Darwin Class Discussion

Here are the topics Tanner and I have come up with for tomorrow’s discussion:

1. There are indications that Darwin seems to think some domestic and wild species are superior or inferior than others. Is there any validity to describing species this way? What might the criteria for calling one species superior than another?
2. Is domestication actually a mutualistic process? Do both humans and the animals necessarily benefit?
3. What implications for domestication and human involvement in the ecosystem arise from the rabbit plague of Australia and similar events?
4. What might be the reasons that color seems to be so highly correlated with disease susceptibility and survivability of domestic and wild animals
5. Changes causing more harm than good: how do we predict if human interference with mutations will hurt or help?
6.  Animals as status symbols, “something man could manipulate” What rights should animals have?
7. Links between evolution and civilization, cultural domestication
8.  Acclimatization of animals




I liked the connection to a cultural domestication, it is something I haven’t thought fully about before. I like the reference to pets representing a higher social status in France and Germany. I think today other animals represent wealth especially in the new trends to keep acquiring exotic animals and mixed breeds. The readings stated that as people’s personal engagement with livestock diminished it coincided with a shift to urban populated areas. This trend has also continued today . The most interesting relationship to me is how humans treat some animals over others. People love their dogs more than other people sometimes but when it comes to cattle we readily eat it. How did the domestication process evolve to produce emotional connections with some animals and not others ?


Not surprising, Darwin’s writing is quite dense and syntactically complex. Why he felt the need to lump so many clauses in between commas instead of using a few more periods is beyond me. His editor should have slapped him, if he had an editor.

Darwin seems to firmly believe that domestication is a man-driven as opposed to an animal-driven or mutualistic process. He repeatedly refers to the whims and decisions of breeders in deciding which existing variations to exploit and which direction, either consciously or unconsciously, to take an animal during the domestication process. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge the potential for the animal to benefit from the process, and even if it does, Darwin implies this would be merely a side effect and not a direct effect. Ultimately, I agree with this logic, because man is ultimately deciding which variations to exploit and which animals to let reproduce. Any benefit to the domesticated animal may simply be a consequence of the necessity to have health animals in order to use them. Basically, the animals thrive because we need them to thrive for us to thrive. This doesn’t take away from our dependence on animals, such as the cow, for resources. The bond between man and domesticated animal may only be mutualistic in the sense that we need many of the resources they provide.

At the same time, Darwin may be a bit naive in this interpretation of domestication. We do depend on domesticated animals, and as time progresses and they become more intertwined with human populations, they often become integral to a civilization’s successful function. Darwin appears to have ignored this.




Viewing domestication with a biased lens

I’ll have to admit that it’s difficult for me to read Darwin. I’m not much of a scientific mind, and especially this early, somewhat crude science is hard for me to follow, given that he tends to use vocabulary and discuss topics that I’m not at all familiar with. However, I was able to follow Brantz, and I was very interested by her work. I was grabbed from the start by the opening statement, a quote by Darwin: “From a remote period, in all parts of the world, man has subjected many plants and animals to domestication and culture…He unintentionally exposes his animals and plants to to various conditions of life, and variability supervenes, which he cannot even prevent or check.” This quote is so interesting to me as it completely portrays the subject of animals and plant/human relationships from what I see as a bias anthropocentric viewpoint. The story is of human history, but also of man allowing animals and plants to enter into their society, a society which is totally separate from what appears to be the rest of the natural world. This separation does not sit well with me, and I think it’s part of the reason humans have become so removed from animals and nature in modern times. As explained in the article, animals were used as status symbols for humans; they were always seen as something man could manipulate. Even the fact that organizations were created for the protection of pets before the protection of wild animals makes it clear that human actions have long revolved around selfishness rather than a concern for other living creatures. Additionally, the fact that stray animals are seen as a nuisance because they don’t have their place serving the needs of a human family just goes to show what a bias view humans have always maintained towards plants and animals. How can they serve me? What rights should they have? Should they have any rights at all? All these common discussions on animal topics make it clear that the whole subject of domestication is just bound to take place with humans squarely in the center. I’m not really convinced domestication ever happened as a mutually beneficial arrangement. I believe there was a point in history when humans began to see themselves as better than all other species, and since that point our outlook on the other living creatures in the world has been that they are all a step below us. I think what is needed is a change in mindset. Before humans can have a discussion about the place that animals should have in ‘our’ world, we must first understand that it is their world too.

