Dunn and Zeder

Dunn and Zeder


I thoroughly enjoyed this article, I think it addressed a number of nagging issues we talked about in class and gave a very clear and concise explanation for the domestication of multiple species. The point about having three distinct pathways towards domestication was fantastic. Oftentimes we mentioned the idea of dogs or cats coming from casual interactions at the fringes of human society and then in the same breath mentioned that such a method would not work with cattle or horses. Zeder’s theory addresses that issue by the incredibly obvious (now that it’s been pointed out) solution of multiple pathways. Why couldn’t there be multiple avenues of domestication? With multiple domestication events occurring worldwide the odds of the same method of domestication being used for every species is incredibly low. And as Zeder said, the pathways aren’t mutually exclusive. Animals such as pigs could have been domesticated through a variety of methods, as they no doubt were.


The article mentioned brain sizes and the relationship between domestication and decreased cranial capacity. A startling point was made when Zeder explained that though it seemed (relatively) easy to reduce brain size through domestication, it was very hard to increase brain size through reintroduction of domesticated species to the wild. This observation has a lot of implications for the survival of domesticated species without human beings. We know that many species are incredibly dependent on us for their survival (and vice versa), but in my mind at least there’s always been a vague notion that should human beings suddenly disappear, our pets and livestock would gradually turn feral and become undomesticated. Sure many would die from their dependence on the now vanished mankind, but enough would live to have a small but eventually thriving population. With the knowledge that brain size and other domesticated morphologies might be quite hard to reverse, it seems possible that in reality most of those animals would die out completely. It’s a rather sad thing to think about in my opinion…




Dunn’s Wild Life of Our Bodies takes the typically attitudes and ideas about domestication and turns them on their head. You could argue whether his overall thesis is accurate or worth considering, but he certainly does make some good points. The length of time between most domestication events and today can be roughly estimated to about 10,000 years. This number differs of course depending on what species or event you decide to start from, but as a general number it’s relatively sound. 10,000 in human history is an eternity, in fact it’s essentially an entirety. However, 10,000 years in the history of the evolution is a blink of an eye. In the history of earth it doesn’t even register. One of the  principles of evolution is that it is slow. Even when considering rapid evolutionary shifts, 10,000 years is just barely enough time for fundamental  changes to arise. Dunn’s work points out that essentially what we’ve done as a species is overrun our own evolution. We’ve moved so quickly and changed our environments so rapidly that biological evolution as it has always occurred simply cannot keep up. In response, in order to meet the changing demands of our environment we’ve evolved technologically.


Instead of developing thicker fur or metabolic pathways that might grant us the ability to hibernate in cold winter climates, we starting wearing clothing. Instead of developing physical features that might allow us to flourish in unbearably hot conditions, we have an air conditioner. Impaired vision can be corrected with glasses, faulty cell replication systems with anti cancer drugs, and lack of sharp teeth or claws with knives or spears. These changes have allowed us to master our environment in an unprecedented manner, giving humans the ability to essentially remove themselves from the ever running evolutionary race by bypassing the main qualification that are required for such a race: time. We didn’t have the time to wait for evolution to catch up if we as a species wanted to spread out and continue reproducing. In response, we changed the rules and used our ingenuity to make physical evolution if not irrelevant, then close to it. Now, the ingenuity that allowed for such developments certainly is a product of evolution, so by that logic it’s possible to attribute all of human technological evolution to the biological evolution that preceded it.


Now for a small personal opinion of the book: I think this book relies heavily on the logical fallacy of false dilemma. Essentially, I believe Dunn has made a number of good points about the disadvantages of our current relationship with nature, but then by extension he goes on to say that because domestication of nature is “bad,” the hunter-gatherer/ancient ways must be “good.” That’s not true. It’s not bad or good, it’s simply different. While Dunn only states this a few times, his overall tone is conveyed through adjectives like the “dark path” that led to aurochs and human mutual domestication.