Category Archives: January

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.

Wascally Wabbits

Although I enjoyed both Brantz and Darwin, I’d like to focus more on Brantz’s topics of analysis in my blog post, as it’s a more unfamiliar field to me. That being said, Darwin’s work and the depth of his study has always intrigued me. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to study different varieties of honey bee, and yet he sounds almost disappointed that he can’t do more to artificially control their breeding! He couldn’t have known the near-impossibility of obtaining any usable data from an experiment like this anyway, considering the way bees reproduce, but I wonder what we would have discovered sooner about genetics if he had found a way to do it?

Anyway, on to Brantz. Other than his comment about the dog days of summer (I’m pretty sure they’re named after the prominence of the Dog Star during those particular weeks of summer, not brutality to stray dogs, but correct me if I’m wrong), I liked his analysis. I thought it was similar to the very first reading we did on post-domestication relationships between humans and domestic animals. The part that most fascinated me, however, was the acclimatization section.

While under most circumstances I would consider the ability to acclimate and adapt to new situations as a good thing, in reading Brantz’s chapter on domestication I saw nothing but the downsides to the whole process. Brantz briefly mentions the failings of acclimatization, but I don’t think the spin he puts on this really makes the reader aware of the devastating effects acclimatization and domestication of foreign animals had. In class we’ve discussed how some animals are better for domestication than others simply due to genetic predisposition, however the major problem with acclimatization wasn’t that some animals just can’t be domesticated, it was that you can’t displace hundreds of animals to a completely new climate and expect everything to be ok, either for them or for the people already living there.

Brantz does mention the “rabbit plague” of Australia, but here’s a little more background on the story for those of you who may not be familiar with it: Some guy in England moved to Australia and decided he wanted to continue rabbit-hunting there, only Australia didn’t have any native rabbits. I don’t know much about him, but I’m guessing he looked like this:

So he shipped less than 20 over from Europe to fuel his hobby, thinking it couldn’t possibly do any harm. The rabbits bred like, well, rabbits, and the population exploded and covered the entire country, devastating the ecosystem. I’m surprised a horror movie hasn’t been made of out the story. The government tried increasingly drastic methods to exterminate the rabbits, eventually hitting on one that worked in the latter half of the 20th century, more than 100 years after they had been introduced. The method was basically biological warfare on the rabbits- a virus called myxoma was introduced to the population. Other biological control methods had been tried before, but myxoma was the first to actually work- it reduced the population to less than 20% of what it had been. However, the effects didn’t last. The remaining resistant rabbits bred, and the population grew again. Finally, a different virus was found that worked in the 1990s. (Funnily enough, it escaped by accident from a research facility where they were testing its efficacy, but it still worked.)

All this mess because some guy wanted to hunt rabbits. The many reasons anyone could possible have for acclimatization and domestication of foreign animals are far outweighed by the risks involved. We’ve only mentioned ecological damage, which is bad enough, but there are health risks too. Rabbits are reservoirs for diseases that not only affect them, but other animals and people as well. I don’t even need to mention the risk that wild rats and birds pose. It’s fascinating to me how these downsides did nothing to stop the fad of acclimatization and bringing over of foreign animals to “civilized” countries- all for a bit of entertainment and (probably mostly) profit. I can’t imagine how many new diseases were brought over as well.

This has been a pretty one-sided blog post, so I welcome any differences of opinion- it wasn’t intended to be a rant about the folly of invasive species ecology. Pretty much all of my opinions are probably skewed just because of my current studies, but I mention them because I wish Brantz had spent a little more time on that aspect of the acclimatization movement and its impact.

Discussion Points 3/04/14

Here are the topics for discussion we came up with:


Would domestication be considered a mental defect in the animals as their brains reduce in size compared to their wild counterparts?. Are there examples of increased brain size? What about “smart” dog breeds?

If so, what makes something a mental defect? After all, in their new environments domesticated animals are much better adapted than their wild counterparts.

If domestication truly follows the pathways Zeder described, would it be theoretically possible to domesticate any animal via one or more of those pathways? Obviously some animals would be easier to domesticate than others, but in theory what would make an animal truly impossible to domesticate?


What evidence do we see in the modern world of the way the diet and utilization of agriculture influenced our genetic makeup and evolution over the years? Agriculture has obviously changed since its invention thousands of years ago, what staples have stuck with us and why? In such a rapidly changing society, the needs of which are so vastly different than those of the ancient world, should we change our approach to the basic foods we farm and eat?

What do you think about the theories Dunn presents on how we evolved to be able to process milk? Today people who are lactose intolerant don’t suffer physically because of it (they can be just as healthy or unhealthy, fit or obese, as lactose-tolerant people), so what does this mean evolutionarily speaking?

Do you think gene therapy is a viable weight-loss option for the future? What about popular restrictive diets?

See you in class,

Corinne and Kelly


Topics for Discussion: 2/25/14

How did Part Wild change any previous conceptions we might have had regarding the domestication of the wolf/dog ancestor? What are the prevalent theories regarding this evolution?

What are the real differences between tame, trained, domesticated, and wild? How do we apply these rules when comparing the behaviors of wolf-dogs vs. dogs vs. cats?

What are the legal/ethical issues surrounding wolf-dogs, regarding their acceptance and breeding? How should society handle them?

Are dogs really “retarded versions of wolves”?

Is an emotional connection between a wolf-dog and a human possible?

-Corinne & Molly


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.