Final Feast and Course Awards

Carrying on the tradition established by last year’s cohort, Deep History and Domestication finished the semester with domesticate inspired food and course awards.  We had quite a feast!  From silk-inspired gummy worms, to “dog biscuits,” goat-cheese dip, chocolate (cow’s) milk, “pigs” in a blanket, yeasty bread, and (back for lack of a better idea) domesticate cookies, we noshed our way through the animal imaginary that shaped the course this semester.  We declared Corinne’s human-dog biscuits a success, lauded Kelly’s and Corinne’s culinary explorations, admired Peter’s resourcefulness, savored Cara’s goat cheese dip, and polished off Tanner’s chocolate milk and french fries (provided as “food that is eaten with hamburgers but not offensive to vegetarians ;-)). And we all agreed that Molly’s cupcake tableau of animal cracker camels traversing a desert was amazing!

2014DHDomLastDayThe research projects are complete and posted, and anyone who visits this site should check them out!  They share a common structure, but are unique and inspiring in their design and execution. We gave out several course awards, including, Best Overall Project, for Camel, The Most Undervalued and Invaluable Creature (which also won the Best Design category), and “Cutest Pictures” which had strong finalists in Dogs and Their People, Domesticating Wilbur, and Goats. There was firm consensus that the winner in the “Best Title” category was “A Fungus Amongus” (although I must point out that yeast might be a domesticate but is not an animal).  Tanner’s chocolate milk reminded us of the importance of lactase persistance in the evolution of human society, just as his project on cattle emphasizes how reciprocal the domestication process is.  Peter kept us on our toes all semester (synthetic meat, anyone?), and offers some intriguing insights about the influence of silk on human history and happiness.

Thanks so much for a wonderful semester!  I learned a lot and enjoyed our explorations of domestication tremendously.

Anthopomorphism and De-humanization

castaway533It seems that rats really made us think this week.  As Megan says, go team rat!  I’m looking forward to a good careful discussion today of the paradox that many of you noted in your posts – namely that we seem to project the worst parts of human “nature” onto our images of rats in order to deny them consideration and validate their destruction, at the same time we embrace their suitability as research subjects due to their similarities to humans.  I was thinking about your posts this morning as I read this fascinating piece about (human!) empathy and our penchant for dehumanization.  It turns out that animal behavior tells us a lot about ourselves. We often criticize non-scientific explanations of animal behavior as “anthropomorphic,” and yet it seems that attributing human-like qualities to non-human entities (such as Wilson the volleyball) or the geometric shapes in the puzzle (see video in the article) is just something we like to do.  The stunning twist (for me at least) is not our penchant for anthropomorphism, but the ease with which we de-humanize people and attenuate the empathy we instinctively feel for non-human animals.

For more on my thoughts about rats, click here.

From Rat King to Lab Rat, and everything in between

Whenever I think of rats, I can’t  help by picture the evil rat threatening the baby on Lady and the Tramp, or even the Rat King in The Nutcracker, but very seldom do I spend time pondering over the lab rat, or even the tiny mice used in experiments.

The reading by Burt explores the various reasons why people view rats as dirty and a menace, as well as refutes some of the false assumptions associated with these useful little vermin. One of the main reasons people began to view rats as disgusting, beyond the typical notion that they carry disease, is that they represent “unbounded sexual reproduction.” However, many animals not typically viewed as disgusting or evil fall under this same category. Some animals, for example ducks, whose males often violently rape the females, could even be viewed as sexually immoral, when the duck is a symbol of spring and even represented in Easter, not evil and filth. Furthermore, adorably bunnies, also associated with spring and Easter, are known to reproduce at an extremely rapid rate, yet many would not be too disappointed to happen upon a bunny.

Furthermore, Burt goes on to point out that rats can in fact be viewed as a “parallel” to humans and actually are pretty clean and intelligent. He notes that rats can represent both human achievement and destructiveness; they are extremely useful in science, for example testing efficiency with the maze experiments, yet they can also bring forth disease, much like humans. He quotes Donaldson, who even suggests that the rat may be the “sped of version of humans.”

