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No. 398:
Taming the Beast

Today, let's talk about our animals. 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.

I came home from college one weekend to find a new cat in my parents' home. "His name is Einstein," my father said. "Why Einstein?" I wondered. "Because he spends all day working on his universal field mouse theory." They called their other cat Freud, because he was their nondirective therapist.

Right now, 40 years later, a kitten is trying to nestle against my keyboard. She's altering both my spelling and my thoughts. The domestication of animals, like any technology, rose out of something far more internal than practical needs. The first animals we dealt with were scavengers -- wild dogs, pigs, and jackals -- species that were not our natural enemies. We formed symbiotic relations with these lurking animals. We'd throw one a bone before we went back into the cave.

Those first contacts were marked by mutual curiosity. But they evolved into symbiotic guest-host relations, and guest-host relations are normally unstable. Sooner or later, one species exploits the other. Wild dogs had their successes in exploiting us -- stealing our food and following our hunts. But in the end, it was we who exploited the dog. We fed him and tamed him. We made him into a hunting ally, a guard, and a peculiar kind of friend as well.

The story is different with the grazing species. While we still ran in hunting and gathering tribes, we didn't domesticate cattle. We did something else. We captured stray calves and tamed them. Then we used them as decoys to lure herds into striking range. Neolithic drawings show that we had loose relationships of these kinds with many animal species.

Finally, the invention of agriculture created large grain supplies. Then wild cattle began to scavenge our food just as wild dogs had done before them. That opened the door to new symbioses out of which we again emerged as the exploiters.

So what about that cat, now settled in my lap, drowsing as my keyboard clicks along? Cats are the most highly specialized flesh-eating species. They are hunters and killers; and they awaken awe in us. William Blake used the "Tiger, tiger burning bright" image to speak symbolically of God. The ancient Egyptians went so far as to mummify their cats along with humans.

In an odd way, the cat, for its very lack of purpose, spells out the real reason we began domesticating animals. We see, in animals, intelligence of a different order. We feel kinship. Some elemental vision tells us that we haven't found the full range of our humanity until we've looked through these friendly beasts straight into our own animal nature.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Singer, C., Holmyard, E.J., and Hall, A.R., A History of Technology. Vol. I, New York: Oxford University Press, 1954, Chapter 13.

Photo by John Lienhard