The Invention of Pets

Vsauce! Kevin here. In a building, a shelter – expertly designed
by humans, for humans, to protect me, a human, from nature.  So what is this doing here? More than half of you keep a non-human creature
in your house. Sometimes in your bed. People treat their pets like family – like babies.
Why? Pets almost seem like a cuteness tax, but our relationships with them today and
throughout history can teach us a lot about who we are. And what we think it means to
be a human. For most of human existence we lived on equal
ground with animals. What we now call “Animism” was the foundational worldview held by our
Hunter-gatherer ancestors — the belief that non-human entities including rivers, plants
and animals all have a spirit or soul. Hunting and killing animals for survival involved
elaborate rituals intended to honor the spirits of the natural world. There’s evidence of
Animism worldwide, from the Naskapi of Canada having strict rules for consuming caribou,
to the reindeer hunters of Siberia and various bear cults including the Ainu of Japan. Animals taken for survival were revered while
others were kept as pets and made part of the family. Pets are so vital and beloved
that indigenous peoples from Australia and Malaysia to South America and Hawaii included
them in one of the most foundational bonds of human life by breast-feeding baby animals.
The Awa tribe in the Amazon still do. The dawn of agriculture and widespread domestication
of animals created a distinction between man and beast. After about 190,000 years of relative
parity, humans were now dominating nature. In 350 BC, Aristotle declared that nature
makes nothing in vain and therefore everything on Earth had a purpose – to serve humans. 
He also proposed scala naturae, or the ladder of life — a hierarchy of living things with
human beings on top due to their ability to reason, a trait he believed came not from
the brain but from the heart. For Rome, man’s dominance of animals was
entertainment. The colosseum games routinely involved fights to the death, with some species
like the North African Elephant and European Wild Horse being made extinct as a result. Animals were put to work building and feeding
growing civilizations. Cats were self-domesticated during the rise of agriculture, including
themselves in the human food chain by weeding out vermin like rats. People appreciated their
service, and house cats were immortalized in paintings during the Tang Dynasty in the
7th century. Anthropocentrism, or the belief that humans
are the most significant creature, was bolstered by the Earth being declared the center of
the entire universe. Questioning this geocentric model, and by proxy man’s centrality in the
cosmos, was considered blasphemy. Galileo was found guilty of heresy for supporting
Copernicus’s banned heliocentric model in 1633. Galileo was imprisoned during the Inquisition,
a campaign in which Roman Catholic orthodoxy was enforced by persecuting heretics. Even
pets weren’t safe; they could be branded as familiars, or evil spirits that helped
people perform sorcery. Pets suspected of aiding in magic were tried and executed if
found guilty. We went from suckling baby animals and honoring
beasts felled in the hunt to publicly burning humans for having pets. England’s Witchcraft Act Of 1604 made it
illegal to, “consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed, or reward any evil and wicked
spirit to or for any intent or purpose.” Everything from dogs and cats to rabbits,
toads, and even ants and cockroaches were suspected as familiars that could lead to
an alleged witch’s death.  Animals were tortured and executed not only to mete out
justice, but as part of public celebrations. In The Great Cat Massacre And Other Episodes
In French Cultural History, historian Robert Darnton explains that an aspect of the Carnival
season of celebration before Lent – involved passing around cats and ripping out their
fur to create a crude musical instrument of tortured howls. Dancing around bonfires was
a joyous part of the Summer solstice festivities – as was throwing magical objects into them
– like cats tied up in sacks, hung from ropes or attached to stakes. Burning dozens of cats
in a basket was abolished in Metz in 1765. So that’s good. The context of treating animals like inanimate
objects can be found in the philosophy of Rene Descartes, who believed in the superiority
of the human mind. The father of modern western philosophy famously stated, “Cogito ergo
sum” — “I think therefore I am” — but he considered animals to be like clocks. In
1648, he referred to beasts as mechanical automatons filled with organs that allow them
to function but are devoid of consciousness — lacking a soul. That marked a departure from how we’d thought
about animals for centuries — the word animal comes from the Latin root “animus,” which
means “soul.” It took the advancement of science to return us to our radices. That’s Latin
for roots. The Age Of Reason brought with it a newfound
interest in natural history, which included biology and zoology.  By the 1850’s, Alfred
Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin revolutionized how we think about animals. Their theories
of evolution placed humans and creatures at equal points of origin, from which adaptations
for ecological survival arose over millennia. Darwin’s catalyst for his obsessive study
of nature was his love of dogs. Evidence of domesticated dogs as beloved pets
goes back to 12,000 BCE with the Natufian Grave in Israel – an old man buried with a
puppy. Recent DNA studies suggest gray wolves and dogs share a common prehistoric wolf ancestor
that went extinct between 9,000 and 34,000 years ago. Wolves are the most successful,
adaptable non-human predator in the world, but they’re now outnumbered over 3,000 to
1 by dogs because dogs partnered with humans — an advantage that Anthropologist Pat Shipman
believes helped humans outlast neanderthals. From Mesopotamia, India, Egypt and Mesoamerica
– dogs were symbols of loyalty and companionship and were buried with their owners as guides
to the afterlife. Humans practiced selective breeding with dogs
to encourage desirable physical traits like size, speed and fur length. But over the past
150 years, dogs have been bred to change their appearance and highlight features we want
to see — like shorter snouts, larger eyes and floppier ears. Neoteny is the retention of juvenile features
in an adult animal, and selective breeding by humans has exaggerated these features in
breeds like Pugs, Bulldogs and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. In some cases that has
created unintended health problems, driving the Kennel Club’s leading geneticist to
believe that the less a dog looks like a wolf, the less it makes any sense. Neoteny can also be seen in cartoon characters
with huge eyes and large heads – characteristics we think are cute because the proportions