In Rader’s excerpt, he focuses more on the use of inbred mice for cancer research as opposed to the history of rats described in Burt’s article. Though his writings spent too much time focusing on the ups and downs of Little’s professional career for my taste, I really enjoyed the section titled Institutionalizing the Organism. As a business major, I am always wondering what the economic impacts of a particular industry are, and I loved how Rader linked Little’s rollercoaster career to various financial problems they faced. The message from this article that resonated most with me was the fact that Little met the most success when he focused his lab more on making profits off selling the mice to other researchers instead of putting all his resources into his own research at the time. Why did he do this? He began to lack arguably the most important resource; money. This represents a common issue one faces when he tries to achieve his dreams, whether it be curing cancer or climbing Mt. Everest. Without sufficient funding, one may find himself as a “sell out,” temporarily abandoning his dreams to simply sustain his income. Luckily, Little was eventually able to gain enough support for his research.

Lastly, I want to point out Shapiro’s comments on the decline of individualism with lab animals. He points out that these experimental pets are not seen as individuals because there are tons of each species used for the experiments, the animal is replaceable, they are seen as organisms sometimes instead of animals, and they are caged up and become very habitual. However, he also points out that they actually do have some extremely complex behavioral patterns (why else would one use them for psychological studies?), the animal rights movement have changed the mentality towards the “replaceable organisms,” and lastly he notes an “inevitable bond” between the researcher and the lab animal.


When I think of rats I mainly think of the gross rodents carrying the Bubonic plague. I never really connected how rats domestication and alterations over time paralleled with urbanization and human development.  Burt talks about how powerful and destructive rats can be and that the major way to control their populations is because they end up self destructing and eating their own. Rats and mice show up in historical/biblical/ancient references but are generally considered sewage rodents and not are not cared for like other “cuter”animals. However, there contributions to science and discovery is something we should be very thankful as a species for.  “The bioengineered mouse,” Donna Haraway recently wrote, “is simulataneously a metaphor, a technology, and a beast living out its many layered life as best it can.” Indeed, in order for this creature to be able to live its life at all, it must inhabit a technosciencetific reality that is perhaps inevitable, perhaps not-but its most certainly a world of our own making. This was an interesting summary of part of the Rader article because of how humans have redefined and controlled the role of rats. We have almost created a new type of rat altogether, except instead of using it for food/dairy we use it for medial advancements in our own species. Where would science be without the lab rat?

Rats: Another animal taking the blame

I was most interested in the portion of Burt which discussed the parallel universe of rats and humans. It seems to me that this concept fits well into many themes common to domestication, which is that humans don’t wish to acknowledge a portion of themselves, and instead portray that portion onto an animal. As humans create massive, complex and complicated cities, rats serve as the ‘disgusting’ side effect of that construction. What we don’t see, or at least want to think about when we build a massive city, is the pollution and destruction that is left in the wake. Rats are the living reminder that underneath the world we have created for ourselves, there remains a wild influence we cannot control. As described by the readings, humans ultimately always have the intention of killing rats, whether for the purpose of exterminating an unsightly addition to our ‘pristine’ cities, or for scientific exploration. What strikes me as interesting is that rats are such a strong symbol of dirt and filth in our cities. Why are rats blamed for the pollution and garbage that humans have created? Rats do indeed symbolize this filth, however it’s humans who have created their environment. Why do the rats stand for trash that is our own fault? It’s because the rats are able to take blame for something we don’t want to accept blame for. Why should we accept the consequences of the mess we’ve created when we can instead say, oh that disgusting rat. It’s so filthy. Not, oh those disgusting humans. They’ve created such filth. Although I was interested in Shapiro’s discussion of the social construction of the laboratory animal, I do find the context of the rat in our society more interesting. I liked that Burt described a history of the rat and it’s place in society, describing the way it has arrived in its current role. I was intrigued of Burt’s adoration for the rat, and that his blame for the opinion of the rat lies mostly in it’s proximity to humanity. As with other animals that have experienced domestication, the rat has been molded into an undeserved role by humans.

Ratting Around

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,

“Arluke indicated that the lab animal becomes ‘pet’ when the ‘process that transforms the animal into object is not fully effective’” (Shapiro, p. 457)

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:

“…Neither of them is of the slightest earthly use to any other species of living things.” (Burt, p. 13)

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.

Rats of NIHM: How rats and mice have shaped the Sciences

Laboratory rats and mice are arguably one of the few deliberately domesticated species bred solely for one purpose, and in a methodical way to arrive at a predetermined goal.