A closer look into the human-animal dynamic

In this week’s readings, I really like the basis for Brantz’ argument- that domestication is not only a biological process, but a cultural process as well. Though we have discussed in class ways in which domestication impacts animals other than just through changes to their DNA, I had not thought too much about the several links between the evolution and civilization as a whole. Brantz argues that when domesticating animals, the civilization does not have specific long-term goals for the animal in mind. In my opinion, most of the civilizations who contributed to some of the first instances of domestication had no idea of the long-term impacts whatsoever because they did not have much of a grasp on how evolution works, as well as the way in which one can alter a species’ DNA permanently. Rather, they simply had goals for their specific town or tribe and used an animal to suit whatever the current type of “cultural refinement” they yearned for. For example, if a civilization has a goal to rid their town of vermin, they would begin to allow wild cats in the area to rid themselves of mice, which eventually allowed cats to become domesticated and relatively tame. The goal was not to eventually house these wild animals as pets (a trend that did not occur until after dog ownership peaked in the bourgeois middle class of France), but rather to fill the need to rid the town of excess mice.

Brantz also begins to allude to Budiansky;s notion that domestication may not necessarily be classified as human domination; but rather it is a form of mutualism. Some species have definitely benefited population-wise from domestication, but I feel that it varies between different species and cannot fall under mutualism or domination as a whole.

I felt this brief excerpt related to a section of our other reading on Darwin, where he portrayed that while man can “select, preserve, and accumulate” variations in animals’ genes, he does not directly cause it. This would imply that nature plays a bigger role than man in evolution (in which domestication impacts), and maybe man is simply enhancing what nature already does- change species to the point that only the fit survive. Does that then mean that species with bursting population counts, such as chickens, survive in such large numbers because of men? If one looks at Darwin’s basic principle of evolution- that those with the best genes fit for the environment survive, then I believe it does. However in the case of domestication, the “fit” traits would seem to be those that humans yearn for in domesticated animals, which could easily be something as simple as the animal looks cute or fancy and becomes popular as a pet.

That said, in the summary of this passage, he describes that “natural selection often determines man’s power of selection”- these favorable or fit alleles being passed down through generations of a species in an animal’s natural habitat determine what the man has to work with later. Though man now intervenes in this cycle often through “artificial selection,” he cannot determine which alleles may lie in the animal from generations past; he can only try to make the animal best fit for the purpose he needs right now, but it is extremely difficult to foresee the future consequences of altering the animal for human needs.

For example, people may overlook the importance of the  a species’ (even flowers) color when breeding it, yet in some instances, like the heartsease plant, certain colors make it more successful in the area. One may not take into account the way the environment may put the animal and its color at a disadvantage. However in nature, if the color of the animal puts it at a disadvantage, it will simply begin to diminish and will cease to serve a specific use. With artificial selection, humans may sacrifice efficiency as they try to make a species not fit for the area into a commodity. If humans would look to nature as a model for domestication, they may see the common sense notion that if many of pigs, for example, that they’re trying to domesticate are  black, then there is probably a reason for it, and they should try to preserve this trait. This is simply how nature has the final say in a species’ destiny.

Overall, though these readings were a bit hard to grasp at first, I really enjoyed the different looks through the link between domestication and culture, and it gave me further insight into why some animals were domesticated and some other lasting impacts of artificial selection. Lastly, it left me with a better understanding of the dynamic between man and animal, and how exactly man fits into nature in the grand scheme of things.

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.

Darwin and Brantz

The excerpts of Darwin’s writing seem to have a sort of haughty air to them. The English breeders’ version of pigeons are far superior to the Indian or Java, and each time that a breeder wishes to change the bird he’s making “improvements.” According to Darwin birds in the past were considered inferior compared to the present day version, and it is assumed that those birds in the future will serve as improvements on those birds of the present day. This bias towards mutations constantly resulting in better versions of animals is contradictory to most of what we now know about the way mutations work, and leads me to wonder whether Darwin’s attitude was an offshoot of his slightly nationalistic tendencies (seeing England as superior to the rest of the world) or if it’s just because he hadn’t realized/considered the possibility that most changes are deleterious.


In the nineteenth century the mutations or changes Darwin described are all clearly visible to the naked eye: changes in tail feathers, coat color, beak length, etc. However, most mutations that occur are on the microscopic level, and they probably are never noticed because they result in death to the organism. For example, a mutation that changes the structure of a ribosomal protein may result in a lack of protein synthesis, which would prove fatal to an organism. However, we rarely see such mutations not because they don’t occur, but because when they do occur the offspring of an organism rarely survives long enough to reproduce even a single cell cycle. I’m wondering if perhaps Darwin experienced this same bias, and that those mutations that would be harmful to a pigeon actually never showed up because they were so harmful that the pigeons never made it to birth.


Brantz mentioned  the idea of domestication as an act of civilization, and that concept may be part of what gave Darwin his (in my view) bias. According to Brantz’s research, thinking at the time ran that domestication caused animals to become more civilized, and that colonizing foreign lands and introducing domesticated agricultural plants was civilizing that area. In addition, Brantz went on about the nature of pets in high society and the concept that domesticating animals carried with it a certain air of power or arrogance.



Page 86 on Brantz: “Despite some major criticisms, Darwin’s ideas about variability through natural selection were quickly accepted on both sides of the Atlantic not least because they offered a new model for how to think about the relationship between humans and animals.”

