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From Rat King to Lab Rat, and everything in between

Whenever I think of rats, I can’t  help by picture the evil rat threatening the baby on Lady and the Tramp, or even the Rat King in The Nutcracker, but very seldom do I spend time pondering over the lab rat, or even the tiny mice used in experiments.

The reading by Burt explores the various reasons why people view rats as dirty and a menace, as well as refutes some of the false assumptions associated with these useful little vermin. One of the main reasons people began to view rats as disgusting, beyond the typical notion that they carry disease, is that they represent “unbounded sexual reproduction.” However, many animals not typically viewed as disgusting or evil fall under this same category. Some animals, for example ducks, whose males often violently rape the females, could even be viewed as sexually immoral, when the duck is a symbol of spring and even represented in Easter, not evil and filth. Furthermore, adorably bunnies, also associated with spring and Easter, are known to reproduce at an extremely rapid rate, yet many would not be too disappointed to happen upon a bunny.

Furthermore, Burt goes on to point out that rats can in fact be viewed as a “parallel” to humans and actually are pretty clean and intelligent. He notes that rats can represent both human achievement and destructiveness; they are extremely useful in science, for example testing efficiency with the maze experiments, yet they can also bring forth disease, much like humans. He quotes Donaldson, who even suggests that the rat may be the “sped of version of humans.”

In Rader’s excerpt, he focuses more on the use of inbred mice for cancer research as opposed to the history of rats described in Burt’s article. Though his writings spent too much time focusing on the ups and downs of Little’s professional career for my taste, I really enjoyed the section titled Institutionalizing the Organism. As a business major, I am always wondering what the economic impacts of a particular industry are, and I loved how Rader linked Little’s rollercoaster career to various financial problems they faced. The message from this article that resonated most with me was the fact that Little met the most success when he focused his lab more on making profits off selling the mice to other researchers instead of putting all his resources into his own research at the time. Why did he do this? He began to lack arguably the most important resource; money. This represents a common issue one faces when he tries to achieve his dreams, whether it be curing cancer or climbing Mt. Everest. Without sufficient funding, one may find himself as a “sell out,” temporarily abandoning his dreams to simply sustain his income. Luckily, Little was eventually able to gain enough support for his research.

Lastly, I want to point out Shapiro’s comments on the decline of individualism with lab animals. He points out that these experimental pets are not seen as individuals because there are tons of each species used for the experiments, the animal is replaceable, they are seen as organisms sometimes instead of animals, and they are caged up and become very habitual. However, he also points out that they actually do have some extremely complex behavioral patterns (why else would one use them for psychological studies?), the animal rights movement have changed the mentality towards the “replaceable organisms,” and lastly he notes an “inevitable bond” between the researcher and the lab animal.

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.

Goat song

When I began reading Goat Song, by Brad Kessler, I did not know what to expect. Does it simply describe one man’s journey into pastoralism? Does it grant the reader a vaster knowledge of domestication? Or does Kessler provide a social comment on the human-animal dynamic? The answer: it covers each of these areas and more.

Though I found the description of the young goats entering their “heat” almost too grotesque to read, I really enjoyed this brief autobiography that covers such a diverse range of topics, including religion, domestication, the food industry, human/animal relationships (mutualistic, or not?), as well as many other topics that reach several different audiences.

One topic that struck me in particular was Kessler’s debate over the true definition of paradise; is it simply based on our perception of ourselves and the world around us, or is it a physical place closely related to the “land of the milk and honey” described in Exodus. He goes on further with his debate to relate the fall of man to our move away from gathering to farming. Personally, I would not make a link quite as extreme, but he makes some valid points about our move away from “what nature intended,” which we often debate ourselves in our class discussion. Are we going against nature by intentionally keeping and altering animals for our own benefit? Though Kessler realizes through his own experience of “kidnapping” (pun intended) the baby goats from their mother, as well as his analysis of his neighbor’s inability to save his livestock from the coyotes, that farming has harmed animals in various ways, I feel that he still finds the process of raising livestock so rewarding and beautiful that he sees it as a necessary evil in the human-animal dynamic. This may sound a little harsh, but I believe Kessler appreciates his personal experience with his goats so much, that he does not view farming as “all evil.”

Rather, I think he has an issue with the way the food industry has moved away from nature; from paradise, by taking the easy way out (ex. pasteurizing milk instead of scrutinizing each dairy). I see farming personally as I would any other invention; a beautiful concept, until someone comes along and using it solely for his own profit. That being said, I was extremely impressed and motivated by the Kesslers’ ability to take every responsible measure necessary to raise the goats, while still admitting when they needed help from experts.

