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The Covenant of the Wild:
Why Animals Choose Domestication

by steven budiansky
morrow, 190 pages, $18

Having yet again picked up the garbage the raccoons repeatedly spill in my backyard. I was well prepared for Steven Budiansky’s The Covenant of the Wild. These wily creatures, who by all accounts are enjoying a population boom of their own, are a fine illustration of Budiansky’s thesis that many animals, far from being threatened by human activity, have positively flourished by choosing to live in proximity to us. 

His argument is that many species, as part of their evolutionary strategy, “came in from the cold,” pegged their fortunes to human beings, and now cannot survive without us. This is hardly a disaster, for the strategy has been extraordinarily successful. Their choice to associate with man means they are protected so their number can increase, whereas the wild species have to struggle to survive. Horses, for example, would be extinct today if they hadn’t been domesticated. This means that domesticated animals are “permanent juveniles, dependent on us for care.” But they are also supremely well-adapted to their environment, more so than wild animals. Even many animals who fall short of true domestication have flourished by adapting to humans, such as, famously, mice and rats—and my raccoons. 

The book is full of examples of birds, fish, insects, and larger animals that have cooperated with other species to their mutual advantage. This is the principle of “coevolution,” and Budiansky applies it to the relation between humans and animals: both are benefited by domestication. The advantage is mutual even when it doesn’t appear to be. Cattle raised for slaughter (or otherwise “exploited” by humans) get something in return, believe it or not. They get species protection, the survival of their kind. 

Domestication has not been the result of deliberate human decision, “taming” (as those who wish to undo it wrongly assume), but of evolutionary forces larger than simple human effort. Or, as Budiansky puts it, animals chose us as much as we chose them. One may even ask, and he does, “Who lamed whom?” Domestication is possible only with species already predisposed to it. It is not, then, a case of man despoiling or enslaving nature. In fact, humans are not able to domesticate wild species that are not so predisposed, though we may make pets of some individuals. The wild traits remain, and the animal may even be dangerous to us, as in the cases of those “tame” wolves that have assaulted humans.

Budiansky identifies the evolutionary process that produced domestication as “neotony,” or juvenilization—the fact that animal infantile behaviors are rewarded. We prefer animals who are friendly to us, solicitous of our care, and thus useful, or, the author suggests, which arouse an innate human preference for the cute and cuddly young. The normal adult “wild” behavior pattern has none of these attractions. Domesticated animals show the traits of the young of their wild cousins. They treat us as if we were members of their own species, not discriminating as adult wild animals would. (Budiansky remarks that though we often speak of a dog that thinks it is human, it is more likely that the dog thinks that the humans are dogs.)

The principal target of this cogent polemic is the fellowship of nature romantics, mostly people who don’t make their living from the land. Budiansky, an urbanite journalist turned amateur farmer (“impostor farmer,” he says self-deprecatingly). knows from painful experience that nature is harsh. Moreover, human beings do not make it harsh by their own cruelty—it is already so. People who work with nature, with animals and the land, know that its harshness, pain, and death are inevitable and cannot be denied. This does not make them cruel people; on the contrary, it broadens their sense of existence and gives them a more realistic perspective. (But it does make the author himself very pessimistic on one important matter: in a brief passing flirtation with theodicy, he infers the absence of a good Creator from the cruelty of nature, in effect employing the design argument in reverse.)

Even such a word as “harsh” is a moral term of our making—as are terms like “rights” and “exploitation”—and irrelevant to nature, which is simply amoral. We are wrong, then, to intervene by protecting animals from predators and starvation, for that is imposing a moral system on nature where it doesn’t belong.

Budiansky does in the end suggest that humans bear some responsibilities for nature, and that there is such a thing as a “natural ethic”; but he is most determined first to eradicate the kind of ecological ethics whose assumption is that human beings have imposed their wicked ways on nature and should repent and leave nature alone for a while, or better yet return the natural world to a pre-industrial or even pre-human wildness. He says that such an assumption is nonsense; man, too, is part of natural evolution. The idea of pure nature, apart from man, has been an artificial construct for ten thousand years. Cutting human needs out of the equation, e.g., saving animals without regard to effects on the humans who use them, distorts the natural balance of an ecosystem that must include man.

