivan when she explains her experience in the asylum, “Rats, why my brother Jimmie and i used to play with the rats because we didn’t have toys. Maybe you’d like to know what Helen will find there, not on visiting days? one ward was full of the old women, crippled, blind, most of them dying, but even if what they had was catching there was no where else to put them, so that’s where they put us. There were younger ones across the hall, prostitutes mostly, with T.B., and epileptic fits, and some of the kind who- kept after other girls, especially young ones, and some insane. Some just had the DT’s. The youngest were in another ward to have babies they didn’t want, started at 13,14. they’d leave afterwords but the babies stayed and we played with them too, though most had-sores- all over, from diseases you’re not supposed to talk about. The first year we had 80, 70 died. The room Jimmie and I played in was the dead house, where they kept the bodies until they could dig the graves.

I can’t recall the entire piece from memory but, I know it begins powerfully with “Rats,” and that word, the idea of the animal sets the stage for the sickness and death descriptions of a wretched place that follows.

I found the readings about rats very interesting. I’m not sure if I consider them a “domesticated” animal but our evolutionary relationships with them are clearly (and sometimes not so clearly) significant.

At this point in my “human-animal relationship” analysis career I have come to the understanding that if we follow the expansion and movement of humans we will too find close behind their domestic animals. To understand human development and expansion was to know domestic animal development and expansion and vice versa. This relative rule of thumb is true for the rat. The animal I associate with the bubonic plague. Or as Burt summarizes it in The Multiple Meaning of Laboratory Animals: Standardizing Mice for Cancer Research, “The rat is, as some writers have phrased it, a twin of the human, and their mutual history is dark.”

Rats were not understood to carry disease until the mid 19th century. Seen as thieves and pests to eradicate, Burt discusses the question of how rats came to have such low status, since they were not hated or feared. 

Is it because it is associated with danger in our perception? Our relationship to the rat is not just a physical one but one of perception and ideas. The idea that our relationship with an animal can be influenced by simple perception might have serious effects on the next era as humans today do not interact with the animals they eat.

Yet, we admire rats. “The lascivious, greedy and cannibalistic rat…” engages in acts of human sin. They thrive in our gullies and sewers surprisingly manage to avoid toxic pollution exposure. They are smart, adaptable, and even, for some, beautiful.


effluvia  plural of ef·flu·vi·um N. An unpleasant or harmful odor, secretion, or discharge.

The reading proposes the idea that rats survive on the effluvia of human society, thinking of rats as our mirror species. This thought means then rats do come from the dark place (discussed in it being the devil and similar things) but are essential to it. The rat in its harboring of disease and other participation in dark things, has an influence on humans, the rat can be thought strongly as a synonym to human destructiveness. 

At the beginning of the 20th century human associations of rats was that of fear and that relationship to the natural history of the rat is from the many experiments done with the purpose to eliminate and control.

Reading “the multiple meanings of laboratory animals” I’ve got to say it makes sense that our hate and diastase for the mouse (and.. rat) led them to be our object of experimentation.  “MWAHAHA” (sorry, I could not help myself). The reading highlighted just how much our culture and institutions shape our perception, treatment and relationship to mice, rats, and all other animals we interact with in general. It’s a simple understanding yet the many evolutionary, genetic, cultural, and psychological dimensions are complex.

What do you think when you think about Rats?


This is also cool: Once every 48 years, bamboo forests in Northeast India go into flower, and black rats descend upon them, like a plague. Watch it here.




Creating Global Consciousness

Since last Tuesday I’ve been entertaining the notion that we, individually and collectively, can contribute to global consciousness though our writing created in a blog. It’s not a secret that I believe we can collectively create a good future and each of us individually have the ability to do so. Very truly, our experiences, creations, relationships, attitudes, and more are the things that create our ever-changing global consciousness, or better known as, our culture.

I think it is in that prospective where I discover my problem with (or at least my little preference for) the scientific biological genetic study of domestic animals. Evolution is simple, I previously nievely thought. I want to talk about individuals from the standpoint of conscious decisions. Like I explained in class last Tuesday, we can choose to achieve our ends though love or though pain (and arguably everywhere in between), we choose what we do, we chose how we do it, we chose our feelings, and we choose what qualities and values make up our character. Therefore, we collectively determine our culture, otherwise known as global consciousness, because we have complete control over what we do and who we are (or do we??).

I’ll admit there are other factors that influence our personal and global characters. What class hierarchy or geographic location one is born into will determine their probability of achieving a higher level of society mitigated by the amount of hard work and determination of the individual. But are these inequalities enough to say you don’t have enough time to create the right future? Do you not have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresea, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein?

As it may be, life might be just what this picture below explains.  It’s from a family general store blog about smart and conscious purchasing of canning jars and explained that, “to have a can of peaches was to preserve in a glass jar the memory of a summer day to be remembered in savory-peach-ripeness in the cold days of winter.”

Is life 10% genetics/biology and 90% personal influence/human control? More seriously, I was intrigued to learn how much understanding of the domestication of animals can shed light on the relationship between biology and culture.

Genetic evolution of a species and their respective characteristics, as a basic idea, is simple enough. The psychological character of an individual in a species is not strongly inherited – this is the difficulty of the selection process.

Variability, something humans can’t check or control, is the key to this understanding of human-animal domestic relationships created by biological and cultural pressures.

Domestic animals are integrated into the social life of humans. Pets, entertainment, food, clothes and various other commodities make domestic animals a product of both culture and evolution. Humans have influenced the evolution of animals but genetic variability prevents a perfect expected result. Humans can influence culture but their influence on civilization is dependent on factors like space, land and its contours, climate, vegetation, etc.

It is variability, then, I need to more fully consider when studying the historical relationship developments between humans and animals. After the readings this week, I see a web of moving, interconnected, influenced, influencing and variable parts that make up the history of global consciousness.

I better go ahead and accept that we may not have control over all things but we have  control over somethings. What we can influence with our mindful actions [such as writing a blog to discover thought to contribute to global consciousness, raising chickens in your backyard, or becoming a vegetarian] might be the most important understanding to consider when we’re living our lives. If you’re still convinced genetics and biology dictate the total system your question is, “What is our capacity to influence the future of genetics and biology?”

Or as explained by this pintrest pin quote:

& this is not referring to working your donkey…


“What a long, strange trip it’s been.” Wolf to Dogwolf to Dog

I appreciate the arguments and assumptions presented by Derr as logical with some genetic and scientific knowledge. The Russell article calling for an integration of science and history as the study of “evolutionary history” was right; they allow for a more informed understanding.

History is about studying relationships and their influence in why things are, but understanding how and why domesticated animals emerged in evolutionary history is not so simple. We do not know what or how varied the relationship characteristics were like between humans and dogs or dogwolves. Genetics could aid our understanding of relationships since the study of relationships and genetics are measured on the same time scale of years and decades, as long as the proper geological time – measured in tens of thousands to billions of years – can be determined.

I have embraced genetics to help understand how the dog became the dog.

To learn the origins of the dog one must, “consider the animals involved – human and wolf – highly social, tactically minded, pack-hunting global wanderers.”

Wolf and human were drawn to each other by their great sociability and curiosity, and they stayed together because of their mutual utility.

The origin of the dog has been complicated to pinpoint through the mixing of dogwolves and the relationship of wolves and early humans.

Dogwolves: n. the off-spring of socialized wolves; “wolves that genetically and behaviorally are dogs; genetic profile more closely aligns with dog than wolf and because they live and reproduce in human society.” They do not have the physical characteristics of the modern dog breeds.

The area of focus shifts from understanding how wolf became dog W2D to how the dog became the dog D2D to determine what genetic mutations caused physical changes to arise in particular dogwolf lines, how did they become highly desired and how they helped determine dogs of today.

Genetic mutations of distinct physical effects can be linked with physiological characteristics and, arguably perhaps behavioral variations. One interesting physiological difference between wolf and dog is the delayed fear-response in dog puppies that allows them to be social and curious for 6 weeks longer before entering the “fear-period” of development.

Humans use selective breeding to make dogs more obedient and give them a more human or “civilized” appearance to match a more “civilized” behavior. How much do the physical genetic variations of selective breeding determine behavior? Could civilized behavior exist in previous generations prior to physical mutations? How much would these answers allow us to understand differences between early human relationships with wolves, dogwolves, and dogs?

There are many variations of human, social, and cultural relationships associated with D2D across the globe and to know how behavioral and physical traits and genetics influenced each other in D2D is quite the complex task.

The domestic evolution of any animal must be considered with their relationships with humans. The process of D2D (and all domesticated animals) is influenced by human society. Derr explains our social influence as a tendency to strip all wild from the dog. This extension from individual human-dog relationships to human society-dog relationships is evidence that our culture is not one that deals well with ambiguity, ambivalence, paradox, and border zones. Domesticating removes the contradiction.

Domestication is a continuing process aimed at bringing up an animal or plant to the point where humans control all important aspects of its life, including reproduction and freedom of movement from birth to death.

Yet, we value dogs because they connect us to a simpler world outside ourselves and our categories.

As Derr wrote in the beginning, “our obligation today, when we and our dogs grow increasingly distant from the world of our forebears…is to think about whether on this journey, we are doing right by our companion every step of the way.” What are our moral duties to our best evolutionary friend? Dogs and Humans have each benefitted in their long relationship in many ways. So far, the logical conclusion I have reached for determining our obligations to our dog companions begins by somehow balancing our social civilized needs and our personal needs for a wild connection.

Is it possible to violate our moral duties by domesticating too much wild out of the dog for society? Does human value for that wild connection to a previous world make any difference to our responsibility?  This question of too much domestication, of course, does not take into account the paradoxical nature of the animal – “people succeeded to a remarkable degree in creating the dog of their desire, even if it is not the one they want.”

