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Caturday!: Domestication Edition

Following a report in Science, a Times story unravels the genetic history of the domestication of cats:

The wildcat DNA closest to that of house cats came from 15 individuals collected in the deserts of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the researchers say. The house cats in the study fell into five lineages, based on analysis of their mitochondrial DNA, a type that is passed down through the female line. Since the oldest archaeological site with a cat burial is about 9,500 years old, the geneticists suggest that the founders of the five lineages lived around this time and were the first cats to be domesticated.

Wheat, rye and barley had been domesticated in the Near East by 10,000 years ago, so it seems likely that the granaries of early Neolithic villages harbored mice and rats, and that the settlers welcomed the cats’ help in controlling them.

Unlike other domestic animals, which were tamed by people, cats probably domesticated themselves, which could account for the haughty independence of their descendants. “The cats were adapting themselves to a new environment, so the push for domestication came from the cat side, not the human side,” Dr. Driscoll said.

Cats are “indicators of human cultural adolescence,” he remarked, since they entered human experience as people were making the difficult transition from hunting and gathering, their way of life for millions of years, to settled communities1.

It makes sense that cats’ domestication would have occurred in a mutually beneficial situation. With raptors cats are symbols of predation: unlike dogs, they hunt alone with agility, patience, determination, and pluck. Their cunning remains part of their genetic makeup, as evidenced by the cats in my own household, who just yesterday hunted down a moth. K recounted the story to me in an e-mail:

One morning, Mr. Bingley & Jane spotted a very big moth flying around the living room and decided they would focus all of their efforts on catching the moth. The moth was intent on not getting caught, but Bingley was very fast. He kept smacking the moth against the window screen, which put the screen itself into terrible peril. Then Jane jumped into the fray, pinning down the moth many times to try to stop it as well. Then, Bingley snapped the moth up into his mouth and started to walk away with it. But the moth was still alive! When Bingley opened his mouth, the moth flew out! Bingley & Jane continued their assault on the moth until finally their mistress, the beautiful and beloved queen of the realm, found the moth lying on the floor with its insides streaming out as a result of the incessant biting that had been inflicted upon it. The queen left the room to find something with which to pick up the moth’s corpse, but when she returned only the wings remained, and she saw Jane walking away with a most satisfied look. The queen scooped up the wings to throw them away, and the two cats left to pursue other interests.

Wildness will out, said Thoreau, and friends, he was right.

A wildcat

1 On a more serious note than I treat it here: The same story in the Washington Post offers a distinctly different style to the Times‘ reporting. Nicholas Wade, writing for the Times, spends much more time describing how the research was done and ascertaining why it is conclusive. His tone is rooted so much in the science itself that his own conclusion gets lost in the potential benefits of the study. On the other hand, David Brown’s writing for the Post is lighter and turns on the somewhat irrelevant question of housecats’ indifference—it dips, that is, into evolutionary psychology. I haven’t read the study in Science, but (given the Times‘ relegation of the same evidence to one graf) I suspect that Brown overplays the study’s implications about evolutionary evidence of modern houscats’ behavior.



I read the WaPo article yesterday and didn’t even bother sending you the link. I knew somehow in your wandering here and there and about on the internets, this would reach your attention, and that perhaps you would even blog on it.

re: the evolutionary psychology…it seems to have become the dominant paradigm for educated secular people when explaining animal behavior, particularly human behavior. I think it’s a good paradigm, but it can get stretched ridiculously thin sometimes.

I’m often at a loss to say much about it. In some ways arguments from ev.psych. can be sensical, but they’re built upon mounds upon mounds of speculation and somewhat shaky inference, you know? Compound that with the fact that there are thousands of years of history between, and ev.psych. becomes a set of banal claims that can’t be proved. Intuition tells me that if we have evolutionary behaviors at all, they’re only highly mediated tendencies that contribute very little to real behavior.