Domestication, energy, geography, intention, evolution and how things came to be…

This is a discussion of primary and interesting concepts and thought from the first readings required in Deep History and Domestication. The readings explain and raise interesting questions about the history of animal domestication.

The YouTube video, Guns, Germs, and Steel inspired by Diamond’s book of the same title, explores the question of where the roots of global inequality began. The central inequality is why visitors from the northern hemisphere have so much “cargo” or things while those people in New Guinea have so little.  To answer this question it is necessary to have an understanding of how energy is used by humans and flows through ecosystems. In short, as people changed from hunter-gatherer civilizations, more energy was used as fuel for heat and other processes and stored to be eaten later. As people began to farm crops like wheat and barley the nature of the crops around them were selectively changed. During the time in which crops were being unconsciously selectively farmed there were too significant increases in energy available. This allowed societies to simply do more. It was not just farming that contributed to the inequalities of world. It was the type of crop or animal farmed that made more productive societies. For example, the domestication of large animals for plowing had the capacity to greatly transform civilization productivity whereas the pig, more largely distributed around the globe could not. Thus, the geographic spread of civilization, farming and domestication were argued to be the contributors to the global distribution of wealth and power. It is true all human civilizations have ingenuity to make progress. However, they are limited fundamentally by the geography of their location and the raw materials at their disposal. This geography of luck is exactly where global inequalities may have begun.

The Energy and Ecosystem chapter excerpt explains that all organisms have a constant and never-ending impact on their ecosystems. The chapter distinguishes two phases of human history. First, Prehistory is noted for humans reacting passively to their environment. History is when humans first began to transcend environmental carrying capacity by utilizing more energy for processes. Diamond speaks little of human intent to alter the environment and organism relationships; this chapter in contrast considers whether the many human environmental impacts are intentional choices or unintentional byproducts of evolution. When comparing human environmental interactions to those of other organisms their effects are not out of the ordinary. The environmental effects of humans in this sense are a product of genetic scale, not of human species exception. Animal domestication can also be understood as a strategy of human survival and risk management. The chapter explains, “The domestication of plants and animals is the result of many isolated experiments that ultimately reordered human participation in ecosystems and the mode and scale of our energy consumption relative to that of other species.” This is due to a mutual dependence of humans and their domesticated partners and this evolutionary relationship continues to change both species. It was also made clear that plants and animals like ants can be domesticated in the absence of human influence.

Although there is a strong argument for unintentionally, how humans capture and transform energy (enabling remarkable raises in global carrying capacity) and the coevolutionary bonds formed between humans and other species illustrate the degree of perceived and real human intent to change nature and influence the environment. Farmers are deliberate in their plant and animal modification to ensure energy for survival but these create a mixture of desired and unanticipated results. If the results are unpredictable but the decision to create those results are intentional can those results be considered a product of intention? Intentionally, the chapter asserts, may be what differentiates human forms of domestication from those of other organisms. “It may be this element of human intent – or agency- that forms the interface between the overarching forces of domestication…” However, intentionality inherent to animal and plant management today may not be representative of the initial conditions of domestication thousands of years ago. The question then is if it necessary to determine when human thought advanced to comprise intentional choices for survival that alter the environment.

Today, the globalization of agriculture has had great ecological costs coupled with a greater ignorance of biological relations between animals and land in particular. These long-term ecosystem costs are passed down to the poorest countries and especially to the poorest women and children, impoverishing them further and perhaps perpetuating this unequal social structure. Food production demands have fostered a massive redistribution of resources within nation-states and internationally, benefiting corporate wealth at the expense of the commonwealth. It is rational to conclude that geographical location and the type of raw materials at a civilizations disposal create and reinforce inequalities today; even if those effects are a product of meek individual, social, or civilization survival.

The question of which human environmental effects are results of intentionality or unconscious outcomes may be less important to a more rounded view of animal domestication history. The Evolutionary History article by Russell asserts that the time has come to understand histories in a coherent way. Not only do humans shape other species (which is important for those species) the evolution of these species in turn has a significant impact on humans. “To biology, history offers an understanding of the social forces that create selective pressures.  To history, biology offers understanding of the ways organisms respond to such pressure. Together, as evolutionary history, they offer an understanding of the ever changing dance between humans and nature.” The articles calls for a holistic understanding of human evolutionary history to best understand how the human relationship with the environment contributed to how things came to be this way.

The importance of a whole evolutionary perspective could increase as climate change progresses and biotechnology expands the severity of human environmental impacts.

It is difficult to determine intention. Yet It is undeniable that human coevolution with plants and animals since the beginning of history enabled progress, perpetuated by geographical luck, that created and reinforces serious global inequalities today. If historical intention cannot be starkly identified, is it possible to allocate whose responsibility it might be to positively shape the future of the globe and lessen social inequalities? Despite these and many other vital considerations it is clear that human, plant and animal evolutionary history will prove valuable in understanding ourselves as humans and how to best shape the future.    

One Reply to “Domestication, energy, geography, intention, evolution and how things came to be…”

  1. Thanks, Erica and Camilla for these excellent discussion prompts. There’s so much here to talk about…definitely more than two hours worth — which is why we have the blog!
    I’m going to try to comment on a particular issue you raise in a separate blog post….

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