All posts by loomispw

Rats of NIHM: How rats and mice have shaped the Sciences

Laboratory rats and mice are arguably one of the few deliberately domesticated species bred solely for one purpose, and in a methodical way to arrive at a predetermined goal.

White mice were inbred to produce near genetic uniformity so as to produce a standard mouse on which to experiment.  These experiments have ranged from barely invasive to extremely involved.  The header image is of mice who have been genetically engineered to glow under UV light, providing a blunt visual of how much control we have over these creatures.  There are of course regulations on how laboratory animals are to be treated.  If test subjects have to be killed, it is done humanely and as painlessly as possible.  It was interesting to note in the Shapiro reading that when test mice were named the name was transferred to the subject’s successor.  This reminds me of how other names for animals like Shamu, Jaws, Babar, or Dumbo become associated with all members of that species.

Sociology, psychology, and neurology have much to owe to the development and use of white lab mice, as it led to them becoming closer to hard sciences.  With mice to experiment on, these disciplines have been able to test theories and discover how mammalian minds operate as well as how to interface them with technology.   Recently mice have been used to test machine-mind interfaces, using the mice no longer as stand ins for human behavior, but human biology.  In this way they are no longer used as individual animals, but as so much biological machinery.

An interesting comparison drawn in Shapiro’s writing was that between religious sacrifice of animals and scientific killing with experimentation.  In many religions animal sacrifice was deemed necessary to appease gods.  This appeasement would in turn garner the gods’ favor in the form of good harvests, the curing of ails, and victory in battle.  With scientific research, animals are killed in equal, if not greater numbers in order to further understanding of nature and to improve our standards of living.  The difference being that scientific research results in tangible results, while religious sacrifice creates a feeling of improving the situation, and can be a useful diversion or entertainment.  In both cases animals are reduced to means to an end, with little consideration for the quality of life for the individual.

In many and diverse ways, experimental domesticated rats and mice have impacted our society.  In terms of health, moral outlook, and social understanding.

Of Mice and Men: Discussion Topics

Here are some topics for discussion on Tuesday, If there are any other topics you want to talk about, feel free to comment and I’ll add them.

Burt Reading

  • Rat/Human mirroring
  • Adaptability and spread with people
  • Rats in too crowded conditions act differently, same with people?

Rader Reading

  • Cultural impact of standardized mice
  • Differences in perception of mice and rats
  • Mice as first deliberately domesticated species for one specific purpose, “Laboratorization”
  • Ethicality of breeding lab mice populations when weighed against knowledge gained.
  • Post-domesticity attitude towards lab mice as commodities.
  • Similarities in domestication of white mice and domestication of humans

Shapiro Reading

  • Role mice have played in developing psychology as a science
  • Effectiveness of naming test subjects in individualizing
  • Role of rats and mice as biological machinery to test interfaces
  • Similarities between religious and scientific sacrificing of animals

Source for Header Image:

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.

Pastoralism and Society

The effects of living closely with domestic animals in pastoral societies are varied, touching on sociology, linguistics, and history.  Even today, there are pastoral societies such as the Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan, living nomadic lives with their herds.  In the past they have influenced the sedentary civilizations, particularly in Eurasia.

In Goat Song, the influence of pastoralism over past languages and their modern progeny is detailed.  Letters such as H may have taken their shape from fences as a string of them clearly form a pen: HHHHHHH.  The shape of the letters I, J, and L may all have come from different types of shepherds’ staffs.  There is a common allusion to this in candy canes being shaped purposefully like shepherds hooks in reference to the pastoralism of the Jews and the influence it had on the New Testament.  The Jewish and Christian religions themselves have a large amount of pastoral influence, with many analogies being focused on sheep, shepherds, and animal sacrifices.

In Greece, the goat specifically influenced mythology in the form of the satyr.  Half goat and half man, the minor god embodied the lust found in goats while in their mating season.  They are also patrons of the arts, including poetry and song.


