Category: Domestication


I think it is going to rain.

The sun, which at first rose and set somewhat to the north, is moving farther south every day. Clouds are beginning to appear on the northern horizon, a little higher in the sky each day, and there is lightning in those clouds at night.. The stream is barely a trickle, but as I study my surroundings more carefully, I can see that the ground on which the capsule rests has signs of flooding that are not all that old. I teleported as far to the north as I have explored, and found the streams rising and the ground wet.

The capsule was actually getting crowded, so I have built a new and larger shelter on a rise in the ground that from its shape is an island during the wet season. I’ve been teleporting everything I need – the computer, what little clothing I have left, food preparation equipment, the deceleration couch I’ve been sleeping in – to the new shelter. I considered moving the capsule itself, rather than detaching the solar panels and hooking everything up at the new site, but I decided it made more sense to salvage everything I could use from it. Including much of the skin and framing members. A shelter doesn’t need to be engineered to keep its occupant alive during space maneuvers and re-entry, so the capsule materials can be used to build a much larger shelter.

Patches is proving useful as well as entertaining. She is totally uninterested in her own kind, but is beginning to treat me as a pack member. She trails small animals, and turns them back toward me. Since it looks like I’m going to be staying here and will need food, her hunting skills may prove useful. Of course she is not full-grown yet, but at least she is beginning to look more like her wild cousins.

I haven’t done much exploring lately; I’ve been too busy preparing for the rainy season. When I have time to start again, though, Patches will probably be more fitted for the hours of walking than am I. I am glad I decided to rescue her. But I wish I had someone with me who could talk back.

Last month I blogged about an article in The New Scientist based on a book due to be released soon. The book, The Animal Connection by Pat Shipman, is now available and was one of the first I bought for my iPad.

This is a book anyone interested in animals, domestication or human evolution should read. Dr. Shipman points out that hunters must observe animals and learn to anticipate them in order to hunt successfully. She links tool-making to the hunting of animals, pointing out that we are unique as predators in using tools, not teeth or claws, to hunt. The addition of meat to our diet may well have been what made us able to support increasingly large brains, as brains have a very large energy cost.

The need to get “inside the skull” of another species may also be behind much of the empathy and imagination we share.

Later, the need to share information about animals may well be one of the driving forces behind our acquisition as a species of language. Language, although one of the traits that define us as a species, does not fossilize, so arguments here tend to have more than a little arm-waving about them. The fact remains that animals, rather than plants or other people, are the main subjects of Paleolithic art.

If animals were living tools, as the author argues, they are tools whose best use must be based on mutual understanding, not on force. There is nothing really new about this; Xenophon’s tretise on horsemanship said it over two thousand years ago.

The future? To quote the author, “The post-animal world, if we choose to live in it, is a fearsome place that threatens to destroy the very best qualities of humankind.”

I tend to believe most of the arguments in this book partly because they reflect my own conclusions. I wrote a short story over ten years ago suggesting that the connection between people and dogs may have shaped both into a new symbiosis, and I am glad to see that idea now accorded some degree of scientific acceptance.

Book: The Animal Connection, by Pat Shipman. Published by W.W. Norton,
ISBN 978-0-393-07054-5

How do you feed an infant predator?

Maybe I’d better back up a little.

My exploration is proceeding very slowly – teleport to a place I’ve been before and walk for an hour or two until my feet get sore, and then teleport back to the capsule. No rain at all in the month and a half I’ve been here. I hope this is just a dry season, rather than the start of a drought. The stream seems to be perennial – I hope. At least there is no shortage of either water or fish, but from the increased crowding of the herbivores along its bank and my own observations, this is the only water around. There is ground water – I can perceive it – and if need be I can bore a well telekinetically.

Where there are herbivores crowded together there will be predators. It is not the season for births – that much is obvious – so I was a little surprised to see one of the smaller social predators apparently nursing young. At any rate her breasts were enlarged enough to slow her down, and one of the striped herbivores kicked her head in.

She seemed low ranking and almost fearful of the others, which puzzled me. I opened my mind, and sent out thoughts of milk – and got an answer. A tiny cub, its eyes barely open, with two others, dead of starvation. Their mother must have been desperate for food.

Admit it – I’m lonely. And if I can raise the cub, using my telepathy to convince her I’m her mother, she’d be a companion. Something to talk to, even if she can’t talk back.

So how am I going to feed Patches?

If other animals had young, I could milk one easily enough – but most of the young animals, at least of the species I’ve seen, have been weaned. I’m doing quite nicely on fish and the occasional small mammal, along with a certain amount of scavenging (the warnoff is very handy for that) and a few seeds and fruits. So I’ve been trying to process fish and meat into a slurry she can swallow. She’s hungry enough to swallow anything.

I wonder if the computer files have any information that would help me?

The Bargain
©Sue Ann Bowling

Long ago and far away
We made a bargain,
Your forefathers and ours.
One could find game, sharp-nosed, keen-eared, alert to every breeze.
One had spears to kill in safety.
One too often died beneath defending hooves
One too often found no target for his spears.
So we made the bargain:
One to find and one to kill, and the meat to share.

The years passed, and the bargain changed:
Tend our flocks.
Fight our wars.
Pull our sledges.
Guard our children,
Lead our blind.
Amuse us.
Love us, when all the world has abandoned us.

And on the other side, the same:
Share the food.
Share the fire.
Share our lives.

Wolf that was, how can I break the old bargain now?

I wrote that years ago, along with an apocalyptic short story, now posted on my website. But at the time, the idea that the domestication of the dog might have been two-way, that man as well as dog had been changed by the relationship, was scientific heresy. Now at last it seems it is being accepted.

In the May 28-June 3 issue of New Scientist there is a cover article titled “How Animals Shaped our Minds.” The article is based on a book, written by Pat Shipman, which is due to be published on June 13. I don’t want to say too much until I’ve read the book. But she argues that the mindset that made domestication possible, the knowledge of animal behavior gained through careful observation, may well have been a driving force behind our development of language. And the article, at least, makes the same points that I did in my story: our relationship with another species may be an important part of our humanity.

I am looking forward to reading the book, and will probably review it here. Meanwhile, read the article — and “Death of a Dog.”

This post has been reissued with additional photographs here.

The colors of all wild animals are a tradeoff between camouflage, which hides the animal from its predators or hides the predator from its prey, and display, which involves making the animal more attractive to members of the opposite sex or more threatening to rivals of the same sex. In equines, camouflage may involve blending into the herd (as in zebras) or blending with the background (often dry grass.) Bay, black and chestnut are not very good camouflage colors, but flatter, duller shades of these colors are.

The dun gene flattens and dulls the coat color over most of the body, leaving head, lower legs, and sometimes manes and tails darker than the body. Both red and black pigments are affected. It also produces a highly variable degree of striping of the coat. In general the horse will have a dark stripe running from the mane to the base of the tail, which in some cases continues down the center of the mane (dark mane center with light edges as in the Fjord horse) and tail. (Dorsal stripes do occur on other colors, but they are rarely unbroken from mane to tail.) In addition duns often have zebra-like stripes on the legs (especially near the knees and hocks.) Less commonly, they will have spiderweb-like markings on the forehead, or a cross stripe over the wither area—a marking common in donkeys. All of these markings are grouped as primitive marks.

One early study of dun suggested that the dulling is due to a crowding of the pigment granules to one side of the hair. My own observations tentatively support this, but I am aware of no published studies—looking at individual hairs under a microscope doesn’t seem to be popular today.

Dun is thought to be the wild-type gene for horses, and it is definitely dominant to non-dun. Why do we think it is the wild-type gene?

First, cave paintings Almost all show the darker head typical of dun, and some also show other primitive marks. Cave artists were limited by the available pigments, but their renditions are certainly compatible with the various types of dun.

Second, the wild horses that survived long enough to have their color recorded. These include the living Przewalski’s horse of Asia and the now extinct Tarpan of Europe, both duns.

Dun, though a dominant gene, is not that common in most horse breeds today. Why? During domestication, an occasional mutation to non-dun must have occurred. Human beings are attracted to what is different, and the earliest domesticators of the horse probably prized these intensely colored variants—to such a degree that in many horse breeds of today dun is either non-existent or very rare.

The words dun and buckskin are rather loosely used, and often treated as synonyms. Genetically, however, it is better to reserve buckskin for a bay with one cream gene at the cream locus, and dun for the whole suite of colors produced by one or two doses of the dun gene. The colors include red dun (dun on a chestnut background) various shades of tan with dark brown or black mane, tail and lower legs known as zebra dun, (dun on a bay background) and various shades of dark slate gray to silver with dark points known as grullo (dun on a black background.)

In my upcoming science fiction book, Tourist Trap, I have both wild horses assumed to be descended from some transplanted from Earth during the Pleistocene, described as striped duns, and a domestic mare, Raindrop, whose base color is grulla (feminine form of grullo.) Those striped duns are assumed to be duns of various base colors with very strong primitive marks.

