Domestication

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by John Hartigan (The University of Texas at Austin)

A key fault line in multispecies perspectives is that between domesticated and undomesticated plants and animals. But its import hardly leads to clarity about the demarcation. In broad strokes, domesticates—from the Latin domesticus, “of the home”—have been transformed at the species level to accommodate human settings, work-routines, and forms of enjoyment. This in contrast to individual lifeforms that may be provisionally “tamed” or cultivated as “wild” species in zoos and botanical gardens. Donna Haraway’s “companion species” come to mind, but that concept potentially obscures the important distinction between species purposefully transformed to accommodate humans and those we are unconsciously dependent upon, composing our microbiomes, for instance—we have little hand in shaping them, given we are only just now recognizing their presence and import. Gut fauna may well be companion species with whom we consort, but they have not been subject to artificial selective pressures through controlled breeding that produces our principle agricultural species. Haraway suggests “species interdependence is the name of the worlding game on earth” (2008:19), but that does not account for ways some species are reconfigured in a thorough-going manner to accommodate another. Domestication identifies that dynamic, while also explaining the global dominance certain select species: 90% of today’s vertebrate biomass is comprised of ourselves and our domesticated species (Gaia Vince “An Epoch DebateScience. October 7, 2011. Vol 334).

Complications follow, though. Principally, there is the question of agency. Domestication narratives figured “Man” as a purposeful actor choosing which species to transform. But the more attention we pay to the scope of interactions between lifeforms, the harder this conceit is to sustain. Michael Pollan, in Botany of Desire, conveys this perspectival shift as he experienced it himself, one day in the garden, watching bees busily attending to the blossoms and pollen of an apple tree—an activity that mirrored his own efforts sowing rows below its branches. “All these plants, which I’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves” (2001:xv). He cited “a failure of imagination,” on his part and that of the bees, as stunting this intuition: “The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom”; “consciousness needn’t enter into it on either side, and the traditional distinction between subject and object is meaningless”. This insight launched his effort to “take seriously the plant’s point of view” concerning four domesticated species—apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes—that “have spent the last ten thousand or so years figuring out how best to feed, heal, clothe, intoxicate, and otherwise delight us,” (xvi) in order that we propagate them more widely and fully.

The other complication worth thinking here is time-scale. Ethnographic accounts of other life forms are excellent at rendering them in media res, but the story of species relationships is also occurring across an evolutionary scale. Genetic analytical techniques, like multispecies coalescent models that reconstruct phylogenies depicting relationships through time, are just as consequential in grasping interspecies dynamics but far more difficulty to grasp intuitively. Domestication fundamentally entails a broader temporal view of life forms, one that explains a good deal of our current moment, as well. James Scott depicts domestication as arising in the “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camp,” complex assemblages that combined not just livestock and cereal plants, but attendant birds, obligate weeds, and “a great pilgrimage of rodents, insects, parasites, worms, fungi, bacteria, and so on, all specialized to the complex and, over time, selected to thrive in that niche” (2011: 204). But the dimension of deep time must not obscure a crucial point about domestication: it was not a one-time event in an ancient era. Through processes such as introgression—genetic transfers between wild and cultivated species—it can be an ongoing process, one that importantly debatably is even reversed, as with feral animals or plants that take over abandoned cities. Speaking of cities, the rise of “urban wildlife”—there are some ten thousands foxes in London—point to the further complication of species adopting to the domus, rendering it as “habitat,” without submitting to controlled breeding or being artificially transformed in the process. Such species highlight that this keyword is in need a good deal more thought.

But domestication matters to name because it brings into view a crucial cross-species comparative frame. Humans are hardly the only species to domesticate. Dugongs (Dugong dugon) or sea cows (Sirenia) are herbivores that cultivate and graze specialized seagrass communities. Ambrosia beetles (subfamilies Scolytinae and Platypodinae) are fungiculturists, carving intricate tunnel systems or “galleries” where they raise fungi. Other include the North American marsh periwinkle (Littoraria irrorata), a mollusk that farms salt marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), which harbor an ascomycete fungus, drawn when the snail injures the grass and fertilizes the wound its own nitrogen-rich feces. But these are almost sideshows to the hosts of termites, wasps and ants that domesticate other species. Leafcutter ants not only fertilize fungus, they apply fungicides in the form of antibiotics from their own bodies to limit unwanted life forms. Notably, too, these species all manifest sociality in the form of division of labor, just as was apparently requisite in the rise of agriculture among humans. This suggests that debates about the “origins of agriculture” have to be expanded beyond the question of when and how humans cultivated cereal grains.

Origins of agriculture

This last point underscores the need for “domestication studies.” Much as the study of kinship was transformed in anthropology with the development of the new reproductive technologies, the subject of domestication is ready to be upgraded to a multispecies framework. After all, many of the same issues are stake in both fields—the line between biology and culture, but also the questions of human and nonhuman. The broad overlapping question is how does culture or sociality work on and develop the plasticity of species, perhaps in producing what Margaret Lock characterizes as “local biologies.”

Further reading

Donna Haraway. 2008. When Species Meet, University of Minnesota Press.

James Scott. 2011. “Four Domestications: Fire, Plants, Animals, and . . .Us,” Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Harvard University, May 4-6.

Margaret Lock. 1995. Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America. University of California Press.

 

 

 

 

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a companion to the book