We had a lovely time talking about domesticated animals. As expected, we started with cats and dogs. Some people question whether cats have been fully domesticated. The evolutionary history of both species is intertwined with ours, but quite different because of the different advantages the species brought. Cats were good at exterminating vermin, and dogs were hunting companions. Given that the cats didn't have to interact as much to fulfill their useful function, there was less interaction and less change in the cat species.
We noted that not all people consider cats and dogs to be pets, where they are coddled and treated often as family members or children. Mennonites and Amish primarily consider cats and dogs to be work animals, and have a more distant relationship. The working relationship changes the way we interact. How does one interact with an animal one later plans to eat? That question was taken up in Charlotte's Web, certainly.
Glenda talked about the roles of domesticated animals as workers, food, or pets; they can also be producers of raw material. Silk moths have been "domesticated," to a point. Though they can't interact with us the way mammals do, they have been bred for their silk and have become unable to fly, so they depend on human husbandry to keep them alive.
Brian talked about how our emotional attachment to pets has led some people to seek out exotic pets. However, there is a difference between taming and domestication.
We discussed the experiment in fox breeding that took place in Russia starting in 1959, started by Dmitri Belayaev. They took docile, human-loving foxes and bred them together, and also bred together hostile foxes, and then tracked the results. It was dramatic, had some interesting side effects (including pied fur!) and took place over relatively few generations.
Glenda said that taming often involves the persistence of juvenile characteristics.
Raj pointed out that many animals appreciate touch, even fish, though we tend to anthropomorphize them a lot less.
Cats meow to each other less often than they do with humans, and they meow at a similar frequency to babies' crying. We also discussed purring among cats - apparently panthera cats can only purr while exhaling!
We discussed the wildly different phenotypes of dogs. Their physical characteristics and temperamental characteristics have been deliberately altered so they fit with the work they have been intended to do, like fighting rats or even badgers in their burrows, or hunting in various ways, etc. Herding dogs have had their hunting behaviors re-purposed into herding behaviors. Sight hounds use their eyes to identify prey, and use speed to catch them; scent hounds are slower but "dogged" and use their noses. This led me to talk about some of the evolutionary history that I built into my story "Cold Words" and how I let behaviors etc. influence culture and language.
We talked also about more unusual domesticated species. Brian imagined an armadillo pulling a plow. We talked about llamas, which are very good at carrying loads and climbing steps. The solutions that you find for problems will depend on the tools you have available, and these will include your working animals. Wheels were inappropriate for the Inca, since llamas were able to handle the stairs easily. Weaving and cabling were used for a lot of solutions to problems in Inca culture because there was no enormous forceful animal to enable a lot of building heavy bridges, etc. We noted the Inca also had an advanced knot language used for many purposes including record-keeping.
Bison can't be domesticated, but buffalo can.
Here's a great picture of the oxen at Colonial Williamsburg:
Reindeer can be domesticated, but they are not suitable for riding. The body structure of an animal is critical to whether it can bear sufficient weight to be used for riding. Things got a little weird there for a while; we talked about people drinking reindeer urine with hallucinogens in it (people will do all sorts of crazy things!).
We recommend the books 1491 and 1493 for discussion of the Columbian Exchange.
We speculated a bit on whether it would be possible to domesticate octopi or dolphins... or whether it would be possible to keep humans as pets (probably not too well).
And here's the video!