I’m a bit confused by that passage because Darwin’s theories were not accepted quickly on both sides of the Atlantic, especially on the American side. There were all sorts of counter theories and schools of thought that argued against Darwin or argued for different versions of his theories for decades after he published his work.

Discussion for Reindeer People

I’ve listed a few topics that I’ve picked out of the blogs this week for the discussion of Reindeer People
-Conflicting beliefs about Bayanay, specifically on the topic of hunting
-Given that reindeer are such a good candidate for domestication, why did reindeer domestication happen in Russia and not elsewhere?
-The effect of Soviet communism on the relationship between domesticated reindeer and the Eveny people
-Treatment of animals in a capital vs Soviet communist society
-Commodification of animals: how did the relationship change between humans and reindeer as the animals changed from partners to commodities?
-Division between domesticated and wild reindeer: change of genes? What accounts for the differences?
-Relationship of animal treatment in correlation with religion in pastoral and nomadic societies
-How we treat our pets vs animals that are domesticated for food
-Domesticated people: can humans be domesticated in the same way that animals can? Did this happen to the reindeer people?
-Dream interpretation

Reindeer People

I was very interested by the reading this week, and I’m looking forward to the great discussion that I know will result from the reading. I really like the context the book is written in. Specifically, I like that reindeer are explained in a way that shows how vital they are to the people they are connected with. The book uses powerful expressions like, “reindeer has been giving life to humans” (page 17), to show their role in the culture. Obviously, Vitebsky’s journey to the Eveny people shows in depth exactly how important the reindeer are to the population. One of the highlights for me was the discussion of animals souls. I love the beliefs of the Eveny people, in which all living things have their own spirits, and therefore all have some sort of consciousness. This type of belief system allows for a respect of nature that isn’t typically found, in my opinion, in Christianity and many other religions today. Instead of respecting nature because it was created by God, it seems to me that the Eveny people respect nature as they would fellow humans, for its inherent value, and they have a full awareness of the importance of each and every living thing on the planet. This segment made me retrospectively consider the discussion of how domestication began that was brought up earlier on in the book. On page 25, Vitebsky discusses the mystery of domestication, and why taming wild animals, here referencing reindeer, “was once possible, but it seems almost impossible to domesticate wild reindeer today.” After reading about the Eveny beliefs, this made me consider the type of society that may have existed back then. Was domestication possible because the people who lived all that time ago had a different view of nature? I think most scientists agree that animals don’t have the same level of intelligence that humans do, but I do understand that animals have been known to sense what is around them. The image that comes to mind is a dog cowering in fear sensing the anger in an owner’s voice. Were reindeer able to be domesticated because they sensed the respect those early humans had for them? The sense of equality and mutual benefit? Perhaps all traces of that sort of respect is lost in most people today, which is why domestication no longer occurs as easily. I’ll admit that it’s a crazy thought, but even the mere idea of such a prospect does at least make one consider how animals are treated in modern society, and at the very least think for a moment on whether or not the human/animal relationship was different in the dawn of animal domestication. Was something done with the best intentions developed into something cruel as humanity slowly lost its respect for the beauty of nature?

Pastoralism vs Arctic Nomads

In our past reading, Goat Song, we explored the cultural and societal impacts of the pastoral raising of herd animals like goats, cows, and sheep.  The current reading, The Reindeer People, dives into the same topics with a different subject, the nomadic herders of reindeer.  There is a huge cultural difference between these two societies, possibly stemming from the differences between their domesticates.


Pastoral societies developed monotheistic religions, with one all-powerful god ruling over his people, possibly mirroring the relationship between a shepherd and his flock.  In contrast, the native religions of Siberia focus more on spirits inhabiting people, animals, and places.  While reindeer are domesticated, they have changed very little in appearance, and don’t immediately convey a sense of human dependence like pigs and cow do.  What this means is that animals are seen more as independent entities to be bargained with, rather than exploited.  When an animal is killed there are necessary rituals to complete, just as when a person dies.  Rather than harnessing animals’ power like in pastoral cultures, shamans merged with animals to gain their abilities.  While most animals were deserving of some amount of respect within the reindeer herders’ cultures, there was one animal deserving of scorn, the wolf.  Wolves are competitors and thieves, stealing ones work and killing without any respect.


An interesting mental quirk is described in The Reindeer People, demonstrating how humans can compartmentalize their beliefs.  While hunting game or predators, the animals are only seen as instances of their species, “a wolf” or “an elk.”  By contrast, domesticated animals are more often given names and seen as individuals.  This same phenomenon can be seen in the modern world applied to out post-domestic society.  We are taught that cows go moo and pigs go oink, but otherwise don’t generally develop any personal attachment to them.  These animals domesticated for food are rarely given individual names and are instead seen as individual instances of the species as a whole.  We do, however, form deep attachments to our pets and animals domesticated for companionship.  It’s interesting to see a similar disparity in attitudes in a society involved with its domesticates.