I imagine most of us have (or have had) animals in our lives – pets at home, livestock on the farm, and so forth. For me, it’s a yellow lab named Buddha. True to his title, he has some calm, composed moments – mostly in the glory of outdoor adventures, but he’s just as much an example of big, slobbery enthusiasm. (Such is the life of a labrador retriever.) He’s been a faithful pal, eager workout companion, and much-needed comic relief more times than I can recall. When I’m in need of time away from society, he gets a special pass to join me. There’s just something different about hanging out with a dog – or most animals, I’d venture to say. There’s more to the human-animal connection, however, than just playing fetch. Throughout human existence, animals have acted as companions, protectors, and workmates. They’ve herded alongside us in the fields, accompanied us in battle, aided us in rescue missions, comforted us in illness and trauma, acted as service animals, stood by as patient and loyal friends. Experts have long examined this deep, even innate bond. Among the more intriguing theories are those that suggest our relationships with animals contributed to our species’ evolution and helped define our very sense of humanity.
Anyone who’s spent much time around small children has seen first-hand the affinity children have for animals. (Maybe you remember your own fascination from those years.) Experts in the field of child development often cite the rich role animals play in the imaginative lives of children as well as the potent influence animals have when included in psychological or medical care for children.
Fast forward to adulthood, and most of us still seek out that inter-species interaction (labelled anthrozoology, by the way). Some 63% of American households have pets. (An untold number are run for, as they say, the sole comfort and convenience of said pet.) We take up bird-watching and wildlife photography. We go on safaris and visit zoos. And then there are the dog shows. (As little TV as I watch, it’s somehow disturbingly easy to get sucked into those, Best in Show parody notwithstanding.) We benefit from the quiet, nonjudgmental nature of their presence. Research has repeatedly shown that humans respond in a unique way to animals in a wide variety of therapy and care settings.
Lest we forget (or go too far down the sentimental path), animals have of course also served as a critical food source. In hunter-gatherer days, hunting represented a fulcrum of human evolutionary progress. Our species certainly benefited from the calorie, nutrient-intense sustenance that game, particularly larger game, provided. It freed us up to do other things besides forage, and it substantially influenced subsequent brain development.
Yet, hunting also served (and still serves, in respectful, responsible hunters today) a life-affirming, reverent purpose. As Ortega y Gasset, Shepard, and others suggest, hunting developed as a uniquely transcendent act in which the animal was honored as fellow participant in the sacred “game” of life and death. As inevitable prey themselves, humans recognized the innate reciprocity, their double-sided participation in the hunter-hunted framework. Hunter-gatherers first developed their skills from observing the techniques of non-human predators. They honored as well as appropriated those skills. The hunt in tribal societies served as a communal, even spiritual ritual that was celebrated in tribal culture through mythic narrative, cave art depictions, and animal figures in ceremonial dance.
Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman has recently offered another view of how animals contributed to human progress, including evolutionary milestones such as tool-making and language. The first tools, she notes, were designed to dismember the prey we caught – a strategy that meant more meat for the tribe and less for the larger predators that had a way of showing up just in time to enjoy the kill. Cave art and later language developments, she suggests, were developed to record and pass along the knowledge gained regarding animal behavior and characteristics as well as hunting strategies that proved successful.
Our natural affinity for animals, Shipman suggests, took a decidedly significant turn in the domestication process. Our interest in animals and the vast knowledge we had amassed allowed us to build relationships with animals and in turn use that relationship to train them (and later breed them) for our needs. We first domesticated dogs, who undoubtedly helped herd animals for our purposes. We domesticated other species to raise as livestock or help carry or move things we couldn’t with any ease. Domestication allowed us to free up our energy for other purposes.
Shipman theorizes that domestication was the next step in our species’ tool-making progress. In her words, animals became “living tools” for our use. With the advent of domestication, human potential grew exponentially. We were no longer limited to what our own strength and physical ability could accomplish.
For the record, not every thinker is starry-eyed over our leap to domestication. The large-scale domestication of animals, critics like Paul Shepard suggest, may have put us in closer contact with various species (as well as their deadly parasites and disease), but it fundamentally changed the human-animal bond. Quoting ethnoarcheologist Susan Kent, Shepard notes that in “‘groups without domestic animals, both human and non-human animals are viewed as having an intellect – that is, sentience, sociability, and intelligence.” Obviously, it’s a sentiment that dwindled past the Agricultural Revolution, although several recent publications take up the issue through the lens of contemporary research. Even our relationship to modern day pets, critics like Shepard suggest, bare little resemblance to the early domesticated dog-human relationships in pre-agricultural groups. We have infantilized our pets and bred them in such as way that supports a more dependent relationship. (He’s got me there.) Our hunter-gathering days with minimal domestication, Shepard maintains, offered a healthier means (physically and psychically) of simultaneously relating to animal life and gaining the best sustenance from it. Take from the debate what you will, I say.
Thanks for reading today. It’s always fun to take a different course now and then. Let me know what you think – comments, questions, pet pics, what have you. Have a great rest of the week, everyone. For my part, I’m off to play with Buddha.