are similar to infants – an actual cute character design rule documented by former Disney animator
Preston Blair in his 1948 book Animation. Cuteness is based on the basic proportions
of a baby. In 1971, evolutionary biologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould documented
the neoteny found in the evolution of the world’s most famous cartoon character – Mickey
Mouse. And just as Mickey is a brand of Disney, Pomeranians are a brand of dog. During an era in which Gregor Mendel founded
the study of genetics through breeding experiments with pea plants, dogs were developed like
consumer products with specific beneficial traits. Purebred dogs were a common marker
of status, from Pekinese in 7th century China to Queen Victoria’s Pomeranians. But a rising
middle class ushered in demand for purebreds — the Victorian dog fancy — and an industry
of breeding to meet that demand. All of the Labradors in the world came from
a small group of families in the British aristocracy. There’s actually a leather-bound stud book
kept in a safe in Scotland that traces the exact origins of the Labrador. It details
the quest to influence the length of the Labrador’s muzzle, the spacing of its ears and the size
of its eyes — like a hereditary recipe book to generate the perfect Lab, with morbid side
notes of breeding failures like, “Put down – useless.” The oldest English book on dog varieties,
Of Englishe Dogges published in 1576, lists 16 different types. Today, there are 340 unique
breeds recognized by the FCI. But why dogs? Yes, they’ve helped humans
hunt since before recorded time by tracking and retrieving game and guarding mankind with
their superior sense of smell, speed and hearing. Yes, they have expressive faces and complex
vocalizations that aid in our ability to understand and communicate with them. But it may be a
fundamentally human quality that solidifies our relationship dogs. Dr. Juliane Kaminsky describes pointing as
a triadic communication. There’s a sender, a receiver and a shared concern. It’s commonly
used in language development in infants – the baby points at an apple – the parent tells
them it’s an apple – the baby learns apple. Michael Tomasello believes this act is a basic
building block of language called “shared intentionality” — and it isn’t universal
in the animal kingdom. Despite having fingers and high-level cognition, chimps and gorillas
don’t understand pointing. Because they don’t believe anyone would help them. One of an infant’s most basic instincts
is a willingness to trust its parents and accept their help. In 4th century BC, Plato
argued that love forms the bonds of human society. By the 20th Century, British psychologist
John Bowlby posited that infants’ social and emotional development rested on their
relationships with caregivers — and that a willingness to form social bonds helped
infants secure their own survival, satisfying the foundational elements in Maslow’s hierarchy
of needs. There’s a reason why solitary confinement and exile are amongst the greatest
punishments for those who break the social contract – often considered punishments greater
than death. Attachment theory lays the groundwork for
the benefits of cooperation and social exchange. Instructed in Aesop’s Fables in 6th century
BC — The Lion and The Mouse — in which a mouse convinces a lion to spare his life and
to trust that someday he can help him. Science is just now catching up with Aesop. Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a role in
social bonding – it’s produced in mammals when they care about someone and has influences
on trust, empathy and attachment. It’s released when humans engage in positive interactions
with one another. Humans and pets release oxytocin when petting, playing or simply gazing.
Oxytocin was first discovered for its role in regulating childbirth and breastfeeding
– the facilitation and nurturing of life itself. Studying communication and relationships between
animals is teaching us about ourselves. Alex the African Grey parrot spent thirty
years being studied by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg. Alex proved that a large
primate brain is not a prerequisite for complex problem solving and language. Alex could recognize
quantities up to six, identify 50 different objects and had a vocabulary of over 100 words.
At age 31, almost 30 years short of the average life expectancy for a parrot – Alex suddenly
passed away. His final words to Pepperberg were the same he spoke to her every night.
“You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.” Alex gained celebrity status because he expanded
our understanding of animal cognition. But he also exposed our desire to believe that
devoid of the judgments, pressures and complications of human existence, pets love you for you. The Open: Man And Animal describes philosopher
Georg Hegel’s concept of human as only existing in the transcendence and transformation of
its own animality. By separating ourselves from nature – we express what makes us uniquely
human. But it’s not easy to figure out what that
is. Our ever-changing relationships with animals affect our understanding of what they are,
but also what we are. In 1947, Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote, “Man is the only animal
for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve.” By reconnecting us with nature, pets help
us navigate our existence. Which means scrolling for cat memes is actually
a very serious existential activity. And as always – thanks for watching. The Lion and the Mouse. A Lion lay asleep in the forest, his great
head resting on his paws. A timid little Mouse came upon him unexpectedly, and in her fright
and haste to get away, ran across the Lion’s nose. Roused from his nap, the Lion laid his
huge paw angrily on the tiny creature to kill her.
“Spare me!” begged the poor Mouse. “Please let me go and some day I will surely repay
you.” The Lion was much amused to think that a Mouse
could ever help him. But he was generous and finally let the Mouse go.
Some days later, while stalking his prey in the forest, the Lion was caught in the toils
of a hunter’s net. Unable to free himself, he filled the forest with his angry roaring.
The Mouse knew the voice and quickly found the Lion struggling in the net. Running to
one of the great ropes that bound him, she gnawed it until it parted, and soon the Lion
was free. “You laughed when I said I would repay you,”
said the Mouse. “Now you see that even a Mouse can help a Lion.”
A kindness is never wasted. That sounds true but is it? Yes. I hope that’s
true. The world’s a sad place I hope that’s true. But a kindness is never wasted. Even
if. Never. It seems to be. Never. You can still know that. Never. Well I agree with
that. Never. Never. Never. Special thanks to my friends at the BBC for
providing incredible footage of dogs, cats and wolves. Check out their channels for more.
More videos and stuff. Okay. Thanks.

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