Humans' treatment of other animals shaped our evolution

Illustration for article titled Humans' treatment of other animals shaped our evolution

Humans are one of the few animals that adopts and cares for other animals. Our cross-species connections might be older and more important than we ever imagined, driving human evolution for millions of years and even helping us invent language.


Even before the formal domestication of animals thousands of years ago, humans formed strong bonds with animals that have no obvious counterpart elsewhere in the animal kingdom. According to biological anthropologist Pat Shipman, this interdependency between humans and animals actually stretches back two and a half million years, and figuring out why our ancient ancestors created these links can help us better understand our overall evolution.

As Shipman explains, deciding to care for another animal is a seemingly irrational decision, particularly for hunter-gatherers millions of years ago:

No other mammal routinely adopts other species in the wild — no gazelles take in baby cheetahs, no mountain lions raise baby deer. Every mouthful you feed to another species is one that your own children do not eat. On the face of it, caring for another species is maladaptive, so why do we humans do this?

She believes the answer is found by looking at another singular human innovation, stone tools. These tools, first invented 2.6 million years ago, turned humans into fearsome predators and radically shifted their place in the ecosystem. Humans to deal with this shift by observing the behaviors of potential competitors and potential prey, and the best way to do this was to bring animals permanently into their lives. Those who knew more about animals were more likely to survive in the new paradigm, and this evolutionary advantage explains why humans now form these connections with animals throughout the entire world.

Shipman has an even more radical proposal - the huge amount of data gathered through the observation of animals created a need for storing and communicating this information, which gave rise to language itself. As indirect evidence of this, she points towards the earliest cave paintings:

"Though we cannot discover the earliest use of language itself, we can learn something from the earliest prehistoric art with unambiguous content. Nearly all of these artworks depict animals. Other potentially vital topics – edible plants, water, tools or weapons, or relationships among humans — are rarely if ever shown."

This longterm observation of animals eventually transformed into domestication. Indeed, her theories provide an answer for a question about the domestication of dogs that's so basic that most wouldn't even realize it's worth asking:

"Why would you take a ferocious animal like a wolf, bring it into your family and home, and think this was advantageous? Wolves eat so much meat themselves that raising them for food would be a losing proposition."


It's an excellent question, and yet dogs were domesticated thousands of years before any other animal. She thinks the answer is that these first dogs weren't seen as pets but instead as living tools that allowed humans to harness all the behaviors they had observed for millions of years and use it for their own purposes:

"As living tools, different domestic animals offer immense renewable resources for tasks such as tracking game, destroying rodents, protecting kin and goods, providing wool for warmth, moving humans and goods over long distances, and providing milk to human infants."


If Shipman's theories are correct, then the human ability to observe and interact with animals is directly responsible for the success of tools and the creation of language, and without this animal connection we wouldn't be the species we are today. You know, I'm starting to feel very inadequate that I've never had a pet.

[Current Anthropology]




Um, no. Just NO.

Jeebus, this theory is so anthropocentric it's fucking insane. The theory itself treats animals as "living tools", as if they are just lying around waiting for humans to pick them up and use them. This is not science, this is what the biblical bit about god telling adam that he can do whatever he likes with the plants and animals sounds like when it's translated into scientific terms.

Some theorists think (and I agree with them) that the whole bit about humans adopting baby animals is bullshit. First of all, you can't ever really tame a wolf, and chances are about 50/50 that it'll go all predator on your ass as it gets older. And even if it doesn't, how the hell do you even keep a wolf in one place? Tie it down? It'd bite right through the rope, and stone age people didn't have chains (that's why we call it the STONE age). It's hard enough keeping a dog at bay while walking down the street, now imagine living in a cave or just constantly moving around in the wilderness.

