How animals made us human

What explains the ascendance of Homo sapiens? Start by looking at our pets.

Who among us is invulnerable to the puppy in the pet store window? Not everyone is a dog person, of course; some people are cat people or horse people or parakeet people or albino ferret people. But human beings are a distinctly pet-loving bunch. In no other species do adults regularly and knowingly rear the young of other species and support them into old age; in our species it is commonplace. In almost every human culture, people own pets. In the United States, there are more households with pets than with children.

On the face of it, this doesn’t make sense: Pets take up resources that we would otherwise spend on ourselves or our own progeny. Some pets, it’s true, do work for their owners, or are eventually eaten by them, but many simply live with us, eating the food we give them, 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?

An anthropologist named Pat Shipman believes she’s found the answer: Animals make us human. She means this not in a metaphorical way — that animals teach us about loyalty or nurturing or the fragility of life or anything like

that — but that the unique ability to observe and control the behavior of other animals is what allowed one particular set of Pleistocene era primates to evolve into modern man. The hunting of animals and the processing of their corpses 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 nonhuman animals has shaped us at the level of our genes, giving us the ability to drink milk into adulthood and even, Shipman argues, promoting the set of finely honed relational antennae that allowed us to create the complex societies most of us live in today. Our love of pets is an artifact of that evolutionary interdependence.

“Our connection with animals had a very great deal to do with our development,” Shipman says. “Beginning with the adaptive advantage of focusing on and collecting information about what other animals are doing, from there 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, and through the whole thing the premium 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 an article in the current issue of Current Anthropology and in a book due out next year, draw on evidence from archeological digs and the fossil record, but they are also freely speculative. Some of her colleagues suggest that the story she tells may be just that, a story. Others, however, describe it 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 — between humans and dogs and horses, goats and cats and cows, and even microbes.

Shipman, a professor of biological anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, draws together the scattered strands of a growing field of research on the long and complex relationship between human and nonhuman animals, a topic that hasn’t traditionally warranted much scholarly discussion but is now enjoying a surge of interest. 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 all share is an interest in understanding why we are so vulnerable to the charms of other 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 like 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 many ramifications of our specieswide obsession with animals, from prehistoric cave art to modern children’s books and sports mascots. King’s primary interest is in the many ways in which myths and religious parables and literature rely on animal imagery and center on encounters between humans and animals.

“[W]e 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 chipped stone tools millions of years ago. Shipman, who specializes in studying those tools, argues that they were an advance made for the express purpose of dismembering the animals they had killed. The problem early humans faced was that even once they had become proficient enough hunters to consistently bring down big game, they had the challenge of quickly getting the meat off the corpse. With small teeth and a relatively weak jaw, human beings couldn’t just rip off huge chunks, it took time to tear off what they needed, and it rarely took long for bigger, meaner predators to smell a corpse and chase off the humans who had brought it down.

Early chopping tools sped up the butchering process, making hunting more efficient and encouraging more of it. But this also placed early humans in an odd spot on the food chain: large predators who were nonetheless wary of the truly big 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 added up to a lot of information, however, about a lot of different animals, all with their various distinctive behaviors and traits. To organize that growing store of knowledge, and to preserve it and pass it along to others, Shipman argues, those early humans created complex languages and intricate cave paintings.

Art in particular was animal-centered. It’s significant, Shipman points out, that the vast majority of the images on the walls of caves like Lascaux, Chauvet, and Hohle Fels are animals. There were plenty of other things that no doubt occupied the minds of prehistoric men: the weather, the physical landscape, plants, other people. And yet animals dominate.

The centrality of animals in that early artwork has long intrigued anthropologists. Some have suggested that the animals were icons in early religions, or visions from mystical trances. Shipman, however, argues that the paintings serve a more straightforward function: conveying data between members of a species that was growing increasingly adept at hunting and controlling other animals. Lascaux, in this reading, was basically primitive Powerpoint. The paintings, Shipman points out, are packed with very specific information about animal appearance and behavior.

“It’s all about animals,” Shipman 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 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 — not only dogs but eventually horses, camels, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and others — in essence allowed human beings to appropriate a whole 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. Not to mention the food and raw materials their bodies yielded up. Of course, the domesticated animals benefited, too: Human dependence on them ensured their survival and spread, 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 people with a particular interest in animal behavior, and who were especially acute about observing, predicting, and controlling it, were more likely to thrive in early human societies and to have more offspring. To the extent that there was a genetic component to these skills, Shipman argues, it spread. Just as humans selected for certain traits in domestic animals, those same animals were unconsciously shaping their domesticators right back.

“Domestication was reciprocal,” Shipman writes in her Current Anthropology article. And our weakness for pets, she suggests, may be a vestige of that bilateral domestication.

