Why Domestic/Wild? Part 1

Having made the leap into setting up a blog and calling it ‘Domestic/Wild’ (and since I’ve been quiet some two months since setting up), I should perhaps explain why I think the domestic-wild divide is important and why there is serious material here for philosophers and historians of science, nature and society to explore. I talked within the past week on this subject at the 3rd Philosophy of Biology in the UK meet at the University of Bristol. I focused on the subject of demarcation (i.e. distinguishing domestic from wild) as having important consequences for how we try to understand living nature and what knowledge we can produce regarding nature ‘out in the wild’. But the implications of demarcation for scientific epistemology in the life sciences aren’t the only area where I think a more in-depth philosophical interrogation of the domestic-wild divide could be productive, as I shall be trying to illustrate on this blog.


But let’s start with some basics. What do I mean by ‘domestic-wild divide’? Am I talking about something objectively out there in the world or something subjective imposed by human minds and cultural categories? Well, in a sense, both, and this is one reason why I feel the subject is both very interesting and very important if we are to understand both the nature of the world without us and our own nature. So, to explain, when we look at archetypical instances of wild and domestic organisms or landscapes there are commonly very clear and systematic differences between the two. Regarding domestic animals, archaeologist/anthropologist Helen Leach has a lengthy but non-exhaustive list of traits often altered in the process of domestication (there is an admitted bias in the list towards domestic mammals here, though that’s partially because her thesis is that agrarian human cultures have also been subject to the same selective pressures):

“Although not uniformly present in all domesticated species, those affecting the skeleton may include the following: (1) change in body size, initially to smaller, with decreasing skeletal robusticity; (2) reduction in cranial capacity; (3) shortening of the facial region of skull, including jaws, sometimes associated with tooth crowding and maleruption and/or reduction in size of cheek teeth; (4) reduction in sexual dimorphism; and (5) greater diversity in shape and size of horns (in cattle, sheep, and goats). Domestication changes affecting only soft tissues, body biochemistry, and/or behaviour and therefore archaeologically invisible in any direct form may include the following: (6) increasing variation in coat colour and hair structure; (7) increasing fat storage (subcutaneous and intramuscular); (8) enhanced physiological performance, including lactation; (9) precocity, extended breeding seasons, and greater sexual stimulation; (10) retention of juvenile behaviours into adulthood; (11) greater litter size and frequency of multiple births; (12) reduction in motor activity; (13) reduction in information acquisition systems; (14) reduction in intraspecific aggression, especially in males (though this may be attenuated defensive behaviour); and (15) increased docility as part of reduced environmental responsiveness” (‘Human Domestication Reconsidered’, 2003, p. 349).

The kind of traits altered in plants are quite different but nonetheless there are again common trait change patterns (this is my list and is even less non-exhaustive): non-shattering of seed heads in grains and pseudograins (they ‘wait for the harvester’ instead of naturally dispersing); loss of toxins and bitterness of fruits, seeds and leaves (e.g. low levels of cyanide in domestic vs. wild almonds); higher concentrations of culturally utilised bio-chemicals in psychogenic plants; variation in fruit and leaf colour; gigantism and greater productivity of seeds, fruit, roots, tubers, and other crop parts of the plant; greater variation in season of seeding and fruiting; seed reduction or loss in fruits (parthenocarpy); human-aided clonal reproduction (bananas).


So it’s clear that at the extremes of clearly domesticated versus clearly wild stock that there are very real morphological, physiological and behavioural differences which allow us to easily distinguish them. The same is true of landscapes, at least as conventionally understood: the domestic-wild divide appears fairly obvious in this photograph of the Brazilian Cerrado, where rainforest has been cleared for soy agriculture!


1 – Source: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/agriculture/soy/

