I recently started thinking about domestication in conversations about the merits, or lack thereof, of eating meat. In considering the total elimination of meat eating by humans, I played the thought game of speculating what the consequences of that would be. The first thing that came to mind was what would happen to all those animals? How would they fare and where? As we know, our domestic animals have been intentionally bred over thousands of years, so the obvious question is, are they able to live independent of humans? What will they have gained and what will they have lost?
The definition of domestication that I’m talking about is where one group of organisms assumes a significant degree of influence over the care and reproduction of another to secure a more predictable supply of resources from the second group.
A new aspect recognized in domestication is mutuality—it is a two-way street. Both participants must make adaptations and both benefit in some way.
The first animal thought to have been domesticated was the dog. As the most likely story goes, wolves hung around human cook fires in hopes of getting an easy meal, just as one predator does now when another predator has scored a kill. The wolves that overcame their fear of humans got fed more reliably, especially when they shared their own skills and resources which were valuable to humans, such as acting as sentries, tracking animals with their keener senses, being cute, and, let’s face it, offering their food and fur. Wolves became dogs, and we now know that it happened in just a few generations. After tens of thousands of years of breeding, we have dogs of all shapes and sizes bred for many uses or sometimes no use at all other than being cute. Some appear similar to their wolf ancestors, but it is thought that none would last long if left to themselves, especially those toy schnauzers.
One wonders who domesticated whom? Perhaps some wolves made the decision to join the human pack and to accept the consequences of that as worthwhile. Maybe the union was a mutual decision. In retrospect, one can say that this arrangement was incredibly beneficial for the wolf/dogs because they have multiplied and now inhabit every corner of the planet. I would think that, to an evolutionary biologist, successful procreation is the ultimate in species success.
Domestication is not a uniquely human activity. One can wonder, what came first, the edible nut or the squirrel, the edible fruit or the fruit eating bird? It’s hard to imagine how and why one could have evolved without the other. What I see happening here is a growing interdependence and cooperation with certain tradeoffs and concessions accepted for the long-term success of each species.
When humans entered the picture, the ability to form ideas and plans supercharged the process. We could selectively breed plants and animals to suit our needs and tastes. In the process, we bred out of many the ability to survive on their own but, in exchange, made them far more numerous than they likely would ever have been.
So, the big question comes to this: what trade-offs have domestic meat animals made, and was it worth it? Millions of animals are raised, but most of them are killed and eaten. In exchange, they get food, security, and the ultimate goal, assurance that they will survive as a species. It is not unlike the Eloi in H. G. Well’s novel, The Time Machine. They were the innocent and lovely branch of humanity from far in the future that lived wonderful short lives only to be eaten by their cousins, the Morlocks.
One thing I think we can say with certainty is that, if we are to keep animals for pets or food, we must treat them kindly and with respect. I hesitate to use the usual term, humanely, as that is not a reliably good trait.
It is hard to say what exactly is the difference between selective breeding and genetic manipulation. The former seems to have passed the test of time while the latter fills me with foreboding. While nature does make random genetic modifications, they are not as frequent or as extreme as our modifications. Genes in nature never cross between species, yet our scientists do that all the time. What could possibly go wrong? There may be some justification for doing it at some point, but I don’t think we have the knowledge or wisdom to be messing around with it now, especially when the main motivation is profit.
Not only the food we eat and clothing we wear but the cities we live in and most aspects of our culture are all affected by our plant, animal, and human domestic relationships. We are culturally connected and physically dependent on the relationships we have set up between species and within species, and any thoughts to alter that system should be considered carefully, regardless of our feelings about eating other creatures.