It takes Two to Tango

Kartik Chugh

For thousands of years, humans and other animal species have accompanied each other with a strong bond. Human-animal relationship has been prevalent in the course of human history and is rooted in our co-evolution. The companion species which were not part of the same ecological niche became a part of an evolutionary process and co-evolved with humans over time. The ability of dogs and humans for instance, to truck with each other and to communicate became possible due to this co-evolution and domestication process. According to Martens et al. (2016), humans attribute complex emotions such as shame, jealousy and disappointment to their companion species which can be explained by the high level of mutual understanding and shared emotions between the two. 

The other day, while I was sipping on a creamy milkshake to escape the sun, I thought about its origins and I couldn’t help but appreciate the long and arduous evolutionary journey of cattle that shaped the very traits of these species which appeal to us. According to McTavish et al (2013), modern cattle breeds are descended from multiple independent domestication events of wild aurochs. Some 10,000 years ago people in the Middle East and India began to domesticate wild aurochsen through artificial selection for their personal use. Consciously or unconsciously, they might have chosen the docile individuals so that they could easily control them. In this long journey over time, certain traits were artificially selected to form the various breeds of cows that we’re familiar with. Today, in the commodified world, it’s hard to imagine our lives without cattle.

Our lives are inextricably entangled with those of other animal species in myriad ways. For a long time, we have given an unparalleled importance to human agency in shaping the world. Our anthropocentric arrogance has not accounted for other critters in the process of worldmaking and worse, ignored them altogether. In the following sections, you would read how humans and non-human animal species are wrapped together and co-constructed in the complex layers of history, politics, biology, commerce and technoscientific knowledge.

Doggy world: Capital, labour and markets

Like any Indian TV show, companion species worlds are all about family. People prefer to refer to pets as a member of their family and themselves as pet parents. The human-animal companion families are a key indicator of today’s lively capital practices. In India, the pet population has hiked from 7 million in 2006 to 10 million in 2014 (India International Pet Trade Fair). The global companion-animal industry is enormous. In India alone, it is over a mark of US  $ 1.17 billion and is expected to grow at a rate of 35% per year (figures by DogSpot.in). Consider the pet food market alone. A growing part of food products focuses on breed type and addresses specific conditions such as obesity, age related needs, psychological demands and so on. There are all kinds of foods ranging from homemade food, immune enhancing food to raw organic food and then there are protein supplements and drugs. Recently, pop-up pet cafes  where “even humans are allowed” have opened up in India which organise birthday parties, Christmas celebrations and theme parties for companion species. But food is not the whole story.

Health is another major sector which is rapidly growing. Vet examinations, physical training, supplements for fleas and ticks, health insurance and so on are becoming common now. Consider the markets for their entertainment, grooming, all sorts of toys, designer beds and services like spas, getaways, trips and holidays and the economic implications seem legion.

In his book Industrializing Organisms, Russell defines organisms shaped by humans to serve functional performances in human world as biotechnologies. Dogs artificially selected and bred to enhance certain traits to perform specialised tasks are not just biotechnologies or biocapital but also unpaid labourers. In this technoculture, dogs are valuable workers. Their tasks include shepherding, sniffing drugs at airports, rescuing in harsh environments, guarding homes, detecting cancer, aiding disabled, assisting police force (which has elevated them to the rank of officers) and so on. Not just that, the companion species also labour as research models in laboratories for the betterment of their own and for human conditions.

Police dogs perform tasks such as searching for lost victims, explosives and drugs. 
Credits: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Rhett Isbell
 Service Dogs are trained to assist persons with impairments and limitations. 
Credits: PersianDutchNetwork [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Non human values: Technoscientific knowledge

Let’s look at the example of cow. By becoming research models, not only they further technological and scientific knowledge, they also further their condition (by becoming pest resistant for instance) and human condition (by providing higher yields for instance). It was the archived genomes of cows that produced labour along with the bodies of cows, that helped in the creation of the very first vaccine in the world that helped eradicate smallpox. According to the Foundation for Biomedical Research, the research and experiments conducted in the twentieth century involved extraction of cattle pox virus from calves. The vaccine which was derived from cattle pox – a virus that affects cattle helped end one of the world’s worst virus outbreaks. Not just that, the vaccine was further researched and by incorporating certain microbes, developed a potential cure for diseases like chickenpox and measles. The health of the experimental cows are therefore entangled with the health of humans and both actors work simultaneously in producing and furthering advancements in knowledge for their benefit.

Can the mosquito speak?

In 1942, during the second world war, Egypt was invaded by the German forces. While existing scholarship romanticizes the role of human agency in the form of war and colonialism in the development and modernisation of Egypt, there was another invading force whose role has been largely forgotten. Anopheles gambiae, a mosquito native to sub-Saharan Africa arrived in Egypt during the same time. In his book Rule of Experts, Mitchell argues that the invasion of malaria causing gambiae mosquito and its agency to create an epidemic was instrumental in shaping the history of Egypt.

The development of dams and canals in 1933 boosted the agricultural irrigation system in Egypt. The year round irrigation also demanded a large supply of fertilizers. When the war broke out, the fertilizer supplies were cut short. Ammonium nitrate which was used to synthesize fertilizer now tended towards synthesizing war explosives. As a result, the yields dropped. At the same time, the water networks provided a suitable breeding ground for mosquitoes to populate and they begin to spread further through these channels. Around 2.5 million people died due to the malaria epidemic and the whole country had to be mobilized to eradicate the problem. The disease coupled with chemical shortage brought famine as sick population couldn’t tend to agriculture. The interplay of war, diseases and agriculture affected around 7.5 million Egyptians.

What is the important take-away here? Human agency alone is insufficient in explaining the historical course of Egyptian development and it is the interconnectedness of human and non human agency that shapes our world.

It is time that we start paying attention to our fellow companions, account for their role in worldmaking, shatter dualism and bridge the gap between humans and non-humans.  

We are co-passengers in this journey and not much is excluded from this species interdependence. With the mixing of the natural and the social worlds, the layers of politics, commerce, technoscientific knowledge, religion, histories and cultures co-construct and co-shape in such a way that we “become with” each other.

References:

  • Jane McTavish, Emily & Decker, Jared & D Schnabel, Robert & Taylor, Jeremy & Hillis, David. (2013). New World cattle show ancestry from multiple independent domestication events. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 110. 10.1073/pnas.1303367110.
  • Pim Martens, Marie-José Enders-Slegers & Jessica K. Walker (2016). The Emotional Lives of Companion Animals: Attachment and Subjective Claims by Owners of Cats and Dogs, Anthrozoös, 29:1, 73-88, DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2015.1075299
  • Susan R. Schrepfer and Philip Scranton, eds. (2004). Industrializing Organisms: Introducing Evolutionary History. New York: Routledge, 2004. 275 pp.

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