Furthermore, I loved how Kessler showed his readers the beauty found in simple, everyday concepts. For example, he shows us the history of a few select words, namely paradise, and then shows us why we should care about their origin and their relation to domestication. Through these brief excerpts, Kessler demonstrates just how vast an impact the domestication of goats has had on cultures through language, religion, and food.

Overall, this book made me think twice about the milk I drink; but most importantly, it challenged me to analyze thoroughly the full spectrum of our “mutual” relationship with animals. Once the reader can get past the gruesome accounts of breeding the goats, he will find greater insight on not only our history with animals, but how it still affects us today, all while providing an interesting and fun account on his experience in trying to produce homemade cheese.

We should be blaming mono-culture, not agriculture

In The Wild Life of our Bodies, Rob Dunn illustrates some of the negative ways in which agriculture has affected the modern human’s body. He draws on genealogical evidence that “proves” humans could not digest milk properly before the domestication of cattle, asserting that our new reliance on milk could be a contributor to the rise in obesity. I wonder, was Dunn referring to all milk? He did mention that milk served as “baby food,” but he then excludes humans from this category. Maybe I just misunderstood the reading, but to me the notion that human offspring did not used to rely on breast milk  seems preposterous. Dunn perhaps was only referring to milk from livestock, but he did not mention human breast milk whatsoever in this passage, which left me a little confused.

Furthermore, I feel the scientists’ arguments he brings up (though he does not entirely back their findings) seem to put a little too much weight on agriculture as the key culprit, when I personally see mono-culture as the main issue behind obesity, starvation, and an unfortunate monopoly of the food industry. If we had a better variety, instead of almost all of our foods coming from corn, we would create a more stable and sustainable system, as well as returning to a diet better suited for our body’s needs. That being said, I believe the rise of agriculture is inevitable. In the almost Utopian society Dunn describes as that of the hunter-gatherers (where one would find food and then do art all day), the system eventually failed. This failure was inevitable, with human nature being so rooted in the Tragedy of the Commons theory; we will take more than our fair share from the land, and then we run out. Without social hierarchies and a controlled system (like agriculture), of course we ran out of food and the African villages had to move from one area to the other. Unfortunately, business has turned agriculture from a means of survival to a means of maximum profit, but we would have all suffered had agriculture not taken off.

As a bit of a gym rat, and one who has to watch my diet carefully due to hypoglycemia, I wanted to conduct a little research on whether eating as a hunter-gatherer (mainly a variety of fruits and nuts) like Dunn described would serve the same health benefits in the modern human body today, as it supposedly would have the historical humans described in this passage. Here is a summary of my findings:

While we should always strive to steer clear of as many processed foods as possible, diets such as the paleo or caveman diet, that recommends we eat as the hunter-gatherers did, it has not proven beneficial to our health to cut out eggs, dairy, and grains. Furthermore, dietitians view a diet this restrictive as “unrealistic” and “lacks balance.” Furthermore, the article points out that there are several discrepancies within scientific research of what cavemen would have actually eaten on a day to day basis. Overall, the choice to eat leaner, high-protein meat, and trying to avoid processed foods definitely presents benefits, but the paleo diet is too extreme and research does not necessarily support it.

Novelty- the agent behind our desire to be different

Part Wild, an autobiographical recount of Ceiridwen Terrill’s decision to try and raise a “wolf-dog,” not only focuses on the impact of raising a “part wild” animal, but also on her personal life, from leaving an abusive relationship to starting over with a new, gentle man.

Ceiridwen, or Vitamin C, as her new husband likes to call her, initially decides she wants a dog in order to redeem herself for leaving her dogs behind with her violent ex-boyfriend. After visiting a shelter and breaking into the secret storage room, she discovers a wolf-y looking dog and decides that’s the type of dog for her. Beyond desiring the wolf-dog “hybrid” (this term is later refuted) for protection against her ex determined to find her, and a hiking buddy, she may not realize it, but she is attracted to the idea of owning this dog due to humans’ natural attraction to things that are novel; things that are new or different.

This psychological law of attraction not only helps push her to desire such a unique and exotic dog “breed,” but she also rushes herself into marriage to the quirky Ryan, despite his bounced checks and childlike addiction to video games. Ryan is an entirely different person than she’s ever met before, and he is the polar opposite of her ex, which leads her to desire him even more than she would have if he were a bit more run-of-the-mill. It could even trick her into feeling of love, which is really infatuation from our obsession as humans with things that are different.

