Caging Wolves

I really enjoyed the article about our collective Paleofantasies.  I think it is a rather common idea that at one point in our evolutionary history, humans were perfectly adapted to our environment.  I have probably thought that myself.  The article does a good job of pointing out the obvious flaws in that line of thinking.

I found the reading about dogs and wolves to be more interesting.  The story of wolves becoming dogs was very interesting and, as the author showed, very relevant in our dog centered world.  I found two points to be most interesting.  The first was the author’s discussion of early interactions between wolves and dogs.  At that point, humans did not have the means to restrain wolves in any way.  Their ability to physically control what wolves did was very limited.  Humans did not have metal for cages or strong collars or anything like that and wolves could easily chew through any restraining device that humans could create.

This lack of control meant wolves could come and go from groups of humans as they pleased.  The author put it in terms of wolves knowing when humans were beneficial and when they were not.  If associating with humans stopped being mutually beneficial, the wolves could leave and return to hunting by themselves.  As long as the humans kept being beneficial, the wolves would stay.  The fact that wolves stayed with humans long enough to become dogs is interesting to me because it ascribes a great deal of agency to wolves.  Wolves chose to remain with humans long enough to become dogs because it was beneficial to them.

We have mentioned this idea of animals deciding to become domesticates because it is beneficial for them, but I think this is the first time an author has so explicitly put so much emphasis on the animal making a conscious choice.  I am so interested in this idea because it ascribes so much agency to animals, which is something very new to me.  As a historian, I am so used to reading about humans doing this or that, reading about an animal made such a momentous choice is very interesting.

The second point I found interesting was something Derr only briefly mentioned.  During his discussion of feral animals and stray dogs, Derr mentioned wolf “culture.”  This piqued my curiosity because, for me, culture has always been the sole domain of humans.  Animals don’t have culture because they are animals.  This notion is becoming increasingly problematic as I consider it more.  Culture as a shared legacy of practices and behaviors is obviously not limited to humans.  What does everyone else think?  Is culture limited to humans, or do animals have culture too?  As of now, I’m leaning towards animals do have culture, but I’m curious as to what everyone else thinks.

The Mysteries of Evolution: From Dogs to Us

This weeks readings provided interesting insights on the many mysteries that surround the evolution of dogs as well as on our feelings in regards to our own evolution. I really enjoyed both articles and felt that each presented some very valid arguments in addition to posing some thought provoking questions.  I felt like How the Dog Became the Dog by Derr and Zuk’s article Misguided Nostalgia for Our Paleo Past tied together well in many aspects in relation to the complexities of evolution.

In How the Dog Became the Dog, Derr did a great job of presenting the evolution of the wolf to the dog using a variety of evidence from a multitude of different fields of study. He was able to combine the many archaeological findings with all the information on modern species to disprove some of the less fact based theories on how dogs came to be, and in doing so created a lose timeline of how and where the dog originated. Central to his theory is the idea that there are significant overlaps, both in genotype and phenotype, between the stages from the wolf to the dog. I thought this was a very logical way to look at evolution, and it stuck me as strange that this idea wasn’t really a significant part of any of the other readings we have done. Evolution is a very gradual process (in many cases but not all as we saw in Misguided Nostalgia) and it doesn’t make any sense to think of things as black and white, or in this case wolf and dog. There is always a gray, or dogwolf, area in between that is so often overlooked, and Derr picked up on this and used it as the backbone for developing his opinion of the origins of the dog.

In addition, in How the Dog Became the Dog, there was a reference to Buffon’s opinion that species tend to degenerate, not improve, from the parent form. I can see how the argument could be made because in many cases animals in captivity do lose some of the skills that made their ancestors more capable of survival in the wild. For example, the more wolf-like dogs are arguably more capable of survival than the little hairball lap dogs that are common today. But when I began to think about it, the only other examples of degeneracy that came to mind were of domesticated species. In the wild all species seem  to improve, likely due to the pressures of natural selection and survival of the fittest, which, to some extent deflates Buffon’s argument. However, in Misguided Nostalgia, Zuk talked about how we long for the past because we feel like times were better, but in you assume that this feeling was common in people throughout history, you eventually end up back as a single-celled organism. This idea would support Buffon as it suggests that we have slowly degenerated from that first single-celled organism that leads to what we are today. I guess where I am going with this topic is, is there some validity to Buffon’s theory that animals degenerate from the parent form or is there enough evidence in the study of wild animals evolution to disprove him?