White mice were inbred to produce near genetic uniformity so as to produce a standard mouse on which to experiment.  These experiments have ranged from barely invasive to extremely involved.  The header image is of mice who have been genetically engineered to glow under UV light, providing a blunt visual of how much control we have over these creatures.  There are of course regulations on how laboratory animals are to be treated.  If test subjects have to be killed, it is done humanely and as painlessly as possible.  It was interesting to note in the Shapiro reading that when test mice were named the name was transferred to the subject’s successor.  This reminds me of how other names for animals like Shamu, Jaws, Babar, or Dumbo become associated with all members of that species.

Sociology, psychology, and neurology have much to owe to the development and use of white lab mice, as it led to them becoming closer to hard sciences.  With mice to experiment on, these disciplines have been able to test theories and discover how mammalian minds operate as well as how to interface them with technology.   Recently mice have been used to test machine-mind interfaces, using the mice no longer as stand ins for human behavior, but human biology.  In this way they are no longer used as individual animals, but as so much biological machinery.

An interesting comparison drawn in Shapiro’s writing was that between religious sacrifice of animals and scientific killing with experimentation.  In many religions animal sacrifice was deemed necessary to appease gods.  This appeasement would in turn garner the gods’ favor in the form of good harvests, the curing of ails, and victory in battle.  With scientific research, animals are killed in equal, if not greater numbers in order to further understanding of nature and to improve our standards of living.  The difference being that scientific research results in tangible results, while religious sacrifice creates a feeling of improving the situation, and can be a useful diversion or entertainment.  In both cases animals are reduced to means to an end, with little consideration for the quality of life for the individual.

In many and diverse ways, experimental domesticated rats and mice have impacted our society.  In terms of health, moral outlook, and social understanding.

Rats: The Shadow of the Collective Human Psyche

I am a big fan of Burt’s conceptual approach to the rat. While on occasion he appears overly wordy and attempts to put an overly abstract spin on rats and their relationship to humans, overall he shoes an uncommon psychological-mindedness and cunning perspective on the species.

I was very intrigued by Burt’s view of rats as a reflection of the negative qualities of human behavior: pervasive and endless consumption, disregard for consequences of behavior, and massive production of filth and waste. This draws a connection (that I will discuss below) that I appreciate as someone who is interested in psychoanalysis, and I’m sure Dr. Nelson found it interesting as well with her connection to a Jungian psychoanalyst.

We discussed dreams in a previous class and briefly discussed some of the conceptual developments that Carl Jung made in the field of analytical psychology. One of his major contributions was the concept of the “collective unconscious.” To start, each of us as individual has an unconscious part of our minds that makes up the majority of the activity in our brains. Most of our conscious thoughts are surface manifestations of underlying processes that occur without the conscious parts of our minds being aware. Sigmund Freud used an analogy of an iceberg, as an iceberg tends to have a small percentage above the water (conscious mind) with the majority being underwater (unconscious mind).

One of these aspects of the unconscious mind was called the shadow by Jung. In short, each person has a whole spectrum of qualities, behaviors, perceptions, emotions, etc. that makeup their personality and psyche. However, many of these qualities are either shameful, disgusting, frightening, or otherwise undesired by most people. We experience significant distress when confronted with these realities of our existence, but we ALL have them. These parts of ourselves are typically displaced from our minds in some way, sometimes by repressing them, sometimes by projecting them onto other people, sometimes by expressing them in socially acceptable ways, etc. But, no matter the mechanism, they are typically kept in the unconscious mind in order to protect ourselves and allow us to lead happy and, frankly, ignorant lives.

Carl Jung went beyond Freud and introduced the collective unconscious. Jung recognized that we are not merely individuals and that our minds connect and influence each other in various ways, and as a result a collection of “archived” unconscious information is “stored” collectively in human species. It could be said that a collective shadow exists in humans, and that, socially and culturally, we project, repress, or otherwise store the shadow parts of our existence in unconscious areas of our collective mind. Burt seems to suggest that rats have served this function in some ways for us.

As I mentioned above, the rat exhibits and symbolizes many qualities that humans either don’t like or ignore about themselves. I’m sure some of you have heard the common expression that the things we tend to not like in other people are the things we tend to dislike about ourselves but ignore. The reason this happens is because the negative things we observe in other people bring light to the qualities we deny about ourselves, and that makes us uncomfortable. It may be possible that the patented disgust associated with rats has similar roots. In other words, the behavior and associations with rats express qualities that all humans possess in one form or another.

