WEEK 2 – Bulliet

Chapter 1
Picking up this book the prospect of reading 79 pages at once (my original plan) was a little bit daunting, but I’m already 10 pages in and it seems to have flown by. The writing is easy to comprehend and yet technical and precise enough to serve as a scholarly text. I find myself agreeing completely with Bulliet’s definition of Domesticity and Postdomesticity, and I really like the way he uses his definition as the basis for his entire premise (thus far).

Here’s an interesting phrase: “Repetition… is normal, dulls the senses.” (13) The quote refers to animal slaughter and animal sex, but what about in reference to human capacities for evil? Does the same basic wiring in our brains that’s responsible for a dulling of the senses in the face of repeated animal slaughter/sex help contribute to the bystander effect of something like the Holocaust?

Speaking of the Holocaust, what about Charles Patterson’s equating the Holocaust with our treatment of animals? (31) Despite what the comparisons between the mechanical processes of slaughtering animals and slaughtering people, I think it’s making direct comparisons between the two actions is absolutely ridiculous, and that Patterson’s attempt to portray “animal eating and genocide is as part and parcel of the same horror” (32) is wrong.

Regarding the urban terrorism practiced by animal rights groups (33) such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), I believe they should be prosecuted and treated the same way you’d treat any other terrorist group that undertakes the same actions. The worthiness or empathy their cause my generate should not translate to differing treatment by the state.

Chapter 2

I like Bulliet’s definitions and explanations of the differences between tame and domestic. (44) If animals were originally all considered wild, and only became domestic by the taming and breeding of tamed wild animals together, then how would humans know which animals to try and breed together?  The obvious answer is to simply choose the animals that were the most tame and use those as the parents, but would their tameness be a result of genetic inclination toward being tamed (in which case the domestication process should eventually work), or simply having been tamed for the longest period of time (in which case the domestication process probably would not work)?

It would be interesting to see the reactions of Descartes and other thinkers who believe animals exhibit no reason to videos such as this or that.

Chapter 3

Trying to identify a definite point of separation between man and animal is likely impossible. I think that the only way to truly describe the separation is with a type of Venn diagram, with animals on one side, humans on the other, and a gray area in the center which is not definable.

The theory that Homo erectus might have been able to travel across the globe due to their meat eating disposition makes a certain sort of sense, but it glosses over one or two things. What about poisonous animals (like frogs)?

Chapter 4

I’d really like to see someone discuss dogs in depth. Bulliet mentions that dogs were the first domestic animals, and were domesticated before even plants were made domestic. But what were dogs used for? Different breeds of domestic dogs implies different uses, so when did breeds arise? He mentions that even before cattle were used for plows, they were most likely used as a source of wealth, meat, and milk. So what purpose did dogs serve?




This reading had a lot of interesting ideas and themes that categorize different roles humans have for animals and how these have changed over time with the development and sprawl of society.  Scientific innovations and progressions have obviously affected animal’s roles as well. The most interesting of these for me is the idea of cloning and bioengineering.  “Cloning, genome analysis and the bioengineering of modified animal’s breeds will generate cascading moral and legal debates about the definitions of “species” the ownership of species and the rights of genes.” This reminded me of the lab-grown burger which is the most recent innovation that has sparked international interest. If we are now able to create meat in a lab will this lessen our dependency on animals? How will the role of cattle and other raised animals for consumption change? Are there problems with lab-grown meat that have yet to be uncovered?



Guns, Germs, and Steel

A common theme, especially within environmental science discourses, is the ever evolving relationship between man and nature. This touches on the terms used in “Energy and Ecosystems” of the division of human history into prehistory and history. With these definitions it implies that man was controlled by nature and has learned gradually over time to now control and manipulate the environment. While I do believe that man has caused countless irreversible acts of destruction to the environment I don’t fully buy into the idea that we can “transcend the environment.” I think that we reach a point where it is impossible to have power over the environment. We have successfully managed to predict weather patterns but we cannot prevent them and that is a limit man will always live with. The destruction brought on by storms, earthquakes, tornadoes and other acts of Mother Nature have forced man to move which is when nature actually ends up controlling man. The video again proves how geography shaped the modern world and designated what we know as the developed and developing worlds today. The resources available, the animals in the area, and the ability of fertile crops completely dictated what humans were able to survive and prosper and eventually lead to the society of the haves and have nots. The more productive the grain available the faster the society developed and gained, “cargo.” For example, this development began in the middle east with the cultivation of barley and wheat. Asia followed not long after with the cultivation of rice; another highly productive and high yield crop. In summary the distribution of resources, which transcends into wealth which transcends into power was fundamentally due to farming and resources first discovered in different areas around the world.

Domestication: Who Needs It??

Answer: We do. We couldn’t live without it.