This character of a half man- half goat god was co-opted by the early Christians into one version of the devil.  Modern conceptions of devils often include goat-like elements such as horns, goat legs, or even goat heads.

Pastoralism has even affected our genetics to an extent, as we are one of the only species to retain the ability to process milk into adulthood.  The genes responsible for the ability to metabolize lactose are not present in all peoples, and are more common in western ethnic groups which have a past grounded in pastoralism.

Historically, pastoral societies have lived on the outskirts of sedentary societies and often invaded.  Sometimes these invaders established control over the civilization, such as the mongols with the Jin Dynasty in China, or the Seljuk Turks in Anatolia.  These invasions were often destructive, but occasionally constructive.  The Mongols, for example, provided safe passage for trade over a huge territory, and spread ideas across their lands as well.

The domestication of goats, cows, sheep, and other pastoral animals has had a wide effect on people biologically, and historically.  Goats in particular have had a lasting influence on western culture through its Greek and Judeo-Christian roots.


Physical Effects of Domestication

The process of domestication seems to favor certain physical and behavioral traits, and tends to reliably result in a separate set of characteristics.  Among the prerequisite traits are hierarchical and non-sex separated social groups, and being omnivorous.  The standard phenotype for domesticated animals includes features such as reduced brain size, reduced fight or flight response, and a more juvenile appearance.  What is curious is that modern humans exhibit at least one of these domesticated phenotype traits when compared to Paleolithic humans, reduced brain volume.

Melinda Zeder’s “Pathways to Animal Domestication” outlines a number of prerequisites and usual changes in domesticated species.  One factor in which species were more likely to be domesticated I had not considered before was how the animal’s sexual signals were conveyed.  Animals with displays based on coloring or physical attributes rather than attitudes or behaviors aren’t as well suited to being domesticated.  This is because changes to the animals’ morphology, such as neoteny, could disrupt the animals’ reproductive cycle or viability.  Monogamy is also undesirable for a domesticated species as it makes selective breeding harder to accomplish.

The reduction of brain volume of domesticated species when compared to their wild counterparts seems to be common among all mammalian domesticates, and more pronounced in animals with larger starting brain volumes.  Moreover, the reduction is in general focused on parts of the forebrain, which is a more recently evolved structure, allowing for more complex thought.  In this sense domesticates really are to some degree mentally retarded versions of their wild counterparts.

The average human brain volume increased until around 20,000 years ago.  According to Cro-Magnon skulls found in Europe, our brain volume has decreased by approximately 10%.  There are a number of theories about the implications and causes of this phenomena.


I think the causes are mainly, increased computational and informational storage ability outside of our own minds, and complex societies allowing us to be a little less intelligent.  The increased cooperative nature of complex society may have allowed us to become slightly less intelligent, spreading the mental labor over more minds.  In addition to calling on other people to solve problems, we have invented ways to solve problems partially or wholly outside of our brains.  Taking written arithmetic as an example, to do calculations in your head is far more taxing than manipulating symbols written on clay tablets or paper.  A more basic example based on memory would be the transition from spoken histories to written ones.  To memorize the Iliad and be able to recite any part at will takes much more mental effort than writing it down and knowing how to read.  The invention of written language and cooperative societies may be largely responsible for the reduction in brain volume.

A very modern extension of this phenomenon is the use of computers to complement human computation and memory retention.  Cutting a person off from computers and the internet would cause them to lose access to the sum of human knowledge and experience.  However, people raised with constant access to such resources, such as myself, are less able to complete tasks without this access.  Anyone who has had computer issues in a dire situation knows that it feels almost like losing a limb.  It is arguable that with internet connectivity so ubiquitous, we have outsourced some portion of our thinking power to computers, just as we have in the past with arithmetic and writing.  I as an individual do not know everything about say domesticated pigeons, and my laptop doesn’t have the capacity to creatively and meaningfully interpret the information it has on pigeons, but as a system, we have both the knowledge and the capacity to interpret the information and produce something with meaning.

