May 30, 2009

The Domestication of the Cat

Scientific American have published an interesting article by Driscoll et al about the domestication of the cat and its spread through the world. The authors argue that the genetic evidence suggests that all modern cats are descendents of the variety of Wild cat that lived and lives in the Middle East. The earliest evidence of cat domestication seems to be a tomb in Cyprus in about 9500BC which has a cat and human buried together- that would fit in with the genetic evidence. What is more interesting perhaps than the date is the way that the authors hypothesize that cats slowly and steadily moved outwards from the Middle East, facilitated by the trade routes within and without the Roman Empire and by particularly the need for humans to take a rodent killer on board ship with them. Cats reached China for example about 2000BC- though Chinese cats are an interesting sub-category for they seem to have been interbred seperately from European cats at least from 1300 onwards, hence breeds like the Siamese are both very ancient and yet closely related to the domestic cat in the rest of the world. This is fascinating because it suggests that trade, even at very early dates, bound the world together- this is in harmony with our evidence from the period but it also provides us with a very apt example of that fact.

The scientists also proceed to argue about why cats became domesticated. They start from some assumptions, unlike say dogs, cats are not naturally herd animals, unlike cattle they don't provide an obvious benefit to human beings, and yet human sites provide obvious benefits to cats- both in terms of rubbish that can be eaten and mice that can be caught. Driscoll et al probably go too far in thinking about this from the cat's point of view- afterall its a pretty useful thing to have a rodent killer in your house or in your farm- but the central point may still be true. Cats may have domesticated themselves- choosing to live by human beings. One of the interesting points that Driscoll makes in supporting such a thesis is that cats, unlike dogs, have seen little genetic mutation since they began living in our houses. Domestic cats are perfectly capable of living in the wild. There is no such thing as a 'sheep' cat or a cat trained to hunt rabbits down holes- as there is such a thing amongst dogs. Cat behaviour essentially modified itself only to the extent of becoming friendly with humans- apart from that cats in the domestic setting do what cats in the wild do, chase rodents, eat meat and generally perpetuate their genetic line.

It is an interesting thesis and prompts two thoughts in me. The first is that we are always in great danger when we infer from how an animal looks, how that animal thinks. A cat may look adorable but its ultimate reason for living with human beings may in some sense be contractual- indeed it may have no idea of adoration in its head. To assume such an idea is to assume too far. The second thing though is to wonder about whether we need that illusion and whether the relationship between cats and their owners is a substrate of something much more basic in human society. Illusion ultimately is the font of many of our relationships which when reduced to an evolutionary level seem purely contractual- a man and a woman are together for sex, a baby with its parents because it needs food and they want genetic continuance, etc etc. But we know that the 'reality' of those relationships is not purely contractual- or at least the contract is so deeply embedded in our psychologies that it is not something that we realise openly. Perhaps that is ultimately the distinction between contractual and non-contractual relationships- that in the one we realise that there is a contract, in the other we know there is a contract but do not in every day life realise it.

To bring us back to the cat, knowing that there was an original contract between cats and human beings does not neccessarily imply that either side realises it when they interact today.


That's Purrfect said...

Cats are domesticated??!! You could have fooled me! I have scratches up my arms and bite marks on my hands after a "play fight" with my ginger cat who, in my opinion, shares 99.999 per cent of his DNA with a bad-tempered jaguar with toothache. And I still buy him expensive cat food every week. Must be mad.

Gracchi said...

All too true I'm afraid-

maybe we need a different word for feline domestication!

James Higham said...

That's really rather interesting.

The Organic Viking said...

In my experience (my stepfather used to have twelve), cats vary immensely in their attitude towards humans. Some cats give every impression of adoring the human at the other end of the tin opener in a distinctly dog-like fashion, others radiate a sense that they are merely deigning to let you feed them. Perhaps some cats see the whole domestication thing as more contractual than others?

Sulla said...

human oritenated might be a better term!