Lasman: Man’s best friend… for now

Beartrap

For most of us outside the monkey labs, Yale is a strikingly animal-free place. Growing up across the street from a horse farm, in a house occupied by dogs, snakes, turtles, hedgehogs and the occasional human, this was a significant transition for me. I missed their companionship, their silent indication of an existence larger than anthropocentric concerns. And yet the Yale world, occupied and operated by people and machines, may well be something of a futuristic vision.

Travel to any developing country, and the ubiquity of animals is striking. Chickens cluck in the alleyways, donkeys nod in backyards. The prevalence of manure in the streets and gory tripe in shop windows may make us squeamish, but it also signifies the proximity of human and animal life cycles in these societies. An intimate connection is preserved between humans and the creatures that provide them with food and labor. Modernized nations, however, have banished the former to the anonymity of factory farms, and the latter altogether. Beyond sentimental uses and the most destitute of rural economies, there is no real place for a donkey in today’s America.

Horses, which have borne goods, messages and armies for at least five millennia, have also had their heyday. The New York Times recently reported on nationwide cutbacks in mounted police units. While many officers remain attached to their steeds, touting their public appeal and crowd-control abilities, budget-cutting administrators are hard-pressed to see more than “a costly bit of sentimentality” on hooves. Some districts are replacing the horse with that most awe-inspiring of machines, the electric scooter.

Even on the culinary side, Michael Pollan’s now-famous dictum — “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — offers a vision in which fewer animals provide less meat to fewer carnivores. Sheer ecological math tells us that booming world populations will have to consume proportionally fewer animal products. Food chains experience an energy loss of roughly 90 percent for each additional level — that is, per 10,000 calories of grass, a cow eating that grass can only process 1,000 of those calories, and a human eating that cow is left with only 100. This inefficiency of energy transfer is part of why humans have never raised obligate carnivores for food; it is part of why densely-populated areas, like India and China, have long histories of vegetarianism; and it is part of why the future of food will have to involve a lot more kale and a lot less kielbasa.

And yet there is a sad inequality to the equation — we may need animals less, but they need us just as much. Nearly all domestic creatures have been fundamentally altered to increase their benefit to human society. According to some scientists, we’ve been genetically modifying animals nearly as long as we’ve been making art (roughly 30,000 years). This intelligent design has shaped creatures in the image of human needs. Horses were originally stocky steppe beasts hunted for their meat, before selective breeding made them strong-backed steeds. The wild ancestors of cows, the aurochs, were described by Julius Caesar as “a little below the elephant in size” and so ferocious that they spared “neither man nor wild beast which they have espied.” The 135th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show illustrated the myriad shapes into which necessity and whim have molded the wolfish forms of the first dogs.

The metamorphosis of apex predator into loyal companion came at a genetic cost — dogs have a brain roughly 10 percent smaller than equivalently-sized wolves, and many dog breeds exhibit some form of brachycephaly, the shortening of skull diameter that can indicate Down syndrome in humans. This is not to say dogs can’t accomplish extraordinary mental feats — one psychologist has trained his border collie, Chaser, to recognize some 1,022 nouns. And yet, the New York Times reporter notes, border collies “are bred to herd sheep indefatigably all day long. Absent that task, they must be given something else to do or they go stir crazy.” Not every hard-wired obsessive-compulsive dog, one imagines, has the good fortune to be raised by so diligent a scientist. Chaser’s extensive vocabulary is in fact indicative of a world that is increasingly making working animals obsolete. And while some creatures can be adapted to non-economic tasks, it’s hard to imagine a large market for pet oxen.

Don’t get me wrong — animals will remain an indelible part of the human landscape until we vanish from the planet. But our relationship with our oldest GMOs will experience a profound shift as we modernize, mechanize and vegetarianize. Some animal rights advocates loudly protest any use of animals to serve human needs, yet in doing so they forget the reciprocal needs of the creatures we have domesticated to fill niches that are rapidly shrinking. At a school where animals exist mainly to satisfy scientific curiosity, we might ponder a healthier future for our sidekicks of 30 millennia.

Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Fridays.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    *And yet, the New York Times reporter notes, border collies “are bred to herd sheep indefatigably all day long*

    Sort of what we are doing to children’s brains with i-phones?

  • roganjosh

    What you say applies equally to the hundreds or thousands of other domestic animals and plants systematically driven to extinction or near-extinction over the past century. In a few pockets they are staging a comeback where people want them back in our diets but the environment of industrial agriculture and food distribution continues to select against them, to put it mildly.

  • gzuckier

    The author makes the very normal error of separating “man” from “the natural world”. Fact is, man is a species of primate and is part of the ecosystem as much as some random beetle; and affects and is affected by that ecosystem, as every other species is.

    That said, we did not domesticate dogs, horses, or chickens; evolution drove the ancestor species to adapt to available niches, which happened to include having humans feed and protect them. And as the author describes, in many cases this is the last remaining refuge for these types of animal; when it closes, they will have no other niche to evolve into, and will become extinct.