When I was thinking about what to write about this week, I considered environmental impacts, cost and other aspects of veganism that I haven’t covered yet. But what I really wanted to talk about was animals, and that’s because they are the main reason why I went vegan. I’ve always been surrounded by animals – growing up, my family had a rabbit, guinea pigs, chickens, budgies, cats, a dog, a goat, and various lambs. I would probably attribute my fascination and love for animals to this, which makes it hard for me to imagine how others can grow up without much exposure to them and still be drawn to them. After all, investing a lot of time and money into an animal that seemingly does little more than help us to enjoy life seems to be going against the laws of evolution – if the animal doesn’t help us to survive, why invest our own resources into it? The answer to these questions may lie in this very post folks!
The question of why we like animals lies, like it does in a lot of human psychology, in our evolutionary history with our early (2.6 million years ago) hominid ancestors. In 1984, when biologist and theorist Edward O. Wilson was researching why people are drawn to nature and animals, he came across the term ‘biophilia’, coined first by Erich Fromm. It means “the passionate love for life and all that is alive”. Why would our ancestors develop this biophilia? According to Wilson, it was distinctly helpful to our survival to observe the behaviours of other species around us. If other animals were thriving in an area, it was probably because there was water, vegetation, prey and shelter there, and so we would thrive there too.
The animal connection
There may have been other ways that our ancestors used other animals to help us survive. ‘The animal connection’, a term created by paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman in 2010, refers to the process of “making animals into companions and/or partners, and treated as members of the family” – a kind of interdependence between human and animal. Any pet owner will be aware of this behaviour. Shipman believes that the origins of this however lie in the development of tools, and our subsequent hunting methods. Following hunting animals around and scavenging on the remains of their kills first prompted our taste for meat, and would have forced us to observe their behaviours. Additionally, observing the hunting methods, weapons (teeth and claws) and communication techniques of other pack animals, such as wolves, may have inspired our own hunting techniques and helped to fuel our own language and tool development. One glance at ancient cave paintings such as those in France’s Chauvet Cave is a convincing and beautiful sign that we were observing our animal neighbours.
From hunting, more knowledge was gained about the behaviours, biology and intelligence of different animals could use this to domesticate them. Animals could then be used as living, renewable tools – providing clothing, labour, food, transport and materials to make weapons. Consider the domestication of dogs, which occurred around 32,000 years ago – why bother feeding ferocious animals like wolves’ copious amounts of precious meat in an attempt to befriend it if it were not some advantage to you? They were obviously handy to keep around for things like tracking game and hunting animals that killed livestock and crops. I suggest giving your pupper an extra pat for that.
These days, animals still provide many of our resources (if you aren’t vegan that is). However, most of us connect more with our pets than animals used for these purposes, and there are more psychological and evolutionary reasons behind this. One of the reasons is because we think they look ‘cute’ and there’s a weird explanation for this. Most species of cats and dogs, for example, have been unknowingly bred by us to mimic the physical characteristics of human babies, such as large eyes in relation to the head. Going with the baby thing – we also like to treat our pets like infants throughout their whole lives, and this may be because we like to feel needed. Our children, too, invoke these feelings so that we want to care for them – again, its helping the survival of our species.
Another reason why we love our pets is because they love us unconditionally, and that sense of validation they give us comforts our psychological need for positive perception from others. So hug a kitty and let that needy psyche take a rest!
It seems our affection for animals could come from a multitude of fascinating factors. What is clear is that our evolution as humans may have been completely different had it not been for our ‘biophilia’ and close contact with other species. To finish off, I’ll leave you with some food for thought: what could our increasing distance from nature mean for our health as biophilic animals? And if our reasons for liking animals extend to those domesticated for resources, should we extend the same compassion and love that we have for our traditional pets to them?
Peace and science,
Other images by Summer Gleeson.