Category Archives: March

Reindeers are Better Than People?

In the film Frozen, ice-hauler Kristoff is best friends with his pet reindeer Sven, and prefers the company of Sven to any human. He even sings a little song:

Reindeers are better than people/Sven, don’t you think that’s true?

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Kristoff and Sven while reading Piers Vitebsky’s account of the Eveny nomads in The Reindeer People. While it doesn’t seem like most reindeer usually embody the dog-like relationship with their owners that Sven does, the level of interaction and codependency between the reindeer and nomadic tribes of Russia was amazing. I’ve never been one for history, but I couldn’t believe the richness of the history surrounding the domestication of the reindeer. Domesticating this animal made it usable in so many ways that I wonder why it never really caught on in North America. They are almost the perfect animal for domestication: they’re meat, but can also be used as beasts of burden and transportation. I’d always been taught in my biology classes that the only difference between reindeer and caribou (taxonomically speaking) was that reindeer were the domesticated version and caribou were the wild version of the same species; however Vitebsky presents them as being divided almost by where they live (caribou in Canada, reindeer in Russia- maybe it was just the alliteration?). In any case, they are the same animal, so theoretically they would provide the same advantages to Northern American natives that they did to the nomadic tribes of Russia. Vitebsky even states that the migration of reindeer into North America from Russia was likely due to their close relationship with migrating people, so why didn’t that relationship stick in the same way it has in Russia for thousands of years?

Another part of The Reindeer People that really struck me was the parallel between the happenings of Soviet politics and the process of reindeer domestication. The chapter “Civilizing the Nomads” really brings the metaphor into light- the “more civilized” people of the Soviet Union were domesticating the nomadic people in the same way we domesticate animals, and eventually made it impossible for them to live completely independently, as they had for generations. They took their sons and daughters under the promise of giving them a better education, and while they may have done so, they also turned them into the equivalent of the reindeer decoys; this better educated generation was their way to spread their politics and control back to the previously “wild” people of the north. It was much easier in this way to ensure that they soon became dependent (on some level) on higher civilization. I’m not saying that the reindeer people will start carrying around iPhones, however the Soviet interference forced them to begin to need the biplanes, helicopters, and hospitals that they provided.

It is admirable, however, that the reindeer people have maintained as similar a lifestyle to their ancestors as possible in this day and age, and have passed down their language and religion so successfully through the centuries. It reminds me a bit of the Amish in the US- while they occasionally use conveniences such as hospitals, they have pretty much lived the same way for hundreds of years, and have kept their beliefs strong all this time.

I’ve gotten a little off the topic of domestication, but I guess that reindeer have become such an integral part of Eveny history that it wouldn’t be possible for them to live the way they do today without them, even with modern society imposing itself on them more and more. I’m not sure if I agree with Kristoff entirely (I’m more inclined to agree with the second verse of his song, “/people smell better than reindeers/”), however The Reindeer People was definitely a great example of how the lives of humans and a domesticated species can become so intertwined that they are close to indistinguishable, and being a part of that culture would be really fascinating.

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Overcoming My Ignorance of Goats

I’d like to apologize to goats everywhere. While I never thought of goats as the devil incarnate, I’d also never found them particularly appealing, let alone “elegant,” in any sense of the word. If I ever envisioned myself owning livestock, goats were definitely not in the picture. That is, until I read Goat Song. My opinion isn’t easily changed, but I have to be honest, after reading about Brad’s life out in Vermont with his goat-children, it’s not so hard to picture myself doing the same thing (in the distant, distant future). The point is, it was a great read- my favorite out of the readings we’ve done so far. Besides the phenomenal writing style, it was entertaining. The storyline held my attention, and the tidbits of facts, history, and biology inserted among Kessler’s anecdotes didn’t dry it out or ruin the romantic nature of the book.