In our modern society, it’s easy to look out at the world and take for granted that life as we know it has always been the way it is today. I’m not talking about technology, or medicine, or even politics; I’m talking about how we see ourselves as human beings as compared to the every other living thing out there. It could be very easily argued that we are and always have been superior–we can drive other living beings to our own purpose, create and maintain a sustainable life for ourselves and our loved ones, and change the biological makeup of the world around us (for better or for worse). And while that may mean we have more power than any other being to control our own lives and the lives of others, it is important to remember that our current state of “superiority” has not always existed. Our origin story is the same as every other creature: a combination of dumb luck and countless one-in-a-million events that somehow made us the being we are today.

Ok, so, that’s pretty deep for a first blog post. And admittedly, it doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with domestication. But I’m getting there. I think it’s important to understand how we developed to the point that domestication became not only an option, but a necessity for the survival and growth of our culture. We all know about Lucy, the first significant ape-human link in evolution ever found. Many people even know about Ardi, Lucy’s ancestor, who lived millions of years before she existed. And while these two links in the ape-to-human chain of events can tell us overwhelming amounts of information about how we evolved, I think the most important thing to take away from their discoveries and stories is that we did. Just like every other creature, plant, and living organism on earth, we evolved from something that looked and lived in completely different way than we do. But at some point in that journey of chromosome recombination and genetic mutations, we became the people we are today. And not long after that, we learned how to use our big brains and thrive as a society.

As explained (quite well, in my opinion) by Jared Diamond in his documentary Guns, Germs, and Steel, the biggest step forward in our  species’ road to dominance had to do with food. As a lover of all things edible, I personally find no reason to question that logic. However, it does make sense. When we learned to farm and store our own food, we gained a HUGE advantage over every other species. And when we began farming, domesticating, and using animals, that advantage grew exponentially. We became a self-sustaining community, and domestication of animals gave us that ability. We had access to meat, milk, hides, and horsepower, without having to expend energy by hunting it down, allowing us to devote our concerns and brainpower to more ambitious endeavors such as building homes and creating artwork that would last millennia.

Although I recommend watching (or reading) GG&S (if only to gain a different perspective on how civilization developed), I did find that it excluded some pretty important details regarding domestication. For example, Diamond referred to farmed animals as the first ever to be domesticated. In reality, the first animal domesticated was the wolf. This is a pretty important milestone, not only for all my fellow dog-lovers out there, but for us as humans. It offered a completely different dynamic in the way we could interact with the world around us, because the first dogs were not used as food, fur, or animals of labor, but as companions. I’m sure I’ll post more on dogs later in the semester, but this seemed a pretty big detail to leave out.

So there are some of the whys, hows, and whats of how domestication began. We wouldn’t be the “superior,” world-domineering species we are today without it. Through obscure biological chance, we became beings that could bend the world around us to our will, and that has been our greatest advantage in establishing our position in the world today. And without goats, cows, and horses, we couldn’t have done it.

Guns, Germs and Steel

I really enjoyed the video this week. Initially, it was difficult for me to make the connection from the film to the class, but I slowly began to understand the story and understand it’s relevance. The strongest message I took away from the video was that as humans began the process of domesticating crops and animals, they also began the natural world. What really stayed with me after the video’s completion was the image of the lively ancient village that was once productive farmland eventually becoming a barren desert due to overuse of the land. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what humanity is currently doing the planet through greenhouse gas emissions, heavy use of chemicals and pesticides, and the pollution that is created through large-scale industrial farms. In my train of thought I often imagined the industrial revolution as the beginning of this toxic change humanity is instilling on the earth and almost subconsciously I picture humans living hundreds and thousands of years ago in perfect harmony with nature, working with the land instead of manipulating it. However, after watching the video, it occurred to me that humans have been altering the planet for much longer than what we tend to consider. I began to think about how we have been acting against nature for a very long time, but then I wondered if these actions are against nature. Humans, after all, are organisms on this planet just like all other organisms. Just as Rob Dunn described in Wildlife of Our Bodies, we share many genes and traits with even fruit flies. And just as in the video, Dunn describes the ways humans have manipulated “nature” and changed our surroundings to our liking. But as far as the argument about this change being unnatural, I’m completely undecided. Perhaps humans evolved and were meant to manipulate the earth in order to steer the planet in the direction it’s now going. The other side is that humans are obstructing what nature intended and acting as a plague of the planet. And there is one further argument that nothing was meant to be and all of nature is chaotic and random. I’m not sure yet what I believe, but I’m confident that I’ll begin to lean in some direction as the course continues.

