On domestication

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

George Orwell, Animal Farm

If you read any history of the beginnings of agriculture – and if you haven’t yet, I recommend that you do; Colin Tudge and James C. Scott are names to look out for – you will soon come across the idea of domestication. Simply put, a domesticated plant or animal is one that relies more or less on human beings for its survival.

Wheat, for example, wouldn’t last long without our help. It’s a variety of grass that is largely unable to reproduce, because we have bred out the ability of the seed-heads to break open naturally (that’s what threshing is for). Likewise our modern breeds of dairy cattle are unable to sustain themselves on natural foods, because we have selected for animals whose metabolism is directed at milk production rather than at sustaining the cow herself. This is why they tend to look as if they are starving to death, because in reality they are; without artificial concentrated feeds they would die.

Of course there are “domesticated” animals that retain the ability to survive independently. While some dogs have been bred to have hideous deformities that some people apparently find aesthetically pleasing – for example, the King Charles spaniel, whose skull is sometimes too small to contain its brain – the average mutt can usually fend for itself, especially once it finds some other mutts to make a pack. When I was a kid, most dogs on the street seemed to be living that way.

Cats are even more independent. It is usually said to have been the ancient Egyptians who were first domesticated by cats; they worshipped cats as avatars of the goddess Bastet, and that’s pretty much the way modern cats still seem to think it should work. Even so, we have managed to produce breeds of cat like the hairless Sphynx (oh, the irony of that name) which would struggle to survive in the wild.

There are studies that appear to show that domesticated animals tend to have smaller brains than their wild counterparts – even, for example, in the case of farmed salmon. Some of this is to do with removing the bits that deal with fleeing predators, since (1) we take care of that for them and (2) in the end we are the predators and we want them to be reasonably co-operative.

All of this makes me wonder how much this is equally applicable to the average citizen of an industrialised civilisation. After all, if all you know about drinking-water is that it comes out of the tap, and all you know about food is that you get it from the supermarket, how well-equipped will you be for survival when those things are taken away from you?

The cynical part of me – and if you’ve read this blog before, it won’t surprise you to learn that I have one – thinks that this suits our elites just fine. After all, if we can’t survive outside the world that has been built for us, they needn’t chain us to it. We just have to put up with it, the same way that battery chickens do. And if they dumb us down sufficiently, the idea of running away won’t even occur to us.

The people whom we dismissively term “hunter-gatherers” have got all that stuff down, because they have to. They may only know how to answer those questions within a limited area, but boy can they answer them. This is the result of collective knowledge handed down over generations, or what might otherwise be called tradition. (Indeed, that is the literal meaning of the Latin word traditio, “handing over.”)

Once upon a time someone ate one of those mushrooms, and they turned blue and keeled over, so we don’t eat those mushrooms. That’s the kind of thing you really need to know, because those other mushrooms are really good to eat. And so on. Anthropologists researching indigenous peoples routinely report that they can identify huge numbers of plant and other species in their environment, because of course they can. When you think about it, it’s no more remarkable than being able to read a train timetable is for us.

It’s been said that if you were to transport a Kalahari bushman to Piccadilly he wouldn’t last twenty minutes. But by the same token, if you were to transport the average denizen of Piccadilly to the Kalahari, neither would they. It’s a question of tradition, and of adequate education within that tradition.

It seems to me that the traditions of industrial civilisation within which we are all brought up are going to prove woefully inadequate to cope with what the future holds for us. We are already seeing food shortages, water shortages, fuel and energy prices which are increasingly out of reach for many people. The time is coming when more and more of us are going to have to fall back on what economists like to call primary production, or what we used to call Nature back when that was still a respectable term.

This is not to say that you are going to wake up one morning in the middle of the jungle with nothing but a machete and a rumbling stomach. You are, however, going to wake up one morning quite soon with a rumbling stomach and no access to whatever foodstuffs might still be stocked by our local supermarket. You may find one day that you turn on the tap and nothing happens. Is there a reliable source of potable water within walking distance of where you live? Who can you rely on to help in an emergency? What skills or other goods to you have to offer to someone else who has what you need? Do you even know who those people are or what they want?

The good news is that rescued battery chickens can usually adapt well to life in a more natural environment, and if a chicken can figure it out there must be hope for the rest if us. But we have rather more complex needs than a chicken does. It behoves us all to skill up, to the extent that we can, and above all to help one another through this mess. That may sound like Communism to you, but to me it just seems like common sense. Not that there’s too much of that about at the moment.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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