I think what helped make Goat Song such an enjoyable read for me was the focus on cheese-making. I’ve always loved the idea of making as much of my food from scratch as possible, and while I’ve only made cheese once or twice, I’d like to get back into it. There are so many benefits to homemade/grown food- it’s healthier, cheaper, more sustainable. And way better tasting! As a college student having my own vegetable garden is pretty much out of the question (not that I’m really one for gardening anyway), so the closest I’ve come in recent years is making homemade pesto from basil I grew myself and baking my own bread; but I’ve never really been able to make a lifestyle out of it the way Kessler did. Reading Goat Song definitely inspired me to start thinking about getting some cheesecloths and microbes.

I was also fascinated by the complex behavior the goats displayed. I’d always assumed they were similar to sheep, just more intelligent, however they’re clearly completely different. They actually seemed closer to dogs or horses in their behavior to each other and their owners. In fact, in a 2005 study, goats were found to respond to certain social situations in ways only before seen in domestic dogs and primates (the study was led by Juliane Kaminski and a link to the abstract can be found here). I wonder if this is a product of domestication, or a natural inclination found in the wild version of the species as well? Kaminski seems to think it a “side-effect” of the domestication of goats over centuries and centuries. I’m inclined to agree, but how interesting that these behaviors (such as following gaze direction) haven’t surfaced in other livestock? It speaks to the high level of intelligence and social behavior programmed into the DNA of goats- something I’ve never thought about before. When Kessler wrote about his wife bonding with their goat as she struggled to overcome her infection, he described a bond I never thought possible between humans and dairy animals.

I’m not saying I’m going to move to a farmhouse and start raising my own herd of Nubians anytime soon. As inexperienced as Kessler makes himself out to be before starting his goat and cheese adventure, he did have certain advantages that I don’t. However, it was refreshing to read a book like Goat Song, written so well and with such passion that it changed my opened my eyes to an entire species, and got me thinking that one day owning a couple goats might be pretty cool.

Musings on Mutualism and Milk

I liked the straightforward information about the different pathways to domestication in Zeder’s article. Her diagrams about reduction in brain size were really interesting to see laid out side by side, however I’m taking them with a grain of salt because I’m not quite certain how reliable such comparisons are. How was the data obtained to determine the relative brain size in ancestral species? For example, the dog’s “ancestral species” is now extinct; we don’t even have enough genetic data to figure out what it looked like, let alone how big it’s brain size is. And how far back is considered “ancestral”? There are certain ancient species that stand out to us when looking at the evolution of, say, the horse; but which of these are we considering it’s ancestor? Perhaps these are a bit too in-depth and specific for the point Zeder was trying to make, but I think they are valid points to consider none-the-less. I wonder what the graph would look like if she included the brain size of the wild (not just feral) “counterparts” of modern domesticates- wolves, wild pigs, wild ferrets, etc- to their common ancestor. Have their brain sizes decreased as well (though not to the same extent)? Or have they stayed the same- or even increased (as unlikely as that is)?

Overall though, I really enjoyed the article. It helped me make sense of a lot of the thoughts swirling around in my head about how different animals came to be domesticated in different ways.

On to Dunn: My inner skeptic definitely came more into play while reading The Wild Life of Our Bodies this week, especially in chapter seven. I may just be too stubborn, but there is still a part of me that finds it very difficult to believe Binford’s theory, with all its “perhaps’” and “maybes” and “could have beens.” I don’t think the discovery of the milk-digesting gene supports the theory as much as Dunn seems to, and I don’t quite understand why Binford’s theory depends so much on crops that the majority of early people could not have processed. Why would they have farmed such crops in the first place? Maybe I missed something, but I find it a little hard to swallow (haha).

Our history of milk-drinking is equally as astonishing to me, however I’m not as dubious of Tishkoff’s conclusions. What amazes me the most is that milk drinking even became an option for early people. Aside from wishing I could meet the first person who had the crazy idea to go tug on another animal’s teat and drink the stuff that came out (although I think our conversation would be pretty limited), I’d like to know why they kept doing it, even after the milk make pretty much everybody sick except those few mutant people we can attribute our ability to produce lactase.

Dunn’s discussion of the genetics behind digestive enzymes like lactase and amylase led me to another thought: will gene therapy become an common option for dieting and weight loss? It currently exists, but not in a widely accessible form. But with the rising obesity problems and huge market for a lazy way to lose weight, once the cost is brought down it could become as common as craze diets.