Shipman readily admits that what she’s proposing is a hypothesis, and she hopes other scholars will help to flesh it out. So far, the reception has been mixed. Other researchers exploring the origins of language and art are reluctant to ascribe it to something as limited as the predators and prey early humans faced — the need to convey information about other human beings, for example, could have been just as important in spurring the development of language, if not more. Anthropologists like Manuel Dominguez-Rodrigo of Spain’s Complutense University of Madrid disagree with Shipman that early tool use arose to deal with dead animals; it’s more likely, he argues, that the first stone tools were used to process plants.

And it may be, too, that we find puppies cute not because of some innate desire to domesticate wild animals, but simply because puppies share some of the features — big eyes, clumsy movements, stubby limbs — that human babies have.

Still, for scholars of human-animal studies, the ambition and scope of Shipman’s argument are good in and of themselves, throwing into relief the ways that 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,” says King. “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. That seems to me a really good thing to be doing.”

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail drbennett@globe.com.

1.

Leave a comment

No comments yet.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  • behind da barz

    --------the chemicals R identical, we're one & the same / with 7 letters in all 3 of my government names / walked on water, nah, neither did jesus / its a parable to make followers & readers believers--------i gave her my honorable discharge & she took it like a soldier--------what's a black beetle anyway, a fuckin roach-------she told the director she tryna get in a school-he said "take them glasses off and get in the pool"---------what ya'll call swag to me is faggotry-------my outfit so disrespectful / u go 'head n sneeze let my presence bless u--------its quite amazing that u rhyme like u do / & how u shine like u grew up in a shrine in peru-------its hard fuckin with niggaz u hope u can trust / ure a fool if ure main bitch is easy to fuck--------beyond the walls of intelligence life is divine / i think of crime when im in a new york state of mind - ------THE WAY SOME ACT IN RAP IS KINDA WACK / IT LACKS CREATIVITY & INTELLIGENCE / BUT THEY DON'T CARE BECAUSE THEIR COMPANY IS SELLING IT / ITS MY PHILOSOPHY ON THE INDUSTRY--------From days I wasn't "Abel/able", there was always "Cain/caine-------know how to leave anything in 30 seconds / when you feel the heat coming & flee with the murder weapon--------ayo my silent moments' loud as the crack of thunder / my hunger like the crocodile that attacked the hunter-------i'm something between platinum & flop, underground & mainstream / conscious, backpack, scratch dat; same thing---------this phiscal year im'a stay hot, buzzin / wit dudes that help me shoot like a-rod's cousin-------i fight chicks who bite dicks / give 'em lock-jaw then make 'em fight pits ------all we see is terrorism on telievision ------i'm da illest nigga alive watch me prove it / i'll snatch your crown with your head still attatched to it ------slap your face till your head ache your neck break / the next day slash your throat thru the neckbrace ------ I'm ahead of the game, ahead of these lames / I'm a head case, the head nurse gets me better with brain ------ure now dealin with da kid who heat-holds & reloads / like god gave him a gta ammunition cheat-code ------once upon a time i used to grind all night / with dat coke residue that was ipod white ------ --i took trips with so much shit in the whip / that if the cops pulled us over the dogs would get sick (sniff) ------ i put my lifetime in between the paper's lines / i'm da quiet storm nigga who fight rhyme ------brain cells are lit ideas start to hit / next the formation of words dat fit / at da table i sit making it legit / when my pen hits da paper...aah shit -------i save money while u spendin ure doe / i must stash like da hair between your lip & your nose ------age don't count in the booth / when your flow stayed submerged in the fountain of youth -------when i'm writing i'm trapped in between the lines / i escape when i finish da rhyme - ------if we can't eat together then u aint my mans / so when u see me in da streets dont shake my hand- -----money is da root of all evil / dats why u always gotta now where u stand with your people--------i can show u how to gamble your money, handle a gun / & be a family man & go home to your sun- -------black diamonds in my jesus-piece / MY GOD-------its like da ball be over the plate & they dont call it a strike- ------i'm a gangsta & a gentleman, show you both sides of the coin / knife at your throat-gun at your groin- --------my testimonial be "death to a phony mc / you wanna impress me, show me a ki--------lord knows what homey would do if i showed him da 9 / a one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind--------on da road to riches & diamond rings / in the land of the blind a man with one eye is the king--------you lack the minerals & vitamins, iron & the niacin--------stares get exchanged then the 5th come out / the tough guy disappears then the bitch come out--------if you got a bith you dont argue with dat bitch / you dont listen to dat bitch all you do is fuck dat bitch-------know da bitch b4 you call yourself lovin it / nogga wit a benz fuckin it------went from $20Gs for blow to $30gs a show / to orgies wit hoes i never seen befo'-------i'm intelectual; passed more essays / than police motorcade parades thru east l.a.