03:42 PM CDT on Friday, October 15, 2010
Human beings are a distinctly pet-loving bunch. No other species regularly and knowingly rears the young of other species and supports them into old age, yet in almost every human culture, people own pets. In the United States, there are more households with pets than with children.
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On the face of it, this doesn’t make sense: Pets take up resources that we would otherwise spend on ourselves or our progeny. Some pets, it’s true, do work for their owners or are eventually eaten by them, but many simply live with us, eating our food, interrupting our sleep, dictating our schedules, occasionally soiling the carpet, and giving nothing in return but companionship and often desultory affection.
What explains this yen to have animals in our lives?
Anthropologist Pat Shipman believes she’s found the answer: Animals make us human.She doesn’t mean this in a metaphorical way – that animals teach us about loyalty or nurturing or the fragility of life – but instead, that our unique ability to observe and control animal behavior is what allowed our own evolution.
In Shipman’s view, the hunting of animals and the processing of their carcasses drove the creation of tools, and the need to record and relate information about animals was so important that it gave rise to the creation of language and art. Our bond with animals has shaped us at the level of our genes, giving us the ability to drink milk into adulthood and even, Shipman argues, finely honing the relational sensitivity that allowed us to create today’s complex societies. Our love of pets is an artifact of that evolutionary interdependence.
“Our connection with animals,” Shipman says, “had a very great deal to do with our development: beginning with the adaptive advantage of focusing on and collecting information about what other animals are doing, to developing such a reliance on that kind of information that there became a serious need to document and transmit that information through the medium of language.”
Throughout these advances, she adds, a premium was placed “on our ability to read the intentions, needs, wants and concerns of other beings.”
Shipman’s arguments for the importance of “the animal connection,” laid out in a recent article in Current Anthropology and in a book due next year, draw on evidence from archeological digs and the fossil record, but they are also freely speculative. Some of her colleagues suggest they are too speculative. Others, however, describe her theory as a promising new framework for looking at human evolution, one that highlights the extent to which the human story has been a collection of interspecies collaborations.
Shipman, a professor of biological anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, pulls together the scattered strands of a growing field of research on the relationship between humans and animals, a topic that hasn’t traditionally warranted much scholarly discussion.
The field of so-called human-animal studies is broad enough to include doctors researching why visits by dogs seem to make people in hospitals healthier, art historians looking at medieval depictions of wildlife, and anthropologists like Shipman exploring the evolution and variation of animal domestication. What they share is an interest in understanding why we are so vulnerable to the charms of animals – and so good at exploiting them for our own gain.
The traits that traditionally have been seen to separate human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom are activities such as making tools or the use of language or creating art and symbolic rituals. Today, however, there is some debate over how distinctively human these qualities actually are. Chimpanzees, dolphins and crows create and use tools, and some apes can acquire the language skills of a human toddler.
A few anthropologists are now proposing that we add the human-animal connection to that list of traits. A 2007 collection of essays, “Where the Wild Things Are Now,” looked at how domesticating animals had shaped human beings as much as the domesticated animals themselves.
Barbara King, an anthropologist at the College of William & Mary, published a book earlier this year, Being With Animals, that explores the ramifications of our specieswide obsession with animals, from prehistoric cave art to children’s books and sports mascots. King’s primary interest is in the many ways in which myths, religious parables and literature rely on animal imagery and center on encounters between humans and animals.
“We think and we feel through being with animals,” King writes.
Shipman’s argument is more specific: She is trying to explain much of the story of human evolution through the animal connection.
The story, as she sees it, starts with the human invention of the first stone tools millions of years ago. Shipman specializes in studying those tools, and she argues that they were invented for the express purpose of dismembering slaughtered animals. The challenge early humans faced after becoming proficient enough at hunting big game was quickly getting the meat off the carcass. With small teeth and a relatively weak jaw, human beings couldn’t just rip off huge chunks. Time was needed to rend the flesh, and it rarely took long for bigger, meaner predators to intervene.
Early chopping tools sped up the butchering process, making hunting more efficient and encouraging more of it. But this also placed early humans in the odd spot of being large predators who were nonetheless wary of even larger predators. This gave them a strong incentive to study and master the behavioral patterns of everything above and below them on the food chain.
That, however, added up to a lot of information about a lot of animals, all with their own behaviors and traits. To organize that growing store of knowledge, as well as to preserve it and pass it along to others, Shipman argues, early humans created complex languages and intricate cave paintings.
Art, in particular, was animal-centered. It’s significant, Shipman points out, that animals make up the vast majority of the images found in caves like Lascaux, Chauvet and Hohle Fels. No doubt plenty of other physical elements occupied the minds of prehistoric humans: the weather, the landscape, plants, other people. Yet animals dominate.
The centrality of animals in early artwork has long intrigued anthropologists. Some have suggested the animals were icons in early religions or visions from mystical trances. Shipman argues that the paintings serve a more straightforward function. Lascaux, in this reading, was basically primitive PowerPoint.
When Shipman studies the paintings she sees them packed with specific information about animal appearance and behavior. “It’s all about animals,” she says. “There are very few depictions of humans, and they’re generally not very realistic. The depictions of animals are amazing. You can tell this is a depiction of a prehistoric horse in its summer coat, or that this is a rhino in sexual posture.”
This storehouse of knowledge, Shipman theorizes, eventually allowed humans to domesticate animals. Evidence from early human settlements suggests that wolves were domesticated into dogs more than 20,000 years before people first domesticated plants.
These new companion animals – and the eventual domestication of horses, camels, cows, goats, sheep, pigs and more – in essence allowed human beings to appropriate a new set of abilities: to be better hunters, to kill off household pests, to haul goods, pull plows, create fertilizer and protect homes against intruders. Animals’ bodies, of course, also yielded food and raw materials.
The domesticated animals benefited, too: Human dependence ensured their survival and propagation, even as some of their wild cousins were hunted to extinction.
The great value that was gained from these “living tools,” as Shipman calls them, also meant that early humans who were especially acute at observing, predicting and controlling animal behavior were more likely to thrive and reproduce. Just as humans selected domestic animals for certain traits, those same animals were unconsciously shaping their domesticators right back.
“Domestication was reciprocal,” Shipman writes in her Current Anthropology article.
And our affinity for pets, she suggests, may be a vestige of that reciprocity.
Shipman readily admits that what she’s proposing is a hypothesis, and she hopes other scholars will help expand it.
So far, other researchers exploring the origins of language and art are reluctant to ascribe them to something as limited as early humans’ prey and predators. The need to convey information about other human beings, for example, could have been just as important, if not more, in spurring the development of language.
Anthropologists like Manuel Dominguez-Rodrigo of Spain’s Complutense University of Madrid disagree with Shipman that early tool use arose to deal with animal carcasses; it’s more likely, he argues, that the first stone tools were used to process plants.
Still, for scholars of human-animal studies, the ambition and scope of Shipman’s argument draws attention to how our own development has made us one of the world’s great symbiotic species, thriving through a set of partnerships with other animals.
Shipman’s argument “is radical to the degree that it really puts front and center the animal-human bond in a way that it hasn’t been before,” King says. “It’s not just background noise – yeah, we hunted them, yeah, we lived with them, yeah, we ate them. It truly shapes the human evolutionary trajectory.”
Drake Bennett is a staff writer for the Boston Globe. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.