Cows graze in the meadow and chickens roost in the chicken coop at night — anyone who has successfully completed kindergarten can tell you as much. But just as we have not always lived in our comfy houses, the ancestors of our farm animals led their own lives on the grasslands and in the forests of the old world. In this post I want to look at how our relationship with animals has changed since we started farming.
A limestone cave in the Ardèche, southern France. More than 30,000 years ago people like us brought the rocks to life with charcoal and red ocher. Horses and lions run along the walls. We can only guess at the meaning of the paintings. In any case, it is clear that as hunter-gatherers we were closely connected to our environment. ‘Nature’ was not something that was separate from ‘society’.
That changed with the Neolithic revolution, some 12,000 years ago. Around this time a double movement started: First, we domesticated ourselves and created permanent settlements. This was followed by the slow process of domesticating plants and animals. Dogs were an exception to this; they had already joined us before.
Herds of sheep and goats were first managed remotely by selective hunting. Curious individuals probably got accustomed to people and passed on their human-friendly traits to their offspring.
Many scientists say that the process of domestication was based on mutuality: the animals were protected from predators by humans and had an easy source of food. This gave these species an evolutionary advantage. But I do not think that individual animals care a lot about something as abstract as evolutionary advantage. We should not pretend that the current situation is the result of a fair negotiation whereby ‘farm animals’ have voluntarily given up their autonomy and dignity.
No matter how you look at it, humans took control and started an explosive conquest of the planet. Agriculture could feed more mouths, resulting in more people. In an interesting article in The New Yorker (The case against civilisation), John Lanchester states that civilization has had mixed consequences: It has brought us things like science, medicine and art, but also war, slavery and social inequality.
This ambiguity also applies to our relationship with animals. The free animals around us, whom we saw as our equals, were replaced by animals that were our property and worked as slaves for us. By now, most of us don’t even have contact with the animals that end up on our plate. Out of sight, out of mind.
Time to look ahead. Through scientific research we learn more and more about the animals whom we share our planet with. Carl Safina talks about this in this poetic-scientific TED talk. He does eat meat himself, but never from farm animals. That brings us back to the cow in the meadow and the chickens in the henhouse. Keeping animals has brought us a lot, and is still needed in some places in the world. But in my opinion, it has had its day here in the UK or in the Netherlands. Currently, there is a big social movement towards a more plant-based diet. That is not a step back in time, but a step forward in the development of humanity.
On the TED website: What are animals thinking and feeling?
Picture above this post: Sheep are being herded at a monument that is at least 3,300 years old: The Standing Stones of Stennes, on the Orkney islands. We were there in September.