There is no going back to the hunter-gatherer society before agriculture permanently transformed human and animal and plant life. Nor were those primitive peoples ecological heroes, living in tune with their environment in a sustainable way. They brought on ecological disasters as readily as any people in the industrial age.

In short, Budiansky rejects the idea of a golden age of natural harmony. Such long-term changes as the decline of wild species are just another chapter in the long history of nature’s variability: “New ecological balances have repeatedly replaced old as mass extinction has followed mass extinction.”

The author reserves some especially harsh words for that subspecies of nature romantic, the animal rights advocate. He is angry at the movement for its confrontational tactics, playing shamelessly and even deceitfully to a know-nothing urban audience. He is caustic about the movement’s anthropomorphism, which seems to stem from ignorance of the life of real animals. He characterizes animal rights advocacy as “arid philosophizing, public buffoonery, and underground terrorism—a combination that does not exactly add up to a winning public relations strategy.”

The movement has, nevertheless, been irritatingly successful in insinuating its simplistic views of animals into the public consciousness, which makes Budiansky’s sallies against its follies particularly enjoyable. Take the case of the “have-a-heart” traps, which catch animals not wanted in homes or barnyards without harming them, so that they may be released into the wild. Budiansky observes of the putative kindness of these traps that the released animals either come back to human habitation or freeze or starve or get eaten in the wild—because they can’t cope there.

One may come almost to the end of this book convinced that its author is a kind of fatalist who views with equanimity the impact of humankind on the rest of the natural world and believes that there are no moral lessons, no environmental ethic, evident in the evolutionary process to date. But Budiansky does not leave it at that. He concludes that since humans and domestic animals have chosen each other in a kind of bargain, and since we are the dominant partner, we are responsible for the creatures. Indeed, given the inexorability of evolutionary forces, we could not renounce this responsibility if we tried. Nevertheless we have come to a stage in evolution that favors cooperative forces and interdependence, and which disfavors independent wild creatures that occupy specialized and highly vulnerable niches. He quotes Raymond Coppinger: “The King of Beasts [has] been out-competed by the cooperative strategy of the house cat.”

Being responsible for the animals certainly does not mean that we must cease to “exploit” them. Precisely if we take the long view of the evolutionary process, it is possible for us to use animals for our own purposes and yet at the same time respect them and be responsible for them. Conflict among species is inevitable and not wrong; and if we understand that, we can arrive at a “mature moral sense,” something quite other than that put to us by the animal rights movement and its kindred spirits among the environmentalists.

For all that there is to admire in this book, however, one may fairly ask of its author what, at the end, is left of human intentionality and will and uniqueness. The notion of responsibility advanced here has little substantive content beyond acceptance of the inevitability of large evolutionary forces. It is true that humans can selectively alter evolution, by deliberate breeding, for example; but this is only a small part of the process and is dwarfed by those larger, inexorable forces, operating in both animals and man at the unconscious level, “a humbling testimony to the less than complete control we exert over the world, our myths about ourselves notwithstanding.”

After all, then, there is a kind of fatalism at work here, and one wonders how far Budiansky would follow it. Would it be “bad,” for example, if the human race were to become extinct as the result of these inexorable forces? Does nature’s amorality mean that we ought not attempt to impose our own moral order on it—at least to the extent of our ability? Budiansky’s answer is not always clear. At one point he seems to say that we may, indeed must, undertake such an imposition. But at the same time we are cautioned that we had better be humble and tentative about our decisions, because they can at best only be compromises: we can’t be certain that any given action is absolutely right, and ultimately it is not likely to matter very much what we try to do anyway.

Thus a fine book, a useful book, even an entertaining and wonderfully readable book—but The Covenant of the Wild neither calls us to arms nor offers compelling instruction. In Budiansky’s nature there is little for us humans to do but resign ourselves, “maturely,” to our tiny part in a great drama—and that cannot be a fully satisfactory prescription for those who require of themselves that they he morally responsible.

Thomas Sieger Derr is Professor of Religion at Smith College.