More than just a pile of bones

White, a biologist mentioned in The Wild Life of our Bodies, happens upon a pile of bones he soon comes to call Ardi, short for Ardipithecus ramidas and becomes both fascinated and obsessed with the implications of this newly found form’s existence.  As a reader, I was taken back by the ability of the author, Rob Dunn’s, ability to tie something as simple as happening upon a fossil into a vast analysis of the development of the modern man.  He explores the classic topics, such as the discovery of fire, all the way to what he believes makes us humans. In a confident and most likely controversial statement, he claims humans are separate because we chose to be. We, as “simple” creatures with genetic makeup unnervingly close to that of chimpanzees, chose to claim our place at top of the food chain.  My own personal religious beliefs are not exactly parallel to Dunn’s, but I love his ability as an author to grasp the reader’s attention and explain the reason for our existence through witty but strong claims.  As Dunn describes White’s journey to unveiling the mystery behind these bones, one quote resonates through my mind; “White could not prove where they belonged on the tree of life.” I love this quote because it gives life to the past and reminds us that we all come from a common seed, grown into the fully evolved and dominant human race of today. So, where do we belong on the tree of life? This generation will shape the future, for better or for worse.

The Wild Life of Our Bodies

It is certainly true that enormous changes in human ecology have occurred in a very short time—ones that sharply contradict our evolutionary and environmental history. Cities, infrastructure, fast food, digitalization, and light pollution have produced a world that is purely a human creation and devoid of naturalistic elements. Various functional systems in the human body, such as digestion and immunity, are, in part, products of specific threats in the environment (e.g., predators or microorganisms) that challenged our existence millennia ago but were successfully negated in enough cases for us to continue living today. As result, these systems may find their niche not in today’s developed world but in the world of prehistory.

While one cannot deny the potential for serious consequences caused by an increasingly artificial world, Rob Dunn’s—as he puts it—idyllic portrayal of human ancestry in the introductory portions of The Wild Life of Our Bodies seems to speak more to the author’s own sentimental and nostalgic image for prehistory than to an accurate display of a period that he admits was ridden with predation, disease, suffering, and mercilessness unseen by most of today’s people. I will not deny the benefits of frequent exposure to the natural elements of our planet. However, an important characteristic of humans may negate Dunn’s assertions about the need for a re-infusion of naturalistic elements into metropolitan life. This characteristic is adaptability, both neurologically and genetically.

Advances in neuroscience, biological psychology, and genetics reveal a high level of adaptability in human behavior and physiology through neural plasticity (“plastic” meaning “easily shaped or molded”) and variability in gene expression. While classical evolutionary processes occur over millions of years, the human brain—and consequently the physiological functions controlled by it—updates its structure in real-time in response to environmental input. One might even say this is a main function of a nervous system: to actively adapt to the environment without the waiting period of reproduction, mutation, etc. Moreover, research in epigenetics (“epi-” meaning “above” or “around,” implying a form of genetic control exterior to DNA) has revealed that gene expression is not a fixed phenomenon determined at conception, but instead—though to a much lesser extent than the brain—is responsive to environmental conditions. Therefore, our bodies and brains may have a surprising ability to adapt to the seemingly inorganic aspects of developed civilizations—perhaps without facing the dire consequences foreshadowed by Dunn.

Furthermore, while the genome of a developing embryo “expects” a child to be born into a world similar to the one of prehistory, one must not forget the degree to which the brains of newborn infants are “blank slates,” uncontaminated by experience and learning. The initial experiences of an infant—whether they are those of a dense forest or a McDonald’s—become, for all intents, his or her “natural” environment. Environmental stimuli, working in an interdependent relationship with one’s genome, carve the early architecture of an infant’s brain. In other words, physiological response tendencies (i.e., how one’s brain or body responds to various environmental stimuli) and gene expression are in a perpetual feedback loop with the environment (via the sensory systems and the brain) that allow it to adjust accordingly to the world the infant occupies. The result is a developed adult who has, at least in part, adapted to the world of today – possibly mitigating the risks alluded to by Dunn.

Finally, while the incidences of certain problems, like autism, are on the rise in today’s culture, it is important to realize that any system is going to have its problems—but the ones that arise will be specific to that system. Human systems in prehistory had problems such as predation and dysentery; today’s systems have autism and diabetes. Pick your poison.



This chapter begins by lamenting the human impact on the environment and the constant changes to the environment as a direct consequence of human existence. However, when I read this type of writing (and others like it), I always question why the writer considers human beings as something distinct from the environment. Humans are a part of nature, and alterations to existing environments by organisms prevalent in nature happens ever single day. Species are driven to extinction in areas by a number of factors, and human beings are not the only catalyst for such drastic change.

The author writes that the rippling extinction of megafauna  “probably owe something to human expansion and hunting.” (page 81) To me this seems like correlation implying causation, which is not the case. A major factor in human beings becoming as prolific as we did is the change in global environments and a shift in global climate. Such a shift would have certainly caused rippling extinctions throughout the world, regardless of the proliferation of humans.

I disagree with the authors conclusions that a calorie is a calorie, whether in fuel or in food. Perhaps that would be accurate if we were discussing only calories lost from the environment, but the reading discusses it in terms of calories gained by human beings. In the discussions of humans as K-selected species, the reading completely fails to mention the most obvious reason that human beings were able to grow so rapidly despite our classification as a species that might not ordinarily to so:  space to move. When humans began filling out the carrying capacity of a certain environment, we simply moved somewhere else. Granted, the movement consumed the environment in different ways and altered it drastically, but the text never goes into this detail.

Neanderthals are actually not an evolutionary dead end in the sense that they were wiped out by competing species or gradually died off on their own. There’s a growing body of evidence that shows that Neanderthals interbred quite readily with Homo sapiens, and thus might have naturally bred themselves into extinction (combined with other factors). It wasn’t a case of being outcompeted.



In the introduction Dunn mentions a host of diseases that are emerging and links them to our changing relationships with the world around us, especially all the animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria that we might not be interacting with on a daily basis. However, many of his diseases do not belong on such a list. Sick cell anemia, for one, is a direct result of a genetic mutation that lends the carrier immune to malaria. Distancing ourselves from mosquitoes doesn’t cause sick cell anemia, simply living long enough to the point where the symptoms would become evident does. Autism rates are increasing, that is certainly true. But there’s much evidence for the conclusion that the reason autism rates are increasing is because we are becoming better at diagnosing it, not because the disease itself is on the rise.

Dunn’s introduction reads almost like he believes that we were healthier in the age before technology, in the age of our ancestors. He says we are headed to a time in which our daily lives are more removed from nature and we are “sicker, less happy, and more anxiety-ridden for it.” (Introduction, I can’t find the page number on the ebook). Frankly I believe his entire attitude is delusional. He briefly touches on the fact that we should avoid reverting to wilderness and the dangers associated with it, but then laments repeatedly about our increasing dissociation with nature. Life was brutal and short before we started altering nature to fit our needs. Probably the single biggest life saving feature ever implemented in human society was the chlorination of water systems. Yet chlorinating water is a great removal from Dunn’s attitude of embracing nature. There’s a reason human beings changed their environment and removed ourselves from nature. Nature isn’t some happy environment in which we all thrive and grow equally. Nature is brutal and leads to very short, hard lives.

He comments on how we as a species used antibiotics to rid ourselves of one bacteria and in the process killed off the entire microfauna in our guts. That is utterly ridiculous. Antibiotics certainly are coming around to bite us, because they’ve been abused and misused. Yet there’s a very good reason they were used in the first place. Preserving the microbiome in someone’s gut is an excellent goal, but it’s a hollow victory when that patient subsequently dies from syphilis (or some other bacterial disease, take your pick).

Here’s Ardi, for those interested in what she might look like.

Animals and Plants, or Geography, Trade, and Politics?

Guns, Germs, and Steel proposes that the people inhabiting the diverse regions of the world were limited in their development by the kinds of animal and plant species available for them to domesticate.  The primary example given is that the people of New Guinea were unable to advance beyond a tribal society because they lacked large animals to provide the labor needed for more intensive agriculture.  Moreover these people lacked plant foods that could be stored for long periods of time, hindering the development of more sophisticated division of labor.

While it is true that people are limited by the resources at their disposal, and these resources include the animal and plant species available for molding, this explanation is unsatisfying and doesn’t take into account the depth of human ingenuity.  Diamond’s theory also fails to explain some of the sophisticated civilizations that developed in South America without laboring animals equivalent to the horse or ox.  The Mesoamericans and Inca managed empires with advanced agriculture, albeit with a more ideal crop than the New Guinean’s sago, corn.  While the Inca had the Llama and Alpaca as beasts of burden, neither is fit for pulling a plow or powering a mill, and the Mesoamerican civilizations lacked even this domesticate.  These empires instead relied on human power.

These South American empires were still less developed than the Europeans, Chinese, and some African Empires though.  Was it because they lacked the sources of animal power to develop the higher technology of the East?  While it may have contributed, there are a number of other possible factors.  .  The politics of the Old World vs the New World are in stark contrast. In the Old World there were many competing nation-states trading, warring, and exchanging ideas.  This communication, be it by the coin or the sword, doesn’t seem to have produced the same effect in the Americas.  While trade routes across America have been discovered, it was more an exchange of goods, and less of ideas.  Possibly, the speed of trade was slower in the Americas, and this made the exchange of ideas sluggish.  Europe has an abundance of waterways for not only easy trade, but water power as well.  These waterways, combined with the Mediterranean create the geographical basis for a cultural and ideological powerhouse.

The lagging behind in development compared to Europe cannot be solely caused by a lack of laboring animals and easily stored foodstuffs, but it was likely a contributing factor.  Larger culprits for this inequality may have been a lesser degree of competition and trade of ideas between civilizations and geographic obstacles to fast trade and alternative energy sources.