Today, we try to domesticate a wild animal. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Biologist Jared Diamond
begins his chapter on domestic animals with a
quotation from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Now Diamond applies
this to the wedding of human and animal.
To begin with, he distinguishes between
domesticating animals and taming them. The working
elephant was tamed, not domesticated -- bred in the
wild, captured, and trained. It's still kin to its
wild brethren. A cow, on the other hand, has no
brethren in the wild. It was bred in captivity to
serve our needs.
Now the zinger: How many species do you suppose
we've domesticated out of all we might've wanted to
domesticate? Dogs, sheep, goats, cattle, pigs,
horses, camels, and not many others. So we're back
to Tolstoy's remark. Diamond lists six ways the
marriage between animal and human can fail. All six
factors have to be right for the marriage to
succeed. Let's look at those factors:
First, Diet: domestic animals should
be herbivores or at least omnivores. If you think
your dog is a carnivore, just read the ingredients
on his dog food package, says Diamond. We'd be in
real trouble if our larger animals needed meat.
Suppose you wanted to domesticate lions and use
them for food. You could never afford to feed them.
It was only 1200 years ago that we began using
herbivorous horses as beasts of burden. That's
because they need costly grain as well as the grass
that would've satisfied a cow.
Second, Growth Rate: Any slow-growing
animal is a huge drain on its human keepers. That's
one reason elephants haven't been domesticated.
They take fifteen years to come to maturity.
Third, The Problem of Captive
Breeding: Simply put, some animals regard
sex as a private matter. The Andean vicuña
is an example. It's fur is highly prized, but it
won't breed in captivity.
Fourth, Nasty Disposition: Many
animals are too mean to domesticate. Grizzly bear
meat is delicious, they breed in captivity, they
mature rapidly. But who'd want one in the back
yard? Same for the African buffalo or the
hippopotamus. The outwardly bland hippo kills
humans all the time. Zebras also become mean in
Fifth, Tendency to Panic: The
wonderful French word farouche catches this
idea. It means wild in the sense of being shy and
poised to flee. A deer is farouche, and it can't be
Finally, Social Structure: Animals
like horses, dogs, and sheep create their own
hierarchies. A human can enter that social
structure as its chief. Cats won't put up with
that. Any cat owner will tell you there's no such
thing as a domesticated cat.
And so, out of some 72 large-animal candidates in
Europe and Asia, only thirteen have been
domesticated. And, in Africa, all the domesticated
animals are imports. Next time you look at farm
animals, bear that in mind. For they are the few
rare examples of marriages between human and
animals that have actually succeeded.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds