The Pact of Domestication

I have been talking about the “Pact of Domestication” a lot lately. Domestication is often portrayed as humans grabbing some animals and plants, putting them behind fences, then reaping the benefits of a closed ecosystem. But history shows us that domestication is a two-way street. Animals and plants have to benefit from domestication. We have to have something that directly benefits them like medicine, shelter, protection, food, dispersion. In return for these benefits, sometimes we get to decide when and how our domestic partners die if it benefits us in return. We become Death itself. The hawk may not eat the chicken–because we have a plate marked for it already.

There are some animals that don’t domesticate well. Zebras and perching birds come to mind. Humans have penned and herded zebras, but zebras still have no need or inclination to wear a harness. So we can’t force animals to be domesticated just by penning them up. Similarly, birds don’t need us if they can fly away and protect themselves. We put them in cages, but they sing for themselves and will fly away if you leave the door open.

Sometimes, domestication happens “at gunpoint,” as with the Auroch, the ancestor of the modern cow. Aurochs are extinct. The behemoths were hunted to extinction by humans. They survive only as smaller, domestic versions of themselves–but they survive.

Dogs are probably the least coerced of domestications. Currently it looks like they evolved from wolves who followed human hunting parties around and ate scraps off carcasses. Human-friendly wolves got to eat at the carcass longer (instead of running away whenever humans came near) and had an evolutionary advantage over their more skittish relatives.

Yesterday at the museum, I saw videos of people in crane suits imprinting whooping crane chicks. They went through so much trouble to keep the chicks from knowing that they were human. I thought, “That’s stupid. Most birds I’ve raised have figured out they aren’t human and have gone off to mate with their own kind. The imprinting impact is way overblown.” But then I thought, if these birds were raise by humans (not in crane suits), the ones who were most human-friendly would do the best. And slowly, the whooping cranes would change from being wild to being domestic. We’d domesticate them at gunpoint. We’d change them, coerce them. That might not be a bad thing. It worked for the cow. But what do cranes have that we want? We have lots of things they need: protection, medicine, breeding programs. But we have nothing to gain from them. We want them to stay wild. This is Man being selfless.

The Pact of Domestication is where humans are tied to the creatures they rely on and acknowledge that it is a two-way street. Animals and plants are not things to be manipulated so much as partners in a bigger picture. Apple trees have given us fruit and in return we spread them across the earth. Dogs have given us ears and noses, and they have a place in the majority of households across the nation. But apple trees wither without human attention, and dogs end up in shelters or starving without a human steward.

We humans are clever, but we couldn’t have gotten where we are now without the nose of the hound, the strength of the ox, the speed of the horse, the milk of the cow, the eggs of the chicken. These plants and animals rely on us more and more as we force them deeper and deeper into monocultures and reliance on us. We have been whittling down their genetic stock rather than expanding it, creating beings that have no choice but to come to us for the proper medications and environments in which to grow.

That is not partnership. That is slavery.

I hope that if we focus on partnership rather than coercion, we can keep the Pact strong and the human race, which depends on all the other races we’ve made pacts with, will continue to flourish.

  • Robert H.

    Excellent conclusion. I know that I – and likely others – have considered the previous points, but I have never hear them put togeter to such an end. Thank you.