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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

It's Not All Black or White

I very much enjoyed yesterday's blog post by Kathy Freeze about her purple martins. We can learn many things from reading it, but the one issue I want to focus on today is this: whether an animal is wild or domesticated is not a matter of black and white. There is not one incontrovertible answer. It is fluid. It changes with time. It evolves. It is a cooperative work in progress, and not a matter forced on the animals from without. It involves choice by both groups. It is not about exploitation by one set of individuals of another set. It is about two different populations finding mutual support. It is less like parasitism and more like symbiosis.

Purple martins never built their own houses. They evolved to be opportunistic and find pre-existing cavities to nest in. Native Americans, noting this fact about the attractive birds, started offering them gourds to nest in. Some of the purple martins responded positively to this offer. In time, with the introduction of outside species from Europe, the only purple martins who were able to compete were the ones who opted for man-made housing. Now the purple martins are entirely dependent on humans and feel safer nesting close to a human habitation, due to the protection that the humans afford them, But are they domesticated? Have they been "enslaved"? Hardly. It's their choice, and if they feel a human landlord is neglectful, they will leave the housing and find a better landlord.

Have we domesticated the purple martins? Or have they domesticated us?

There is a cat out there, somewhere on my property, who is courting me. It wants to domesticate me. It keeps bringing me dead birds and parts of squirrels it has killed as offerings of friendship. I am not impressed. Sometimes I am even a little disgusted at these stark signs of carnivorous efficiency. But clearly that cat has one thing in mind: to domesticate me and make me its own.

Am I exploiting this cat? Or is it trying to exploit me? Or could a cooperative effort between us be a mutually beneficial arrangement?

Animal rights people want you to think that in every relationship there is a hapless victim. That every act of assimilation is an act of exploitation. That we have only to search for the more powerful partner to see who is on top, and whoever is on top is the bad guy. It's the same method that feminists use to demonize men.

On my property I have lots of different species of both plants and animals. Some of them eat each other. But even when that happens, it's not as black and white as it seems. Some life forms live by offering themselves to others. Being eaten and reproducing go hand in hand.

I have a friend who urges me to eradicate the thistle flower, because it is really the dread spotted knapweed, that invasive and noxious weed that will take over your property. On the other hand, the milkweed plants are deemed to be good. Well, all my milkweed plants have gone to seed pods now.

There will be more milkweed flowers next year, but right now when a Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly is looking for food, it's the purple thistle flowers that offer it some nectar.

Are the butterflies exploiting the flowers? Or are the flowers exploiting the butterflies?

The persimmon trees that planted themselves on my property are starting to display their fruit, like savvy vendors, looking for a sale. It will not be till late October when they are ripe enough for me to eat them. But they got here in the first place because animals who ate the fruit dropped the seed in our pasture. Their DNA may travel far and wide, and all because they offer to feed the hungry, free of charge. Who is exploiting whom?

And then there are chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are not humans. Humans are not chimpanzees. They must remain apart for the sake of species purity. That is the litany of the zookeepers and the sanctuary trolls. Chimpanzees living among humans are exploited. They are damaged. They cannot socialize with their own kind. It affects them later in life, even if you try to reintroduce them into a chimpanzee population. They can't socialize properly.

But try to introduce a human child into a human population with a different culture after the critical period, and you get the same result. Trouble socializing. Instead of proving that humans and chimpanzees should be kept apart, this shows that they are actually very similar, and that a big part of what makes us different is how we are brought up.

Humans and chimpanzees are separate species. Yes. We diverged a long time ago from a common ancestor and went our separate ways. Well, yes and no. We diverged and then we re-merged.

In the not so distant ancestral past, humans and chimpanzees were drawn back together and produced more hybrid offspring. How do we know this?
Different regions of the human and chimp genomes were found to have diverged at widely different times, and the two species' X chromosomes show a surprisingly recent divergence time.
Are we the hybrid or are they? Or are we both? And really, why should that matter? It's not all black or white. We sometimes go to war with our closest relatives, but at other times we coexist in peace. There are inter-species adoptions. We can serve as parents to children with different DNA.

All life on earth is related, but some are closer than others. The purple martins are much more distant relatives to man than chimpanzees. Yet we can work out cooperative joint ventures with them.

When you see a young chimpanzee living with a human as a dependent child, don't be quick to conclude that one is exploiting the other. Or that a wild animal is being forced to live an unwanted domestic life. Does Bow have a choice? Do I?

Yes and No. We have a choice about what we do. We do not always have a choice about how others react. Bow knows about some of the other choices available. He is aware of some of the dangers and also some of the incentives of choosing a different life. He is in the pens of his own free will. Believe me, he is much stronger than I am, and when he cooperates, it is because he chooses to do so. I cannot force him to do anything. I can only request.

I want us to find acceptance among humans and chimpanzees both. But that does not depend on us alone. It also depends on the other chimpanzees and the other humans. It's not all black or white.


  1. Aya, very nice summary of my post! No, it's not all black and white. As you point out, it's sometimes very complicated too.
    I don't understand why anyone would think that Bow or any other chimpanzee living with a human is "exploited", especially given the amount of time and care that they obviously require from their human caretakers. I think it's good too that you can communicate with Bow and know how he feels about his different options.
    Regarding the socialization - my dog Nikki was adopted at 7 months of age. Since she was tied to a tree & abused prior to the adoption, she had passed that "critical stage" at which she should have been socialized both with other dogs and children too. We've been able to *finally* get her socialized with other dogs, but I dare not allow her around a child as she would eat it - yes, really. I will never be able to fix it and many parents won't offer up their children to help me in my efforts to desensitize her to them. (*smile*).
    I am enjoying your perspective on this topic and the idea of "cooperative living".

    1. Thanks, Kathy. Your post was exactly on point for me, and I do think it made a valuable contribution to this blog.

      I am so sorry to hear how badly your dog Nikki was treated when she was young, and I feel she is lucky to have someone as dedicated and as disciplined as you are as a companion now.
      I realize that in addition to love and understanding, it takes hard work and laying down reasonable boundaries. Not everyone is capable of that, and I admire how well you do it.