Cat and Man

I am Cat.
Favored of Bast,
Destroyer of rodents
Which infest your granaries.
I thank you for the granaries you build,
And for the vermin they attract.
I still think my own thoughts
As I walk alone.

I am Cat.
Self-contained,
Ruler of the darkness,
And I walk apart from you.
Why do you fear the blackness so,
And creatures that seek it?
It is good hunting time
For those who see.

I am Cat.
I deign to live
With you for food
And fingers massaging me
In the warmth of the fire in winter.
Although I walk alone,
I begin to know
What Love is.

Domestication is a mutual process—the plants and animals domesticated historically have met us halfway.

We and our domesticates have entered a kind of symbiosis—both we and they benefit, at least in numbers.

Plant and animal domestication was the first step toward civilization.

There are only two ways of increasing agricultural yield: Increase the amount of food produced per acre, or increase the amount of land farmed.

Once domestication occurred, we were locked into a positive feedback loop between food production and population. But a positive feedback loop is inherently limited and unstable. Are we approaching a crash?

I’ve been taking a Teaching Company course on DVD for the last couple of weeks, and I have to say it’s one of the best I’ve taken so far. I’ve always been interested in the process of domestication, especially since it became clear that the early agriculturists were generally less healthy than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. How did wolves become dogs? Who first thought of riding a horse? Did riding come before or after driving? And are cats really domesticated, or did they domesticate us?

The course is “Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact” by Professor Gary A. Sojka, but it’s really about human impact. I can’t say it answered all of my questions, or even asked them, but it did a good job of summarizing our current state of understanding, and of steering a middle course between “domestication is a sin and all domesticated animals should be returned to the wild” (most would not survive, and we probably wouldn’t, either) and “animals have no feelings and were put on this world solely for our use.” There are fewer moral problems with domesticated plants and microbes, though even here there are quandaries. How dangerous are monocultures, for instance? Or reliance on a small number of closely related varieties? (Think the Irish potato famine.)

If I have an argument with Professor Sojka, it is that he is too optimistic about the future. This may be appropriate for a college course, but I don’t feel enough sense of urgency. Yes, some people—a small minority even in the West—are beginning to think about long-term sustainability. (The politicians aren’t, by and large.) But the major problem—a population that is rapidly outstripping the carrying capacity of our planet (if it hasn’t done so already)—has become a taboo subject for serious discussion.  “The demographic transition will take care of it.” But will that happen soon enough?

Historically, our population has been kept in check by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Famine. War. Disease. Death by wild beasts—today, accidental death of all kinds. All of these are premature deaths—death by old age simply is not mentioned. Today, we tend to regard such deaths—those of the young—as particularly tragic. We fight them in every way we can—and in many ways, we’ve succeeded. What we’ve forgotten is that every person born dies eventually, and to reach sustainability we have to reduce the number of people being born until it balances the number who die. Otherwise the four horsemen will eventually increase the death rate to match the birth rate—or more.

Food and energy both rely on sunlight—the sunlight that falls on the earth today and the sunlight that fell hundreds of million years ago, and is now stored in fossil fuels. I group food and energy for several reasons. Fertilizer. Biofuels. Pesticides. Transportation. Pumping water to where it is needed for crops, in some cases pumping down water that has been in storage since the ice age. All of the advances that have allowed us to hold back that horseman ultimately rely on those fossil fuels and fossil water, or plan to replace them with agricultural products. And fossil fuels are becoming increasingly risky to exploit—look at the BP oil spill.

But an increase in agricultural output to match the increase in population means more efficiency—which we are obtaining today largely through fossil fuels—or more land in agricultural production. There is only so much land suitable for agriculture, especially if we want to keep the ecosystem services we depend on going. And one of the oldest causes for war is the desire for more land.

Disease? In part that ties back to our methods of food production, as well. Certainly much antibiotic resistance can be linked to the widespread use of antibiotics in animals, and many diseases that started out in animals have crossed over to human beings. I find it interesting that all of the great world religions, many of them very pro-natalist, trace their origins to early city dwellers. Disease can spread rapidly among city-dwellers. In fact until the last century or two, urban areas were dependent on immigration from the countryside to maintain their populations. Having many children was important to these early city-dwellers—most of their children would die before having children themselves. That’s not true today, thanks largely to public health improvements—but the mindset and the religious imperative remain.

All living things—plants, animals, and human beings—are driven to reproduce. In our case, that deep-seated drive is reinforced by religious and social pressures. We claim we have a right, even a duty, to reproduce. But do we? Not in nature. Nature says the “right” to reproduce must be earned. It’s a lesson I hope we can learn before it is enforced by the Four Horsemen.