Perhaps the details of our relationships just “are” and irrelevant since the future may be predetermined anyway, deliberates this blog post from last week.

Or as Derr so eloquently put all that has happened since W2D and D2D (or W2D2D for short), “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

“If The Reindeer Do Not Come”

Domestication as a mutualism

This week, our readings returned to an idea discussed in week 1‘s readings: that of domestication as a close mutualism. However, the perspective presented in The Reindeer People is a different one than those presented in Energy and Ecosystems and Evolutionary History because, in The Reindeer People, author Piers Vitebsky is describing an actual population, the Eveny people, with whom he has lived and who he has long studied.

The Eveny people, native to Siberia, have lived intimately with domesticated reindeer for 1000s of years. They are semi-nomadic in that they follow the reindeer as they migrate on their natural routes. They rely on the reindeer for transport and food, and in turn, the reindeer rely on them for protection. They Eveny need the reindeer as much as the reindeer need the Eveny. In the concluding chapter, Vitebsky quotes an Eveny song with the line:

“If the reindeer do not come
If the herd turns away
If the reindeer do not come
There will be no more Eveny!”

The Eveny obviously recognize their need for the reindeer and treat the reindeer with according respect. They do not fence the reindeer in and then mass-produce them for food, as we have with cattle and swine in this country. The dual nature of their relationship with the reindeer–both as a food source and as a mount and beast of burden–makes their relationship more complicated still. If you have established a bond with an animal in which you trust it as a mount, you are unlikely to want to eat that animal.

Perhaps the Eveny have a relationship with their reindeer that is similar to the relationship that early humans had with their domestic animals. They respect and even love and worship their animals and then eat them out of necessity.

Selection, domestication, and genetic variability

The domestic reindeer of the Eveny people lives side-by-side with the wild reindeer of siberia. However, the Eveny believe that domestic reindeer are entirely different animals, originating from different stock (according to legend) than wild reindeer and have two distinct words in their native language for wild and domesticated reindeer. Attempts have been made to tame wild reindeer, even calves, without any success.

Vitebsky basically implies that wild and domestic reindeer are two different strains and are genetically distinct. I did a bit of looking around and couldn’t find any population genetics papers to back that up. However, I would be willing to believe that this is simply because no one has done any specific research on reindeer genetics.

Genetic variability is a measure of differences in genotypes of individuals in a population (or, in more simple language, it is an indicator of how similar individuals are, genetically). Genetic variability is what allows us to select for different traits in breeding populations of animals. If we have high genetic variability, we can select for a trait for many generations and make progress (if we are selecting for heavy body weight, for example, the animals will get bigger every generation if genetic variability is high enough). Behavior (including tractability) is a genetic trait, so it follows that populations with higher genetic variability should be more domesticate-able. Domesticate-ability should be a quantitative trait–not just something we speculate about, but something we can actually measure.

I wonder how genetically divergent domestic and wild reindeer are. all we know is that they can interbreed and that domestic reindeer can go wild, but wild reindeer cannot become domestic. I would postulate that they came from a common ancestral population, but diverged long ago. The more tractable reindeer (all of them) could have taken up an intimate mutualism with humans and since have been selected for domestic traits. The wild reindeer, on the other hand, were those selected for their unwillingness to take up  an intimate mutualism with humans and have continued, each year, to be selected for this trait. If the original population, particularly the wild population, didn’t possess that much genetic variability (or if variability has decreased since the original divergence occurred, perhaps because of some sort of population bottleneck), it would be difficult to successfully domesticate the current wild population.

Clearly, regardless of original cause, there are two distinct strains of reindeer. I would be really interested to see a genetic analysis of the two strains, to see genetic differences between and among individuals of the two populations.


To be quite honest, I’m at a bit of a loss here. I am not religious and I have never been religious. I only understand religion in the context of “well, I can tell that it is very important to you.” However, I’ll do my best to understand the religious aspect of the Eveny people’s relationship with the reindeer.

I think that the spiritual connection that the Eveny believe that they share with reindeer stems from the fact that they rely on the reindeer for their livelyhood–they ride reindeer, eat reindeer, and live with reindeer year-round. Thus, because they rely so completely on reindeer, they have formed religious beliefs surrounding them. Of course, if you depend on a herd of animal, it is bad if one dies. It then logically follows, I guess, that this “bad thing,” bodes ill for your future and health–that is, it is a bad omen.


I guess that is has become clear in this blog post where my area of expertise are and where the holes in my expertise are. I really enjoyed the readings for this week and hope to, in my spare time, read the rest of The Reindeer People. I also hope to learn more about how the domestic and wild strains of reindeer came to be and about the genetic differences between the strains. This human/animal relationship, more than any other that we have discussed so far, is a fascinating one, because of the co-dependence between the humans and the reindeer. Reindeer have domesticated the Eveny people as much as the Eveny people have domesticated the reindeer and they are live together in a mutually beneficial way.