I have sourced this photograph from a WWF webpage discussing how to reduce your environmental footprint when it comes to eating soy (the advice is eat less meat given that most soy ends up as animal feed). The rhetorical value for conservation groups of presenting a dramatic and savagely carved out demarcation between domestic and wild is clear, for as we all know it is often easier to impress and persuade an audience by invoking a dualistic black and white conflict, say between humankind and nature, than it is to persuade whilst stressing nuance. But it is exactly the kind of clear demarcation utilised in such rhetoric that many environmental philosophers regard as at best an unhelpful simplification of the actual complexity of human-nonhuman and domestic-wild interrelations, at worst a positive hindrance to our finding a place for both humankind and nature on an increasingly crowded and changing planet. For more details, a good place to start is William Cronon’s classic essay, ‘The Trouble with Wilderness’ (a version is available on his website @ http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Trouble_with_Wilderness_Main.html ). To give a short version of Cronon’s argument: ‘wilderness’ is a western idea that emerged in its modern form only in the mid to late 19th century as an offshoot of the Romantic movement, which had reinterpreted places such as mountains, forests, canyons, etc., as instantiations of the Sublime, the almighty and dwarfing power of God embodied in nature. This contrasted with the view a century or two earlier, whereby wilderness was considered dangerous, a monstrous waste of agricultural potential, and ugly (the term ‘desert’ was once as widely applied to forests as it was to arid open terrain). Nature was furthermore understood as other, as distinct from humanity and civilisation, and as benefiting best from being preserved from human interference, it beginning to lose its pristine quality and perish quickly once in contact with the forces of domestication and technology. These ideas were instantiated in the creation of national parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone in a rather ironic fashion, namely that substantial interventions were undertaken to ‘preserve’ the pristine nature of such wildernesses by expelling indigenous tribes such as the Blackfoot and Crow from Yellowstone, whilst making these parks more user-friendly and attractive to wealthy white tourists through the construction of transport links, the building of lodgings and the management of wildlife to promote large and visible numbers of iconic and favourably perceived species such as elk and bison through such methods as culling and exterminating populations of publically hated and feared predators (wolves, pumas), feeding animals in winter, and installing hidden fences to corral animals into spaces visible from roads used by tourists. These overzealous management efforts were, Cronon asserts, symptomatic of the attempt to impose a false vision of what wilderness consists in onto an environmental reality where in truth there had never been an ‘original’ or ‘pristine’ environment corresponding to anything similar. These wildernesses were in fact western cultural artefacts, not nature preserved ‘as it was at the beginning’.


For those sceptical of Cronon’s claims, it is worth recalling that human beings have been in the Americas for at least 15,000 years and quite possibly for considerably longer (controversial carbon dates from Pedro Furada in Brazil, for instance, suggest human occupation in the region dating two to three times further back). They were therefore there before the end of the last ice age, during which time both Yellowstone and Yosemite, and most of northern North America for that matter, were under ice caps. During the ice age, moreover, the Americas were inhabited by a great multitude of megafauna, including mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, American horses, dire wolves, sabre-toothed cats, and more, all of which went extinct in the aftermath of the end of the ice age, likely pushed over the edge through a combination of environmental factors (particularly the disappearance of the rich tundra of the north) and human predation and competition. Bison and elk, as survivors of this mass extinction, were exceptions to the rule. Once the ice melted, covering large areas of what is now the Great Plains in lakes far larger than Superior and its neighbours, it was several thousand years before the climate stabilised. Humans were therefore present throughout the formation of North America’s modern ecology and played a key role in shaping it through hunting, gathering, agriculture and the manipulation of the landscape through that oldest of human technologies, fire (I recommend the sections on the Americas from Steven Mithen’s After the Ice to those wanting a good summary of what archaeology can tell us about American prehistory and the relationship between early indigenous Americans and their environment). Humans, Cronon and co. argue, were therefore a keystone species in American ecosystems prior to the arrival of Europeans. This suggests that any attempt to rigidly demarcate domestic from wild and humankind from a ‘pristine’ nature is going to be highly problematic. Note that the Amazon, from which the early WWF picture is derived, is also likely much less of a pristine wilderness than once thought: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/03/1491/302445/ I’ll also advise readers to keep an eye out for a paper from Andrew Inkpen, a historian/philosopher working on notions of the artificial and natural in ecology, which I have seen in draft and which gives an excellent analysis regarding the reasons why early scientific American ecology colluded in the editing-out of human beings from the study of natural ecosystems.

