The end of livestock?

There was love on Earth before us. There is love on Earth besides us. — Carl Safina

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.

Paintings in Chauvet cave

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.

CowThis 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.