And that's just the dog bit. Cattle are even more fucked up. First thing you need to know when thinking about the domestication of cattle is that

a) cattle, or the ancestors of today's cows if you will, were much much bigger than they are today;

b) humans were smaller and even tho they performed some amazing feats of surgery and medicine (trepanation for example), they were a lot more prone to dying a gruesome horrible death than they are today, and

c) cattle are fiercely territorial. More people in Africa get killed by wilder beast than by crocodiles. Also they move in herds and aren't exactly prone to leaving their young behind. Especially if you're a monkey armed with a sharp stick. There's only so much shouting and loud noises you can make to scare a herd of prehistoric cows, before they turn around and stampede all over your bipedal ass leaving just a small puddle and maybe a few teeth and your badass stone tool imprinted in the savanna. If you look at hunter-gatherers that hunt large prey today, like the Bushmen of the Kalahari, the first thing they do is separate one animal from the rest of the herd, and chase it around for days until it gives up. In other words, it is fucking impossible to separate a baby prehistoric cow from its mother and raise it as your own. Separating two in order to produce your own herd is even less possible.

The mental image of herbivores as not dangerous and serving as walking meals for the cool predators is a consequence of watching too many biased nature programs. Take the gazelle for example. When most people think of gazelles, they think of lion food. You probably also get a mental image of a predator chasing the zig zaging gazelle through the tall yellow grass, eventually catching it and chowing down. What you don't see is the 50 other shots of the same predator NOT catching the gazelle, or the gazelle turning around and using those big BIG horns, because what most people forget is that a gazelle is essentially a bag of muscle that comes to a point, or rather, two very sharp points.

Secondly, it really DOESN'T make any sense adopting another mouth to feed.

Thirdly, YES there are examples of animals adopting other animals and caring for them. Admittedly, these are the exception rather than the rule, but it happens. I remember watching a program about a cheetah adopting a baby gazelle after its kittens were killed. And that's just what was caught on film. What we tend to forget is that we DON'T see most things that happen in the wild. We don't know everything.

Furthermore, yes stone tools made humans badass, but they weren't any more badass than any other predator. You still had to run a lot and you had to be strong to use the tools effectively, and most of all, you had to work as a group. Our brains made us badass, not our tools.

And this is where the wolves come in.

To get back to my initial train of thought, some theorists believe that the whole humans adopting baby animals thing is bullshit. What they do believe happened is a form of co-operation and co-evolution.

For example, wolves bring down a buffalo. Humans come in, chase the wolves away, and eat the buffalo, but they also leave some for the wolves, intentionally or not - wolves can eat things that humans don't. Another time, humans bring down a buffalo, eat it, and again, leave some for the wolves. A free meal is not something you turn away from. This happens again and again and again. After a while, the wolves realize it pays to be near the apes with the sharp sticks and bright light, because they always have some scraps lying around (see coyotes living in big cities today for comparison). And then, hey, the more the monkeys have to eat, the more we have to eat. Eventually, the wolves start helping the humans hunt. Because two buffalo are better than one. And besides, the monkeys have the bright light which is like a mini-sun and gives off warmth. After a couple of thousand years the wolves come into the proverbial cave and what was initially a business arrangement becomes an emotional bond.

This theory makes a lot more sense than the idea that humans stole wolf cubs in order to observe their behavior and learn... huh what?

The agency of animals is something that is often completely and unjustly ignored when thinking about the domestication of animals.

The theory I support (and am promoting here) also makes an attempt at explaining how humans domesticated cattle. And, according to this theory, the domestication of cattle is a direct consequence of the domestication of wolves. Because, essentially, the humans kept the wolves at bay.

This is how it works:

You have a group of humans that hunts in association with a pack of wolves (or has a domesticated pack of wolves). By some point in time, the wolves rarely if ever hunt on their own, or they hunt small pray and leave the cattle alone. Humans will hunt large pray about once a month, and they'll bring down the old and sick animals anyway. But the thing is, the monkeys and their wolves will chase away any other large predators with their bright lights and sharp sticks, so it pays to stay close. The wolves will not let any other wolf packs onto their territory, and the humans will chase away anything else that shows up. So what happens is they form a bond, not with individual animals but with the whole herd. And this is a three-way bond, between humans and wolves and cattle. Take one away, the whole thing collapses.

After a while (by which I mean thousands of years), the cattle simply stop running away and attacking humans, and voila! - they're domesticated.

Now that's a theory.