We all exhibit fiery sexual urges, gluttony, wickedness and the like from time to time, and the reaction we have to these animals may be the unambiguous success they have in activating awareness of these negative associations when we see them, hear them, etc. By projecting these qualities onto rats (and, of course, many other things), we thereby mentally unload the negative parts of ourselves onto something that we consider outside ourselves. It loses its associates with ourselves, and therefore stops bringing to light the negative aspects of our own existence. In other words, the rat serves as an external container for the shadow parts of ourselves.

Of course I could be completely wrong about this, but it’s an interesting thought I think.

Of Mice and Men: Discussion Topics

Here are some topics for discussion on Tuesday, If there are any other topics you want to talk about, feel free to comment and I’ll add them.

Burt Reading

  • Rat/Human mirroring
  • Adaptability and spread with people
  • Rats in too crowded conditions act differently, same with people?

Rader Reading

  • Cultural impact of standardized mice
  • Differences in perception of mice and rats
  • Mice as first deliberately domesticated species for one specific purpose, “Laboratorization”
  • Ethicality of breeding lab mice populations when weighed against knowledge gained.
  • Post-domesticity attitude towards lab mice as commodities.
  • Similarities in domestication of white mice and domestication of humans

Shapiro Reading

  • Role mice have played in developing psychology as a science
  • Effectiveness of naming test subjects in individualizing
  • Role of rats and mice as biological machinery to test interfaces
  • Similarities between religious and scientific sacrificing of animals

Source for Header Image:

Rats and Mice


Inglorious Basterds – The Rat

The first thing I thought of when reading about human attitudes towards rats was the above scene from Inglorious Basterds. As Colonel Hans Landa points out in the clip, it’s all a matter of perspective on how prized are the attributes of a rat. Rats can be seen as man’s best friend more so than even dogs (or at least, as man’s constant companion), considering that anywhere man goes, rats go too. Rats are certainly as evolutionarily successful as humans, spreading across the globe and absolutely dominating native populations wherever they go. Rats can also mirror the dark sides of humans, constantly gnawing at their environments and turning on each other when competition gets too fierce.

When examining the rat it’s almost like one of those optical illusions that appears to be two pictures in one. Depending on how you look at them, they’re either one thing or another. The classic example is the old woman and the young lady. Just like those illusions, depending on how you look at them rats are either tough little creatures that survive in a hostile environment, or filthy, disease carrying vermin.


When discussing the reduction of individual identities of lab animals and in particular lab rats, it is important to note that the concept of “interchangeable parts” in the sense that one rate could be substituted in for another is crucial towards the application of science. Scientific progress hinges on reproducibility – if I performed and experiment claiming that my rats are immortal due to green gatorade and then Tanner tried doing the same experiment using the same conditions and his rats died, we could safely assume I’m wrong. To better create conditions in which variables that might account for differences in reproducibility are removed, the subjects (the rats) of those experiments must be as uniform as possible. Ideally all the rats involved would be the exact same clone, but as that’s too expensive to perform on a practical scale the closest thing we can come to it is the idea of interchangeable rats.


The Rader reading told the story of C.C. Little and his battle for the acceptance of inbred mice as animal models in science. Ignoring the scientific debates and reasons for using mice as the most common animal model, I found the cultural and social aspects of Little’s struggle fascinating. Little essentially had to convince not only his peers but the general public that mice were the way of the future and research involving their breeding needed to be funded. There are a lot of parallels with that today, especially with the state of funding in most scientific fields. Grants and funds are extremely competitive today, and the opportunities for almost anyone to receive funds are relatively bleak. I’ve met with scientists who consider heading into the scientific field to be a bad career move for a young scholar, as jobs, research opportunities, and grants are all drying up. Today, just like in Little’s time, researchers need to convince both their peers and the general public of the validity of their work. There’s a stark contrast between those scientists who easily and effectively utilize public opinion and media outlets and those that can’t or won’t.

I do believe that the view of mice has drastically changed in the past 100 years. It seems that originally mice were essentially associated with rats in almost every level. But now I think that most people do seem them as heroic or tragic figures, sacrificing their lives for the progress of science and the good of humanity. Treatment of scientific animal models is heavily regulated in the United States, and any projects that involve mice require a vast amount of training and certifications, in everything from physical handling of the mice to the ethics and moral guidelines involved with animal testing.