We could argue the power of this social dynamic, but I believe from psychological research, as well as many of Vitamin C’s actions, that this law of attraction could actually overrule our common sense. For example, Vit. C sees with her own eyes her future puppy’s mother attack the neighbor’s cat out of nowhere, though the breeder claims she is the most gentle wolf dog she has owned. Furthermore, the main character ignores more red flags, both with her relationship and adopting the part wild puppy because she is so in love with the idea of something/someone different. She wants a dog that can protect her from her old abuser, but wolves are actually horrible guardians.  They would be more focused on getting the prey for themselves than trying to keep you safe, as Ceiridwen learns after already adopting the puppy. I learned in my introductory psychological class that novelty absolutely impacts one’s dating decisions and can explain why your adorable daughter brings home Diesel, the lead guitarist for a screamo band.  If it can impact one’s dating decisions, it can absolutely effect one’s purchasing decisions.

The principle of novelty can even account for the reason exotic pets have hit the market at all. Why would we consciously want a half wild animal, when we have so many options common domestic animals? Because we are more attracted to things that stray from the norm. I would be lying if I said I haven’t fallen in love with the idea of owning a cute hedgehog, or a tiny turtle (illegal if under 4″), or even a toyger (half Siberian tiger, half domestic cat), but after reading this novel, I feel even more affirmed that trying to domesticate a wild animal is simply wrong and selfish. Throughout her recounts of her adventures with Inyo, Terrill struggles to train and trust the part wild wolf-dog she brought into her tiny condominium. Even in the training session at PetCo, the trainer and Ceiridwen can see that these behaviors of obedience are unnatural for a wolf, and she feels bored, confined, and out of place in her forced human world.

There is definitely evidence that sometimes an environment with humans can benefit an animal; for example, the domestic dog clearly thrives living with humans, for they desire to be challenged and taught, and would otherwise perish in the wild. However, the innate predators like the wolves were meant to remain in their natural habitat and not to serve as pseudo-Fido’s for the greedy humans who simply want a unique animal. It goes against nature, endangers the humans, and frustrates the extremely intelligent and wild wolf.


Monkey see, monkey do

First off, I would like to say how much I still appreciate Dunn as an author, and I will discuss his writing style further in our discussion this week. One example though, is his ability to link past occurrences to the modern actions of humans, a task Bulliet failed to achieve (in my opinion). He mentions in his novel Wild Life of our Bodies, that old world monkeys had a full spectrum similar to humans of color vision, probably for discerning which fruit was ripe. Apparently, this trait has been passed on to New World monkeys, but it is far less common than with the ancestors.

I have always sort of struggled with concepts of evolution because I believe in the “Creation” theory for the development of mankind, though, over time, I have come to accept that natural selection could have absolutely modified and even killed off thousands of species. That being said, I wanted to explore first how scientists know that monkeys saw or can see color, but also find some other theories on why that is. Shockingly, the best answers I found as to how scientists can tell which colors animals can see appeared in a yahoo blog. Simply stated, researchers can tell from cones in the eyes of the animal whether he can determine red from green (the true test for color blindness), which Dunn briefly mentioned in the passage.

Now, as to why the monkey used to see in full color as opposed to the New World monkeys, I found the article I have attached to this post. You may wish to read it for yourself, but in summary, the article verified Dunn and Isbell’s proposal that monkeys had to use their vision to see whether the fruit was ripe or not. Furthermore, the article also presented that females develop red skin near sexual organs (sorry for that visual) that would help a male with a poor sense of smell (causing him difficulty in sensing female pheromones) mate. Other than these two proposals for the monkey’s ability to see red, the article said there were not many other accepted proposals for the monkey’s inherited ability to distinguish colors.

One discrepancy I would like to point out in the article, is that it gives credit, for the theory of the monkey being able to see red in order to find good fruit, to Andrew Smith of Scottland, when Dunn writes an entire passage on how the personal life of Isbell became affected by her desire to prove why the monkeys could see red. It does not mean either author was wrong, but I would favor Dunn’s credibility over the article’s because Dunn does not often propose his opini0ns as facts, and he tends to support his theories with formal citations, as well as with historical anecdotes that only an expert and great researcher could access.

