Today, let's talk about our animals. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I came home from college one
weekend to find a new cat in my parents' home. "His
name is Einstein," my father said. "Why Einstein?"
I wondered. "Because he spends all day working on
his universal field mouse theory." They called
their other cat Freud, because he was their
Right now, 40 years later, a kitten is trying to
nestle against my keyboard. She's altering both my
spelling and my thoughts. The domestication of
animals, like any technology, rose out of something
far more internal than practical needs. The first
animals we dealt with were scavengers -- wild dogs,
pigs, and jackals -- species that were not our
natural enemies. We formed symbiotic relations with
these lurking animals. We'd throw one a bone before
we went back into the cave.
Those first contacts were marked by mutual
curiosity. But they evolved into symbiotic
guest-host relations, and guest-host relations are
normally unstable. Sooner or later, one species
exploits the other. Wild dogs had their successes
in exploiting us -- stealing our food and following
our hunts. But in the end, it was we who exploited
the dog. We fed him and tamed him. We made him into
a hunting ally, a guard, and a peculiar kind of
friend as well.
The story is different with the grazing species.
While we still ran in hunting and gathering tribes,
we didn't domesticate cattle. We did something
else. We captured stray calves and tamed them. Then
we used them as decoys to lure herds into striking
range. Neolithic drawings show that we had loose
relationships of these kinds with many animal
Finally, the invention of agriculture created large
grain supplies. Then wild cattle began to scavenge
our food just as wild dogs had done before them.
That opened the door to new symbioses out of which
we again emerged as the exploiters.
So what about that cat, now settled in my lap,
drowsing as my keyboard clicks along? Cats are the
most highly specialized flesh-eating species. They
are hunters and killers; and they awaken awe in us.
William Blake used the "Tiger, tiger burning
bright" image to speak symbolically of God. The
ancient Egyptians went so far as to mummify their
cats along with humans.
In an odd way, the cat, for its very lack of
purpose, spells out the real reason we began
domesticating animals. We see, in animals,
intelligence of a different order. We feel kinship.
Some elemental vision tells us that we haven't
found the full range of our humanity until we've
looked through these friendly beasts straight into
our own animal nature.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds