Pandemic and the domestication of people

When we speak of domesticating animals, we’re referring to a guided transition from wild animal to one that tolerates, and even seeks out, people. The word “domestication” shares linguistic roots with the word “domicile,” meaning home. Thus domesticated animals are those with whom we live.

People were once wild animals, opaque to deeper meaning in the world nor in possession of a language with which to express it. Once self-consciousness and complex language arose, our self-domestication project began, which involved the sublimation of wildness into socially-acceptable behavior within groups. Wild horses can be domesticated, as can cats and dogs; as do dogs, horses naturally form groups. Notably, a variety of number words exist in English to designate groups specific to a particular animal: a gaggle of ducks, murder of crows, pack of dogs, clutch of geese, pride of lions, flock of chickens, etc. Only scientists would refer to a “herd of humans.” Humans gather in throngs.

Despite use of the words “herd immunity” in referring to rates of COVID-19 infection within the human population, there are great differences in how we use “herd” and “throng.” Herd commonly refers to livestock, animals domesticated for the purpose of food or labor, like cows and horses. My friend Jack, a Texan, raises one head of cattle a year for food. He gives each a name, like “Ribeye,” so that the nature of the relationship remains clear.

Herds of animals respond to stimuli in their environment, moving in ways to protect their young and warning each other of danger. People do this too, but unlike herd animals, people also respond to the stimuli of ideas. Accordingly, throngs of white European colonialists designated indigenous throngs as primitive, and set about to “domesticate the savages,” by tearing children away from their parents and sending them off to be “re-educated.”

As part of the sublimation of wildness, domestication requires the regulation of group and individual activity. Control of space, time, and food is the essence of domestication, and all of these are ways in which people have been domesticated. Space has been privatized into “real estate,” time into clock-driven schedules, and food delivered to retail “troughs” at which throngs gather. Successful domestication requires uniformity of characteristics, and this achieved through uniformity in care and feeding; globally, people now mostly consume only seven species of plants.

An advantage of domestication is protection from predators, and longer, healthier lives; a disadvantage is that uniformity in care and feeding imparts uniform weaknesses, like susceptibility to the Corona Virus.

When an lethal infection threatens livestock, or for that matter, a flock, the sickened animals are quickly killed and buried so the infection does not spread into a pandemic. That’s how the first lethal H5N1 Bird Flu outbreak was halted in 1997. Such infections happen regularly, because domestication involves large monoculture-type groupings of limited animal species within a tightly controlled space. When a lethal infection jumps from a domesticated animal into people, however, we don’t quickly kill and bury the infected; we make every effort to keep them alive.

Generally, people are afraid of being bitten by wild animals and infected, but COVID-19 happened the other way around: people bit bats. Bats, small mammals, are eaten in many parts of the world; bats are wild, not domesticated, and are much cheaper than pork. Though domesticated and sublimated, our wildness has not entirely disappeared.

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