As someone who studies one of our miraculous planet’s many natural systems (the atmosphere) and has an enormous appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the world in which we live – I am constantly bombarded with a modern trend toward romanticizing nature that I find disturbing. When you work with a group of people who’ve dedicated their lives to understanding nature (one way or another…in my case, a lot of oceanographers who study the life in the blue part of our blue planet), you will (perhaps understandably) encounter this massive wave of romantic sentimentality about how clean and pristine and perfect nature is without our damned dirty hands wrecking it.
To all those among us who would argue that nature is better without our influence, I present one indisputable fact of life that has made our evolution into an ordered society possible – DOMESTICATION. Humans have domesticated something like 180 unique animal species that now live either entirely or nearly entirely to benefit us in return for our protection and our assistance in their continue genetic success. What domestication, essentially, is (according to the most current research) is the tendency for humans to select animals for reduced aggression and fear (i.e. reduced adrenaline). The next time you look at your house cat or your faithful sidekick Fido…bear in mind that he or she was made possible by removing the natural (animal) tendency toward an evolutionarily necessary extremely heightened sense of fear and aggression.
Nature is red in tooth and claw and the animals that are accessible to us are the ones MOST REMOVED from nature. Which animal would the most crunchy of eco-liberals prefer to see in their bedroom tonight…a grey wolf…or his progeny hand selected by us…a domestic dog?
Keep in mind that in wild populations of dog-like species, the kind of low-adrenaline mutations that we need to make a domestic dog occur less than 1% of the time because such a trait is fatal to a wild animal. The same is true for cats – although of all domestic pets, cats may be the least domesticated, they still show decreased adrenaline and increased infantilization in their features (genetically, these things go hand in hand, believe it or not…it’s been proven in research conducted on silver foxes).
Where the human imprint goes in nature, things don’t ALWAYS get better…but there are 400,000,000 dogs, more than a billion cats, millions upon millions of farm animals, birds and even fish that are now BETTER ANIMALS than the wild things they replaced on the evolutionary tree….better in their usefulness to us, their own lifespans and qualities of life, and in their reduced capacity for violence and bloodshed…not to mention better in intelligence. As it turns out…the more hopped up you are on nature’s finest drug (adrenaline), the less capacity you have for mastering higher brain function (!)…wolves raised by humans are nonetheless incapable of focusing on human gestures and following instructions or working cooperatively with other species the way that dogs can.
Forget all of the arguments about how we’ve made our own lives better by advancing ourselves away from nature – a naturalist will call such arguments selfish anyway. How about the advances we’ve made in the lives of domestic animals? Can we really make the argument that wolves would have been better off without our meddling? Dogs are more capable of adapting to changing climate and changing land use than wolves – who are now endangered because they’ve made themselves such a nuisance that we’ve hunted them into near oblivion and because the planet is warmer than it once was. Cats can better withstand being moved to a new hunting ground than can lions, who rely on familiar surroundings. In short…we are making the animal kingdom smarter whenever we interact with it.
Yes, we have a duty to defend the bounty and richness of life on this planet as much as the realities of modern life allow, but let’s not pretend that we’ve made nature worse at every encounter…and let’s not ignore the evidence sitting in our living rooms and at the foot of our bed.