What this means for domestication is that when looking at the physical changes in humans that may imply we are becoming dumber, it is important to realize that you cannot separate humans from our technology.  The reduction in our brain size is one side of an equation, and is balanced out by our increasing reliance on external thinking tools and cooperation with others.

Part Wild – An Extremely Apt Title

Ceiridwen’s experience and records of living with and raising a wolf-dog mix offer insight into the difference between a tame animal and a domesticated one.  Based on this reading I would argue that cats as a whole cannot be called domesticated, though many individuals act domesticated.

Ceiridwen’s wolfdog, Inyo, is tame.  She is relatively calm around people and doesn’t attack them, even when provoked.  Inyo was able to be trained and kept as a pet, but still retained behaviors attributed to wolves.  Hiding her food for times of hunger, and howling rather than barking, Inyo was by no means completely domesticated.  There are a variety of breeds of wolf dog, some of which have surprising features.

220px-Czechoslovakian-wolfdog-profile_big(Czechoslovakian Wolfdog)

220px-Llop(Arctic Wolf/ Malmute Hybrid

220px-Kunming_Dog(Kunming wolfdog)

Inyo’s independence and lack of blind obedience lend credence to one of the breeder’s statements that, “Dogs are retarded wolves.”  I was reminded by this of how cats act in comparison to dogs.  While dogs are blindly loving and relatively obedient, barring abuse, cats are more independent, aloof, and far less trainable.  Cats act more like the wolfdog hybrids, tolerating and even being fond of people, but retaining their own agendas.  As a whole cats would be better described as a species that adapted itself to a niche opened up by people, rather than as domesticated.

One suggestion that arose in class as to how wolves had been domesticated was that the wolves adapted themselves to live around humans.  This idea was supported in the reading by the idea of genetic tameness preceding full domestication.  This would also support the idea that wolves were domesticated in different areas at different times.  This would also explain how different researchers determined that dogs had been domesticated in both the Middle East and China.  I do find it dubious that dogs were domesticated in China as food animals, as they’d be horribly inefficient from an energy standpoint.

The legal ramifications of wolfdog hybrids was explored well in the reading, as Ceiridwen was forced to lie about her wolfdog’s identity to get it vaccinated.  The threat of Inyo being put down has been ever-present, and her identity being something of an open secret will likely become a problem.  Most of the laws seem to either outright declare the hybrids illegal, or give them the benefit of the doubt up until they cause any bodily or property harm.  While the laws do appear unfair in how they’ve been portrayed, they do exist for a reason.  Not all hybrids will be as calm as Inyo, and the breed has the capacity to do major harm to a person if it attacked in full force.  Personally I’d be inclined to agree with the benefit-of-the-doubt laws, though with more wiggle room for exceptions and slip-ups.

(images are pulled from wikipedia)

Genetic Basis for Domestication, and Hunting’s Effects

The two readings for this week covered relatively different subjects, the susceptibility to domestication some animals have at a genetic level, and how humans shifting to greater reliance on hunting affected us.

The physical characteristics associated with domesticity, soft fur, larger eyes, and relaxed friendly attitudes, constitute a certain phenotype.  With the experiments in domesticating foxes there is mounting evidence that this phenotype corresponds to a genotype.  That is, some animals are more likely to be domesticatable based on how easily they can be bred or naturally acclimate themselves to approach this genotype.  As was discussed in class, some of the early changes in dogs, like being more relaxed and friendly to humans, may have been the wolves adapting themselves to the niche provided by humans.

In the Dunn reading the idea that human’s long ancestral past as prey has greatly influenced our bodies and minds.  One example of the kind of physical traits we might have acquired from being prey is the tendency to give birth at night, when young be in a safer environment.  The evidence I found after a cursory search on the internet for studies suggests that the average time of birth is late afternoon, which would be safer as a time where there is still light, but a clan would probably be finding or have found a safe haven for the night.  Other ways predators have shaped us is our fight or flight response, which is common in prey animals as it allows quick decision making on the best strategy for survival.


