You’ll both know by now that we’re very fond of animals here at the Maison des Girrafes. At the moment we have two dogs, four cats, a rabbit, thirteen hens, two snakes, five freshwater tropical fish and an axolotl. We’ve previously been serial hamster owners (after number six died we decided we couldn’t bear any more rapid ageing and death) and until recently had a
flock herd McFlurry giggle of guinea pigs that numbered sixteen at its peak- all since died or rehomed, though none of them left home to join the fire brigade.
We adore our pets and we like to think we get a great deal back. We certainly spend a lot of money on them. In 2007, Britons spent £1.7 billion on pets (I think I can account for £1.69 billion of that personally.) People also have lots of pets – in both the U. of K. and the U. S. and A., the proportion of households with pets (respectively 47 per cent and 63 per cent) is larger than that with children.
In her latest book The Animal Connection (whence I nicked these startling statistics,) palaeontologist and writer Pat Shipman (Taking Wing, The Wisdom of Bones, The Man Who Found The Missing Link) wonders why we have this extraordinary attachment to animals, and answers it with a novel and quite startling hypothesis – that our need to be involved with animals of all sorts stems from our evolutionary heritage. ‘Nothing else makes sense of the energy, money, emotion and effort we spend on being with animals,’ she says. The Animal Connection traces our involvement with animals back 2.6 million years into our evolutionary past.
The first connection was forged when our ancestors started to make stone tools, and became predators rather than prey. Study of tools and the remains of the meals of early hominins (such as cut marks on bones, and fragments of bones smashed to yield marrow) shows that our ancestors weren’t fussy about the menu: they dined on an extraordinarily large range of animals. This, says Shipman would have, necessarily, been related to a much greater awareness of the animal world, the habits and habitats both of prey and competing predators, than you’d find either in a prey species or a specialist carnivore.
The next step came much later, with the evolution of what we might term culture and art of a kind that we would recognise as such, and – perhaps at the same time – language. When we look at the earliest sculptures and paintings, portraits are rare, and landscapes and still-lifes of plants and trees are absent altogether. The subjects are, overwhelmingly, of animals, depicted with startling detail and realism. We cannot know much of the whys and wherefores of these paintings – the circumstances in which they were created – but we do know that the artists went to great trouble to paint them, and it’s a reasonable guess that they cared a whole lot about animals.
Some twenty thousand years later, humans invented agriculture, which included the domestication of animals. Now, humans are not the only creatures to have invented agriculture. Ants
bees educated fleas do it – why, even some social amoebae do it – but humans do it with much more élan, notwithstanding inasmuch as which with many more species. Perhaps the most remarkable domestication was the earliest: dogs have been domesticated for at least 32,000 years, far earlier than any other animal. Although Shipman talks about dogs a lot, she’s more of a horsewoman, so she doesn’t really make as much as she might have done of the remarkable and perhaps unique circumstance in which one intelligent social carnivore (Homo sapiens) has domesticated another intelligent social carnivore (Canis lupus), and that the process has gone on for more than three times as long between these two species as between humans and any other domesticate. The bond between Man and Dog is much greater than between Man and Any Other Creature You Can Name, and it is very much a two-way thing. People get milk, meat, wool, leather, fur, muscle, transport and violin strings from other domesticates, but what they get from dogs is a real and lasting companionship.
There have been quite a few books on human evolution out lately – or books in which human evolution features prominently. I list those I’ve seen and (mostly) read at the end of this post, in alphabetical author order (if any others pass beneath vos yeux, please do let me know.) As you know I hope to add to the pile next year with my own, The Beowulf Effect. Most simply tell the story of human evolution (inasmuch as it is a story, which it isn’t) and perhaps reflect on the latest ideas raised by a rash of relatively new fossil finds. Pat Shipman’s The Animal Connection is one of the few that goes further by presenting an entirely new idea, and one that’s plausible and engaging.
Cochran, Gregory & Henry Harpending – The 10,000-Year Explosion
Falk, Dean – The Fossil Chronicles – I reviewed this here.
Gibbons, Ann – The First Human
Jurmain, R. et al., Introduction to Physical Anthropology (a new edition)
Lieberman, Daniel – The Evolution of the Human Head – I reviewed this here
Mesoudi, Alex – Cultural Evolution
Reader, John – Missing Links (a revised edition of a book that first came out in 1981)
Roberts, Alice – Evolution, the Human Story
Stringer, Chris – The Origin Of Our Species
Switek, Brian – Written In Stone