-------DEAD IN THE MIDDLE OF LITTLE ITALY LITTLE DID WE KNOW / WE RIDDLED SOME MIDDLE-MAN WHO DIDN'T DO DIDDLY-------visualizing the realism of life in actuality / fuck who's da baddest; a person's status depends on salary-------mechanical movement, understandable smooth shit / that murderers move with-the thief's theme--------DEEP LIKE "THE SHINING" SPARKLE LIKE A DIAMOND / SNEAK AN UZI ON DA ISLAND IN MY ARMY JACKET LINING / HIT THE EARTH LIKE A COMET - INVASION / NAS IS LIKE THE AFRO-CENTRIC ASIAN; ½ MAN, ½ AMAZING-------& why certainly i'm squirtin / bust a nut then get up & wipe my dick on your curtain-------walk by your casket & spit in your face--------i know how to get my peers off me / make 'em cry & die from high blood-pressure cuz tears are salty-------i'm not trying to give you love & affection / i'm tryna give you 60 seconds of erection / then im'a give you cab fare & directions / get your independent ass outta here - question?---------black cat is bad luck; bad guys wear black / must've been a white guy who started all that--------either you're slinging crack-rocks or you got a wicked jumpshot--------all us blacks got is sports & entertainment--------2 many athletes, actors & rappers / but not enough niggaz at nasa - ------why did bush knock down the towers?--------I REACT LIKE MIKE / ANY ONE TY-SON, JOR-DAN, JACK-SON / action, pack gunz, ridiculous--------all the teachers couldn't reach me & my mom couldn't beat me / hard enough to make up for my pop not seeing me---------kings from queens, from queens comes kings / we're raising hell like a class when the lunch bell rings---------excuse me miss, can i give you a minute? / may i buy you a glass of ice with liquor in it?--------what goes around comes around i figure / now we got white kids calling themselves nigga / the tables turn as the crosses burn...---------YOU LOVE TO HEAR THE STORY AGAIN & AGAIN / OF HOW IT ALL GOT STARTED WAY BACK WHEN--------i guess they got a grudge cause i won't budge / playin tough, staring down the judge with my hands cuffed---------A CHILD IS BORN WITH NO STATE OF MIND / BLIND TO THE WAYS OF MANKIND--------who shot biggie smalls? if we don't get them they gon' get us all / i'm down to run up pn them crackers in their city hall----------its kinda hard to be optimistic / when your homey is laying dead in a casket----------they say the blacker the berry; the sweeter the juice / i say the darker the flesh; then the deeper the roots---------i took your breath away then we'd perform cpr---------there's no real way it can be explained / i guess its just the way i smile when i hear your name--------CASH RULES EVERYTHING AROUND ME / C.R.E.A.M. GET THE MONEY, DOLLAR DOLLAR BILL Y'AAAAALL------------see I’m a poet to some, a regular modern day shakespeare / jesus christ the king of these latter day saints here / To shatter the picture in which of that as they paint me as / a monger of hate and satan a scatter-brained atheist--------i remember marvin gaye used to sing to me / he had me feeling like black was the thing to be------------this be that put-you-out-your-misery song / that makes you ask your man 'is this the joint he's dissin me on?'---------foul all your life now ure 90 / on ure death bed u regret being grimey---------INDUSTRY RULE #4080, RECORD COMPANY PEOPLE ARE SHAAADYYYY / so kids watch your back cause i think they smoke crack---------society's a weak excuse for a man-----------planet earth my place of birth / born to be the sole controller of the universe---------the mic had my prints, on on it was a body---------a squealer tells, but the dealer still sells---------some young male put in jail / lawyer so good his bail was on sale----------i'm just takin a piss......unless you're gonna do it----------fuck street clothes, we thug it out in tuxedos / stomp niggaz with hard bottoms in casinos--------people higher up have the lowest self-esteem / & the prettiest people do the ugliest things-----------IF YOU ADMIRE SOMEONE YOU SHOULD GO 'HEAD & TELL 'EM / PEOPLE NEVER GET THE ROSES WHILE THEY CAN STILL SMELL 'EM-----------goddamn, what a nigga gotta do to make a million / without the fbi catching feelings--------i got a story to tell / in these streets we got drugs & guns for sale---------we keep the nine tucked chop dimes up rap about it / wild out fuck niggaz up laugh about it---------- read between tha lines of ya eyes and ya brows / ya handshake aint matchin ya smile---------what the fuck i rap for? to push a fuckin rav-4?-------fuck all the glamour & glitz, i plan to get rich / i'm from new york & never was a fan of the knicks----------the white boy blossomed after dre endorsed him / his flow on renegade-fuckin awesome...applaud him-------before i start you know i gotta / pay homage & respects to afrika bambaata---------DRUGS IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS / MONEY IS THE KEY TO SEX------i pimped my crib so i must exhibit------- I - WILL - NOT - LOSE !
  • Blog Stats

    • 782,598 hits