What applies to landscapes also applies to organisms. When we move from looking at examples from the extremes, such as comparing fiercely wild grey wolves with docile lap dogs or the giant, sweeter fruits of commercial strawberry cultivars with the tiny and delicately flavoured fruits of their wild counterparts, we find that in ‘the middle’ things get much less clear. Here we have organisms moving across boundaries, escaping human care and becoming feral, being enticed or captured from the wild and becoming tame, or moving into human settlements and dwellings even in the face of considerable hostility from homeowners (mice and rats, cockroaches and weeds domesticated themselves in spite of human effort to keep them out and destroy them, not because their presence in the home and garden was wanted). Moreover, there has historically been considerable gene flow between domestic and wild populations of the same species, with wild genes often hiding behind domestic appearances preserved by the conservation of a few key gene clusters (the delightful term of ‘domestication islands’ has been applied to these – for details on one prolific domestic-wild hybridiser and on domestication islands, see: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/08/taming-pig-took-some-wild-turns ). All these factors suggest that what we are dealing with is not a straightforward divide between domestic and wild but rather a continuum. The differences between domestic and wild are nonetheless real but it is not immediately obvious where we should mark the divide. We therefore need reasons for any demarcation we are to make, and in making our case we will need to draw on cultural resources – what I call ‘nature narratives’ – as much as on observations of the natural world. Different narratives entail different value systems, different ways of knowing nature and different strategies to tackle the ongoing ecological crisis that we now find ourselves within. It is not that we can choose any place to demarcate domestic from wild – there are empirical scientific facts we must incorporate into our analyses (I have little-to-no time for climate change denialism or other such attempts to avoid coming to terms with the environmental effects of present consumer-capitalist industrial policy), and our nature narratives can be assessed on the basis of their internal consistency and guiding logic. But I believe it may also be necessary in some instances, ceteris paribus, to make stark ethical choices as to which values we prefer to hold to and what sacrifices we are prepared to make. Interrogating the domestic-wild divide and understanding its broader implications for nature and humankind is therefore, I believe, of more than just interest to ivory-tower academics.


I’ll stop here and try to continue from this point next time, where I’ll try and extend my discussion to why philosophers in particular should be interested in the domestic-wild divide and how it relates to but is in many ways distinct from similar discussions of the human-nature and artificial-natural divide.

Welcome to Domestic/Wild


Welcome to my new blog Domestic/Wild. My name is Tarquin Holmes. I am a recent University of Exeter Philosophy PhD with interests in the history, philosophy and sociology of the life sciences, in particular the history of evolutionary and ecological thought. I also have an interest in the history of agriculture and husbandry, particularly the British ‘improvement’ movements of the early modern period.

My thesis, ‘Domesticating the Wild Type: A Historical Investigation of the Role of the Domestic-Wild Divide in Scientific Knowledge Production’, focused on the historical interaction(s) between changes in western philosophical and scientific conceptions of the domestic-wild divide and the utilisation of domesticating practices on experimental organisms as a means of producing naturalistic knowledge. My particular case-study was the concept of ‘wild type’ that emerged in the early 19th century and which came to play a prominent role in early genetics, where the standard inbred lab lineages of such important model organisms as the fruit-fly Drosophila melanogaster came to be referred to as ‘wild type’. ‘Wild type’ specimens were meant to stand in for the ‘normal’ instance of the species and acted as a reference standard in the lab against which mutant deviation from the ‘norm’ could be measured. I set out to explain how it could be that these highly domesticated and heavily selectively modified lab lineages could nonetheless be thought to ‘stand in’ for nature in the lab and thus to allow extrapolation of knowledge produced in the lab to wild nature beyond. Most of my thesis concentrates on examining the history of the wild type concept through situating it within the deeper history of conceptions of domestic and wild in western thought and of domesticating practices in life science research. In my conclusion I examine some of the errors and contradictions underlying assumptions about ‘wild type’ but also try to explain why, despite the many false assumptions underlying their creation, wild type lineages were nonetheless a mostly successful tool for investigating nature under controlled conditions and producing knowledge that could be extrapolated from this domestic and artificial context to wild nature generally. My thesis, for those interested, is now available on the University of Exeter’s open research platform ORE at: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/21021


Regarding my general plans for this blog, I will be using it as a means of promoting my research and will hopefully be putting up some draft samples of stuff I’m working on. I am currently working on plans for post-doctoral work, so may have a few vox pops to get feedback on my ideas. I’ll probably have something up about my post-doc plans shortly. I’ll also post reviews of papers, articles and books I’ve read, mostly on the academic side of things but perhaps with the odd fiction book chucked in. I’m happy to review stuff at request if I can make the time.

I can be contacted at thamiltonholmes@gmail.com.

I’m also on Twitter @TarquinHH and Academia.edu @ https://exeter.academia.edu/THolmes