Finally, in Misguided Nostalgia, Zuk brings up another interesting question when she mentions that there is an idea floating around that the relative isolation of countries like those in Africa from other places like North America may be leading to evolutionary developments in two separate directions. If this truly is occurring, which is very much up for debate, then we could potentially develop subspecies of humans, just like when a species of animal gets separated from its kin and develops differently as a result. What would be the result of a series of subspecies of humans? Would it result in the development of more capable humans, and if so would this result in the inferiority, or collapse, of the other species? Is speciation even possible in humans with all of the global connection that exists? Let me know what you think!


Finding Common Ground

Over the past few weeks it has become very evident to me that to give domestication a singular definition is nearly impossible. Every week we read another anthropologist’s or philosopher’s or historian’s account of the history of human-animal relations and each one is distinctly unique from the others. Week after week I find in each new perspective, a series of compelling ideas different from the previous week, which in turn sways my opinions and ideas on the matter. I always end up feeling like at the end of our discussions I am close to finding the answer to and ending the debate on human-animal relations once and for all; but then I pick up the reading for the next week and I am back to square one again. It creates a combination of frustration and intrigue in me. It is frustrating how something that seems so simple at first glance can have so much controversy surrounding it, but then in the same vein, all of these different ideas are new and intriguing and force me to pick up the reading for the next week to try to learn more!

To tie this little rant to our readings for the week, I will discuss Ingold’s article From Trust to Dominion. I think that of all the articles we have read, I agree, or rather sympathize most with Ingold’s. And it is not because I think his ideas are the most accurate that we have read, or because he has the best evidence for his arguments; it is simply because he takes the ideas of so many other people and ties them together into one central idea. This is not to say that the other pieces we have read didn’t incorporate others’ ideas into their works because they did. I just think that Ingold pulls ideas from such a diverse variety of people on either end of the spectrum and sows them together into one simple, coherent point better than the other works we have read, or watched, thus far.

I think he understands that there are so many different views on human-animal relations, that to try to create an all-encompassing opinion on the matter is futile. Instead, he looked into a series of other studies and notions and drew out a common theme that was hidden in all of them, whether their authors knew it or not. This hit home with me because I realized that I have been going about this course the wrong way. I have been taking each separate article as its own entity to a large extent, when what I really should be doing to understand human-animal relations is to look for the common ground between each piece. Only through comparisons and contrasts of the many feelings out there on the subject can we hope to get any closer to answering the great questions of human-animal relations.

I may be way off in my views here, and if so feel free to correct me. It just felt different reading Ingold’s article to me and this was my shot at trying to explain that feeling. But anyways Ingold’s article was only a small piece of what we read this week and I feel like I should at least touch on Animals as Domesticates and Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers.

In Animals as Domesticates, I really liked the timeline that they provided throughout. It was helpful to see a logical time frame presenting when each animal was domesticated in relation to when others were and also in terms of what the climate of the earth was like when things were occurring. Also I thought Clutton-Brock’s discussion on why wolves were the first domesticated animal made a lot of sense. They are very similar to us in many aspects such as the hierarchical structure of the packs and the acceptance of dominance as well as in their ability to survive in a diversity of habitats. These facts combined with their ability to work together with humans for mutually beneficial hunts make a very strong case for why dogs are likely the first truly domesticated species. In addition, I think it is crazy how much information they can come up with from carbon dating techniques and bone analysis. I have always known that you can learn a lot about the past using these techniques but when they were able to show that a bear was domesticated based on a marking caused by a rope in its jaw, I was very impressed. Maybe after a few more centuries of findings like this we will be able to piece together a much more accurate timeline of human-animal history.

Finally I just have a quick point about Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers. I hoped to get to this topic last Tuesday in discussion but there was just so much to talk about that there was no way to get to everything.  In watching the video about Guns, Germs and Steel, as well as through some of the other readings we have done, we have gained a pretty good idea of Diamonds ideas on the advent of domestication. In summary, he seemed to think that the process of the domestication of plants and animals happened together and as a result of one another. He had his theory that animals were domesticated shortly after the advent of agriculture for food at first but then quickly became used for everything from clothing to plowing the fields as beasts of burden. This contradicts rather strongly with Bulliet’s arguments in Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers. Bulliet suggests throughout his book, at least up to where I am at, that animals and plants were domesticated separately. His evidence includes how animals such as the dog were domesticated long before agriculture, as well as that animals such as horses and donkeys, which Diamond would argue were domesticated for work such as plowing fields, were not domesticated until thousands of years after the advent of agriculture. I thought both points had valid arguments; however, both ideas cannot be entirely correct. Who do you guys think is closest to the truth, or are they both right in some aspects and wrong in others? Just some food for thought!