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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.

2 comments to A closer look into the human-animal dynamic

  • Kara Van Scoyoc

    I also identified with and enjoyed the link between cultural and domestication but had similar troubles getting through the material because I felt it wasn’t written in the easiest format. I think it is especially important today to always try and be future oriented and try to best predict the consequences of our decisions today.

  • It’s great that Brantz’ selection helped clarify the connection between the biological and cultural components of domestication. You’re right – we have talked about it a lot in class, and several of the readings have taken this theme up, but it’s not an intuitive concept, and sometimes it just takes repeated exposure and work (in this case on the pig!) for the ground to be ready for that “aha moment.”
    On the chickens: I would say that in the contemporary US, the “success” of chickens as defined by their overall numbers is mostly due to our quest for cheap protein and willingness to manipulate the birds to that end. Whether that means that chickens are really “doing well” or “benefiting” from the relationship they have with us is a different matter.

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