Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers 1

In this post, I will focus primarily on content from Chapter 1 of Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, as the subsequent three chapters failed to provide the level of stimulation and insight that I was looking for.  I could be wrong, but I found that Bulliet’s style collapsed into a scattered summary of historical events, mythology, and processes that lacked easily detectable substance.

I extracted several overarching themes from the reading. I’ll discuss two.

OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND

Bulliet seems to suggest at times, and I too suggest, that the stunning lack of authentic concern for the treatment of animals in our society is in large part results from our tendency to be concerned with what is “right in front of us.” Psychologists use the term “salience.” For instance, in a hypothetical photo of a beach, a giraffe’s presence in the photo is more salient than a sandcastle — in this case because the inappropriateness (and size) of the giraffe makes it more salient than the sandcastle.

Many agree the rationale for vegetarianism is quite compelling, even non-vegetarians. More would agree that the systems in place for housing and slaughtering animals in the U.S. as depicted by films such as Food, Inc. are appalling. That begs the question, why are we so content eating so much meat given our knowledge of what’s going on?

I think the answer, at least in part, may be a product of salience (or lack thereof). The other answer may be desensitization, as Bulliet mentions. While the people of domesticity were numbed from overexposure to animal slaughter and sexuality, the indifference of the people of postdomesticity may be attributable to psychological distance from the processes that eventually delivery meat to our grocery stores. In other words, what’s going on in the background is not salient and is therefore mostly irrelevant. I might say there is an unconscious, but also partially deliberate, effort on the part of society to block thoughts that might lead to discomforting realizations about animals. Discomforting realities are interpreted as psychological threats and are usually rejected by our brains automatically.

SEPARATION FROM THE ENVIRONMENT

Bulliet discuss the progression from a kind of fusion with animals in predomesticity to a separation in domesticity and postdomesticity. I will take it a step further: our separation from animals is a signal of a larger separation from the environment altogether. One could argue that the humans of predomesticity were immersed in the environment, were a part of it. With domesticity, we began to “stomp on top of” the environment. We increasingly manipulated the Earth’s species and resources and came to consider ourselves as “above” nature.

Postdomesticity goes a step further. Rather than sitting on top of the environment, there is reason to believe we are removing ourselves from it altogether, physically or psychologically. Our cell phones, movies, computers, and the like seem to being tearing us from the physical world that increasingly makes us uneasy and placing us in a cyberspatial vacuum that leaves us completely unconnected to our roots in the predomestic and domestic world. Bulliet notes that our conceptions of carnal reality today are a product of images and teachings without any concrete experience. Our knowledge of the “real world” is “installed” into us instead of developed from experience. I can elaborate more in class if needed.

 

Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers

I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised as I began to read this week’s reading. I didn’t expect the topic of the book to be “blood and sex,” as it’s so often mentioned throughout the several beginning chapters. I was honestly a little taken aback as the book just jumped right in and began to discuss bestiality and it’s prevalence in previous centuries. For starters, I had no idea that it was such a normal thing in the past, and to continue, I didn’t exactly understand what the subject had to do with domestication. It seemed to me that bestiality would be more like a setback in the history of animal domestication; kind of like a mistake in the process of forging a successful, positive relationship between animals and humans. Despite my initial hesitation, I quickly began to understand the importance of the subject of “blood and sex.” It seems that it’s actually very important to understand the relationship humans have had with animals on a sexual level and also in how our view of animal slaughter has changed. As the readings progressed, I began to see the increased complications of animal/human relationships. Not only have sexual relationships towards animals developed over time, but as have our moral and religious connections to animals. As I have thought about domestication previously, I kind of imagined domestication occurring at one point and history, and after that point the relationship between humans and animals has been static and unchanging. This book has made me begin to understand that the development of the animal/human relationship takes place on so many levels, and furthermore how that relationship has been changing almost constantly with the development of society.

Although I was able to overcome my initial hesitation with the book as it started off discussing “blood and sex,” I still wasn’t entirely convinced by all of Bulliet’s points. I believe Bulliet did a good job of making the reader aware of a change in animal/human relationships developing with the changes of society, but I think there wasn’t enough exploration into those changes. I mainly got this impression from the portion on elective vegetarianism. Personally, I do not eat red meat, and I tend to avoid most meats overall, and as I read this portion of the book I began to feel somewhat ashamed. It was as if Bulliet’s message was for people to suck it up and eat meat like humans used to and are supposed to. However, Bulliet ignores the fact that our society has drastically changed from the domestic era in which most people saw many animals slaughtered during their childhood. And apparently unlike Bulliet, I don’t really feel that this is such a negative change. For example, Bulliet mentions the way that meat gives people more energy than only vegetation can. This point was brought up as if it was a case for why people are making a mistake in shying away from meat, however Bulliet never mentions that most people no longer work on farms and exert as much energy as they used to. Therefore, it seems that eating foods that give less energy really isn’t such a big deal. Unlike Bulliet, I really think that the change in the eating habits of society that have arisen from the drastic change in the activities and lifestyles of many societies overall is not a bad thing. Obviously, these thoughts are mostly focused on American society, given that many countries around the world are still primarily farming societies. But in general, I didn’t have the same negative impression of the shift towards vegetarianism. I may have interpreted this section incorrectly, and I probably simply felt this way because I felt guilty while reading this portion of the book, but I do know for sure that Bulliet was attempting to place a negative connotation on vegetarianism, which I do not agree with. The book so far has been eye-opening, but I’m not yet fully convinced by Bulliet.

Post-domesticity, and Animals’ changing Influence

Humans’ relationship with animals, both domesticated and wild, has changed over time.  According to Richard Bullliet’s idea of post-domesticity, we are living in a time where attitudes towards animals are shaped by peoples’ removal from them in their everyday life.  Bullliet argues that this change in interaction with animals has shaped our views on sex, violence, science, religion, and diet.

In Bullliet’s “domestic era” people interacted with animals often and in personal or involved ways.  Butchering one’s own animals for meat was common, as was breeding them.  In the modern post-domestic era, animal products are still produced, but in an automated and sterilized manner.  The blood, gore, and animal suffering are locked in the back room or miles away from your burger.  Without addressing moral concerns about the production of animal products, Bulliet argues that after removing ourselves from the sexual and visceral stimuli that come with frequent animal interaction, we developed fantasies to replace them.

Witnessing animal sex used to be a fairly common introduction to the idea of sex in the domestic era.  Bulliet presents evidence that regardless of the same taboos against bestiality as are present now, bestiality was likely more common in the past.  Without animals to influence sexual development and provide a release for imagination, we turned to masturbation and lurid fantasies in other mediums.  The growth of erotic material does seem to coincide with the decline of the domestic era.  Is this causation though?  The increase of literacy and general consumption of literature could explain erotic literature’s early growth.  The explosion of internet porn, so vehement that it merits its own internet rule, #34 (if it exists there is porn of it), is explainable partly as the internet allowing people with strange tastes being able to reach a larger audience.  Also responsible for this growth could be the growth in general of cultural material on the internet as it becomes easier for the average person to create a video, story, or picture and share it.

The gore of butchering animals is almost completely gone from modern life except for in connection with sports like hunting and fishing.  This removal has coincided with the growing attitude that harming animals is morally wrong or at least regrettable.  Vegetarianism and other variations of dietary restriction on meat are growing more popular, as is the revulsion at the treatment of food animals in factory farms.  Portrayals of animals in media are commonly anthropomorphized, especially in children’s media.  This has caused us to care for animals in an abstract sense as something approaching third class citizens.  In post-industrial governments animals have some limited rights.  Curiously, animal-on-animal violence is not viewed with revulsion like human-on-animal violence.  Seen as a natural act or part of the “circle of life”, people don’t demonize animal-on-animal violence or seek to change it.  Hunting sports are sometimes seen as “barbaric” or primitive, but are also praised as being “manly” or in some other way a rite of passage.

In regards to science, Bullier argues that while the “natural” selective breeding of animals to mold them to our purpose was a welcome and accepted advance, modern methods of altering animals, drugs and genetics, are met with skepticism and fear.  While people are right to be wary of the unintended side effects of new technology, the response to genetic engineering of animals is particularly strong.  One possible reason for this is the fear that the techniques developed will be turned on us.  Others hope for this, strongly advocating genetic manipulation as a way to not only increase food supply, but cure diseases or improve quality and quantity of life.  In the post-domestic era, our strong feelings for animals as something like third class citizens makes us pause at the idea of changing these animals genetic identity.  Do we have the right to go beyond artificial selection and deliberately engineer new species?

In the considering of non-human rights, the issues of whether animals have some level of self-awareness and a concept of suffering are extremely relevant.  Religions weigh in differently on this issue, with some interpreting the Christian duty to be stewards of Earth as a blank check to do as we please, while others see it as a commandment to tread as lightly as possible on the environment.  Buddhism and Jainism condemn the eating of animals to varying degrees as immorally causing suffering.

The changing relationships between Humans and non-humans involves controversial issues such as non-human rights, genetic engineering, and hunting.  How our attitudes towards these issues evolve will determine how strongly a “post-domestic” culture will develop.

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?

 

 

Creating

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?

 

http://www.nbcnews.com/health/lab-grown-meat-here-will-vegetarians-eat-it-6C10830536

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.