Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Domesticated man

Because I work at petting zoo, I've read a little bit about animal domestication. I also try to read a little bit about everything, so once in a while I encounter information relevant to my sheep, goats, and pigs in books that by and large have noting to do with animals.

Such was the case when I read Physics and Politics, published in 1872 by my favorite Victorian nonfiction writer, Walter Bagehot. (My friends will tell you that's the problem with me, that I actually have a favorite Victorian nonfiction writer, but never mind.)

In chapter 2, Bagehot, building on the work of a more famous Victorian, discusses the process of natural selection as it occurs when humans domesticate animals:

"The taming of animals as it now goes on among savage nations, and as travelers who have seen it describe it, is a kind of selection. The most wild are killed when food is wanted, and the most tame and easy to manage kept, because they are more agreeable to human indolence, and so the keeper likes them best."

He begins the next paragraph:

"Man, being the strongest of all animals, differs from the rest; he was obliged to be his own domesticator; he had to tame himself."

And this caused me to reflect on how the "domestication of man" has occurred in fits and starts. There have been some beautiful milestones. Think of the words of Jesus in Luke 6:31: "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." Or ponder what Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident:
That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Helping to correct a blind spot Jefferson had, in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson thundered, "The time of justice has now come. I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come. And when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American." Congress listened and passed the Voting Rights Act.

Yes, there has also been a great deal of backsliding. But when I read words such as those I've quoted above, I feel eternally hopeful. Man has a lot of domesticating still to do, but I think as a species we're a lot closer to a sunny farmyard than to a foggy wilderness.

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