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.




Historical Perspective and Paleofantasies

I enjoyed our discussion of canine-human evolution yesterday, and wanted to circle back to our fascination with the paleolithic past.  Chris gave us excellent context on the appeal of the “edenic / authentic paleo” in current health and fitness trends, and I think we all appreciated the nuances of his post and questions. What I wanted to come back to here are the connections between historical thinking and how we invoke an imagined past to help us move forward in an increasingly fraught present.  I appreciated how Marlene Zuk’s recent article reminded us that efforts to get back to a more “pure,” “healthy,” or “natural” lifestyle invoke a static ideal that never existed. Evolution isn’t over.  Like domestication, it is an ongoing process. Paleolithic people may have had less heart disease and lower cholesterol, but they weren’t necessarily more “healthy,” or “better adapted” to their environment than we are. Like other organisms they were making their way the best they could. Some of them eventually domesticated grains and abandoned hunting and gathering for a settled lifestyle that we see both as the beginning of “civilization” and the end of a naturally healthy lifestyle. At the same time, though, many other people became and remained nomadic pastoralists, with all of the dietary and cultural baggage that entailed. As historians, we need to remember that utopias are just that — imagined, idyllic, impossible communities.  We invoke them into being to validate our analyses of the present and legitimize our agendas for the future. I’m quite sure that many of us would benefit from exercising more and eating less processed food. But to imagine that paleolithic people had a more “natural” lifestyle than their contemporary descendents is to take them out of history and deny the continuity of evolution.

“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.”

Feeling the Magic of Reindeer?

Never before had I thought to consider ancient or current civilizations who live(ed) in the quite large geographic regions home to reindeer. Maybe it’s something about the deep cold or seasonal changes seemingly different than my own. Nevertheless, I am astonished by the meanings of their traditions and the pervasiveness of the reindeer in the human cultures which thrived there and around the globe.

The reindeer process of domestication at the beginning seems to be an impossible puzzle. How could no word from the language be able to encompass both domesticated and wild reindeer? How could there be no evidence of successfully domesticating reindeer in the present? The author presents two theories. (1) Domestication may have happened further south in conjunction with other animals or (2) could have occurred with the Tungus people living east of lake Baikal. The only other time I’ve heard of Lake Baikal was watching the movie, “The Way Back” with the characterization of Siberia and the area there as the only true prison. It was reindeer that allowed thousands of miles to be colonized. Does having a partner in nature help humans survive in that nature through unconscious increased trust?

In previous blog posts about milk I have been dismissing the idea that the domestication of animals could have been for other uses than food. What else is a more basic need than a reliable food supply as an argument for domestication emergence? No reindeer were kept on a large scale for eating until after 1600 but were domesticated 3,000 years ago.

The trip the author made to Sebyan pained an interesting picture of a different culture paradigm founded on the surrounding nature. It was not the mileage but the, “capriciousness of these mountains that made Sebyan so inaccessible.” Despite the harsh landscape, the village was made and life within it was rich and complex. By using the materials in the harsh landscape the people respected the harshness and could then happily exist within it. To what degree are our ideas changed when humans completely alter their landscapes to an unrecognizable human utility form? Or is it just a consequence of the landscape being too harsh to completely control? Can it be said that the reindeer is a unique domesticated animal because of its environment?

“The species wavers between timidity and curiosity, poised paradoxically either to flee or explore.”

To think possible that the stay in a remote Russian log-cabin village in the middle of the arctic tundra would feel like a metropolis is to rethink how our relationship with nature may dictate how we live our lives and how we form relationships with the animals in them.

It’s sadly logical to understand why Russian policies would have tried to prevent the perpetual migration of human settlements following reindeer since it was seen as a “backward” idea. Altering this fundamental relationship of responding to the environment though nomadism or migrating together in annual cycles is still a central problem to reindeer herders today.

A beginning section concluded beautifully in the hopes that his children one day may have reindeer of their own. This possibility so remote due to the structure of communist society but, was not too much for Vitebsky to make clear his feeling that human partnership with reindeer should be part of life. It began easier to understand why such culture, tradition and religion surrounded the reindeer.  The more I read the more I believed they were a little bit magical.

This photo I found here with the caption, “No child of the tundra Yukaghirs ever falls out of these saddles. Reindeer are entrusted even with cradles containing young babies.”

I could consider how the domestication of reindeer at first seems to be somewhat different than other animals due to the spiritual connection. Was this made possible by my own cultural heritage of magical reindeer of Christmas? Could it be true that other domesticated animals were understood at this deep spiritual level too? And, perhaps, has that has allowed for their successful domestication? If so, could it explain why we cannot achieve such a result (the domestication process) with a focus on genetic traits and evolutionary science void of human connection to the individual animal itself?

Perhaps we may never know.

For now all I can say is this spiritual connection and trust reminds me of Christmas nights spent as a child in the snowy Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.