To tie the two readings together, I would like to suggest that as our level of predation on other animals rose we began to breed ourselves to be quicker, cleverer, and faster, and, that once we domesticated animals and settled down into towns and cities, we began to domesticate ourselves.  Once we became sedentary, being more aggressive and specialized for hunting became a liability, so we selected for different traits, still cleverness, but social status, and charisma as well.  The new desired traits reflected the more complicated social structure that emerges with sedentary settlements.  While social skills are important to communicate a hunting pattern, they are even more needed for haggling over the price of bread, or arguing a point in civil debate.

Tame in the Wild

Bulliet adds to the list of possible way animals were domesticated (Genetic predisposition, living around humans for food, and self domestication) with the idea of “tame” wild animals.  These animals naturally lack a fight or flight response to humans and are relatively easy to capture and train.  The majority of these animals are at the peaks of their food chains and so lack predators of their own to make them skittish, or are found on isolated islands where large predators were lacking.  Some examples of these animals include Elephants, camels, alpacas, and the dodo.  These animals stretch the definition of domesticated, as they are certainly tame, but not all are controlled by humans for their entire lifespan.  Some, like the dodo, seemed simply ambivalent towards people, and were not controlled, herded, or bred.  Others, like the camel, can mature in the wild, or be raised in captivity, and be ridden and trained equally well.   In my opinion, these tame yet wild animals cannot be considered domesticates on the merit of being tamed alone.  To be considered truly domesticated, they must be purposefully bred and controlled throughout their entire lifespan.

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.

Animals and Plants, or Geography, Trade, and Politics?

Guns, Germs, and Steel proposes that the people inhabiting the diverse regions of the world were limited in their development by the kinds of animal and plant species available for them to domesticate.  The primary example given is that the people of New Guinea were unable to advance beyond a tribal society because they lacked large animals to provide the labor needed for more intensive agriculture.  Moreover these people lacked plant foods that could be stored for long periods of time, hindering the development of more sophisticated division of labor.

While it is true that people are limited by the resources at their disposal, and these resources include the animal and plant species available for molding, this explanation is unsatisfying and doesn’t take into account the depth of human ingenuity.  Diamond’s theory also fails to explain some of the sophisticated civilizations that developed in South America without laboring animals equivalent to the horse or ox.  The Mesoamericans and Inca managed empires with advanced agriculture, albeit with a more ideal crop than the New Guinean’s sago, corn.  While the Inca had the Llama and Alpaca as beasts of burden, neither is fit for pulling a plow or powering a mill, and the Mesoamerican civilizations lacked even this domesticate.  These empires instead relied on human power.

These South American empires were still less developed than the Europeans, Chinese, and some African Empires though.  Was it because they lacked the sources of animal power to develop the higher technology of the East?  While it may have contributed, there are a number of other possible factors.  .  The politics of the Old World vs the New World are in stark contrast. In the Old World there were many competing nation-states trading, warring, and exchanging ideas.  This communication, be it by the coin or the sword, doesn’t seem to have produced the same effect in the Americas.  While trade routes across America have been discovered, it was more an exchange of goods, and less of ideas.  Possibly, the speed of trade was slower in the Americas, and this made the exchange of ideas sluggish.  Europe has an abundance of waterways for not only easy trade, but water power as well.  These waterways, combined with the Mediterranean create the geographical basis for a cultural and ideological powerhouse.

The lagging behind in development compared to Europe cannot be solely caused by a lack of laboring animals and easily stored foodstuffs, but it was likely a contributing factor.  Larger culprits for this inequality may have been a lesser degree of competition and trade of ideas between civilizations and geographic obstacles to fast trade and alternative energy sources.