Theories of Domestication- Bulliet vs. Ingold

For starters, while I read the next chapter of Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, I still struggled with Bulliet’s sporadic and mostly poorly supported writing style, as well as his overgeneralized claims. I have a few positive opinions on him as an author, he knows how to grab a reader’s attention, he makes a few valid points I would never have considered myself, and he seems extremely creative and intuitive. That said, I would like to first point out that he backs one of his claims by saying “as an Internet search will quickly reveal,” and also claiming common sense as another one of his supports. He must believe the reader will simply trust his intelligence, and I do not necessarily think he lies in his book, I just feel that no professional writer or historian should support a thesis with such a lack of tangible support. I have mentioned before that he definitely has guts to write this book, and it definitely caught my attention, but it seems as though he regurgitated any knowledge he believed he had on domestication or even simply why mankind has become so sexual and violent, without taking the time to find other valid supports to his beliefs. This book to me seems highly based on opinion, regardless of if they prove true or not. His main theory on domestication seems far too simplistic, like many of his other theories. He believes the cause of domesticated cats resulted from humans originally wanting the low-adrenal or simply less jumpy cats to kill mice, whilst still driving away the larger, dangerous cats and thus protecting the “tolerated” mice control cats. He then states that over decades of years, the cats kept on the property for mice extermination developed a higher reproductive ability, much lab rats he previously mentions. Though he explains the theory somewhat well, the thought that humans protecting more laid back cats from the wild for years produced a whole new species of domestic cats forever can only account for one part of the equation. This theory could not really apply to wolves used for hunting becoming dogs or wild  hogs becoming cute little pet pigs.  It sounds like Bulliet is describing artificial selection (where humans interfere with and impact natural selection,) but he also claims that humans never intended for long-term domestication and did not create the domesticated species on purpose. That may have held true in some parts of the world, but his simple story on the evolution of domestic cats does not suffice for me in proving his point, though I got where he was heading with it. I related much better to Ingold’s writing style and theories. He cited various scientific or literary supports for his claims throughout the entire brief passage, which helped me trust what he was saying. I recently learned in my Public Speaking course that audiences will always struggle to believe speaker’s who do not seem credible, and Bulliet has yet to prove his credibility to me. Ingold however did earn my trust, regardless of if I agree or disagree personally with his take on the matter. He also compared his views with and against Darwin’s like Bulliet did, but he took a slightly different stance. Bulliet hinted without defining the notion of artificial selection, while Ingold flat out stated that humans have interrupted nature by domesticating animals. He went on to compare the domestication of the ox to engineering; we as humans make the ox however we want it. In contrast, Bulliet seemed to view domestication as an accident, whereas I believe Ingold sees it as humans claiming their “[transcendent] humanity” over the other species of animals, meaning it was intentional and meant to happen. At first I thought he might see the humans as evil for doing so, but after I read back over his example of Darwin comparing the savages to undomesticated animals, I’d say he thought it did society at least a bit of good. Overall, though I have a few issues with either author’s take on domestication, I can at least trust that Ingold conducted sufficient research and tried to highlight the ideas of others than only his own.

Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers… A unique and intriguing, but somewhat uncomfortable history lesson

Bulliet’s, the author of Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, main thesis, in my opinion, centers around one abstract but insightful question: can we link each era of moral views (or lack there of) to the level of domestication of animals during that time period ? Did the domestication of animals contribute to a rise in bestiality? Or even the intense gruesome level of violence in historical warfare? (before the use of muskets or rifles) Bulliet supports his claim by walking the reader through the historical views on sex and violence, while linking them to the corresponding trends in domestication.  For example, modern post-domestic societal views on sex typically find bestiality taboo , especially with young children around, and centers around fantasy sex, such as porn.  He links this to the fact that most of us, unless we farm, keep close contact with the animals from which we obtain our food, and therefore, are not exposed to the day to day mating between animals.  This is just one example of the claims he makes.  I do not agree to the extent that he does that so many societal views, such as even a national right political swing, but I do think he supports his claims well, and I admire his originality in his claims and think he does a phenomenal job at educating the readers on a multitude of social history, that he would not have obtained from an everyday class or textbook. One topic I would love to discuss more is the irony within Thomas More’s book Utopia (mentioned within this text), he views utopia, the world at its finest, as a society where only the slaves kill the animals. I know this does not directly relate to Bulliet or my previous description of his intriguing novel, but I just had to point out the warped mentality behind that book.  Furthermore, I would love to debate whether enhanced fantasized violence, retrieved through video games, porn, etc., could actually decrease real-life violence, as many have apparently claimed. Lastly, I really enjoyed reading this novel and believe it can reach many different (adult) audiences; it moves from hush hush subjects, such as masturbation, to hot topics, such as vegetarianism, all the way to a simple analysis of domestication’s affect on cartoons.

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.

From breakfast to best friend

Funny picture demonstrating how farm animals have become household pets, much like the lap dogs we love to tote around. This adorable marketing scam “teacup pig” will be the topic of my upcoming research.

teacup pig