They're only using us for our opposable thumbs.
June 30, 2007 12:07 AM   Subscribe

"We think what happened is that cats sort of domesticated themselves." A Washington Post article about new research into why our cats want to hang around with us. Also, a transcript of an online chat with research scientist Carlos A. Driscoll and an additional article about the ancient roots of domestic cats.
posted by amyms (48 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I ran across this via The Morning News, which provides a good digest of world news, as well as great original articles and essays.
posted by amyms at 12:09 AM on June 30, 2007


Damn feline freeloaders!
posted by gomichild at 12:14 AM on June 30, 2007


"The Cat Who Walked by Herself" - Kipling's explanation of the matter, as illustrated in a lost '80's Russian animation masterpiece.
posted by progosk at 12:14 AM on June 30, 2007 [8 favorites]


An online chat? C'est vraiment domestiqué
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:15 AM on June 30, 2007 [6 favorites]


That story ("The Cat Who Walked By Herself") got mentioned in the chat transcript, progosk. Thanks for the link to the video! :) It's loading very s-l-o-w-l-y for me, but I'm looking forward to watching it.
posted by amyms at 12:23 AM on June 30, 2007


Driscoll and his collaborators ... took blood samples and ear punch biopsies

Ow. I mean. Fuck. Ow. Ow? You punched me in the ear!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:54 AM on June 30, 2007


Is this new? I recall reading years ago about how dogs & cats imposed themselves upon us, rather than us having domesticated them.

Essentially just camp-followers & scavengers, there was apparently some natural selection going on, whereby the individual animals whose traits endeared them to humans, or at least made them less obnoxious, were rewarded with scraps of food, so that over time, the more human-friendly personalities prevailed, which doesn't change the fact that they are, basically, parasitical freeloaders who worked out how to find an easy meal.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:57 AM on June 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ow. I mean. Fuck. Ow. Ow? You punched me in the ear!

That's not how cats talk!

"Ow - I haz earpunchins" is more like it.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:01 AM on June 30, 2007 [6 favorites]



"Then the Man threw his two boots and his little stone axe (that makes three) at the Cat, and the Cat ran out of the cave and the Dog chased him up a tree, and from that day to this, Best Beloved, three proper Men out of five will always throw things at a Cat whenever they meet him, and all proper Dogs will chase him up a tree. But the Cat keeps his side of the bargain too. He will kill mice and he will be kind to Babies when he is in the house, as long as they do not pull his tail too hard. But when he has done that, and between times, he is the Cat that walks by himself and all places are alike to him, and if you look out at nights you can see him waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone---just the same as before"
posted by vronsky at 1:05 AM on June 30, 2007 [3 favorites]


Of all the animals that evolved into domesticated animals, why didn't some brand of monkey? I imagine monkeys evolving into good pets is no more difficult than wolves evolving into dogs.
posted by JeNeSaisQuoi at 4:00 AM on June 30, 2007




JeNeSaisQuoi - monkeys are so smart and so human-looking that people probably didn't want to use traditional methods (read: repetitive pain) to train them. Plus, they throw turds at you.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:16 AM on June 30, 2007


The only good cat is a chinese dish.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:02 AM on June 30, 2007


If you think that house cats are really domesticated, think about about owning one the size of a german shepherd. It would kill you and eat you in a week. My cat routinely tries to kill me, it's only the fact that she only weighs 7-1/2 pounds that saves me.
posted by octothorpe at 6:32 AM on June 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Any theories on why cats domesticated themselves so badly? Are they just lazy?
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:34 AM on June 30, 2007 [3 favorites]


octothorpe said: My cat routinely tries to kill me, it's only the fact that she only weighs 7-1/2 pounds that saves me.

Are you sure she's trying to kill you? One of my cats gets pretty violent with her "I Want To Pin You Down And Groom You As If You Were My Kitten" ritual, but I'm pretty sure her motivation is love. (I hope)
posted by amyms at 6:48 AM on June 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


Astro Zombie said: Any theories on why cats domesticated themselves so badly? Are they just lazy?

I don't think they domesticated themselves badly (at least not from their own point of view). They are domestic enough to derive the maximum benefit for themselves (food, shelter and affection) with the least amount of effort (they don't have to do tricks or guard us from predators).
posted by amyms at 6:51 AM on June 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


amyms, this FPP is paying rich dividends, as The Morning News is a new site to me. In particular, the artist galleries and interviews is a ton of fun -- like visiting a really good museum or gallery without having to drive there. Thanks muchly!
posted by pax digita at 6:54 AM on June 30, 2007


If you think that house cats are really domesticated, think about about owning one the size of a german shepherd. It would kill you and eat you in a week. My cat routinely tries to kill me, it's only the fact that she only weighs 7-1/2 pounds that saves me.

A 7-1/2 pound cat that wanted you dead could fuck you up pretty bad. How bad? "I'm losing blood, I'm worried about my eyes and I don't want this fucking wolverine in my house anymore" bad, I reckon.

What you're getting is play fighting. Which admittedly can get a little rough if the cat's over excited.

In any case, how very like a cat to decide to domesticate itself rather than being domesticated.
posted by fleetmouse at 7:14 AM on June 30, 2007


Heh.
posted by Ceiling Cat at 7:18 AM on June 30, 2007


Cats are domesticated?
posted by DU at 7:59 AM on June 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


I love cats but I hate kitty litter. Thus, I cannot have a cat. This was not a problem growing up when my family lived in the countryside for most of the time. We always had one or two cats and they were free to roam. We'd keep kitty litter down in the boiler room, but given the choice most cats seem to prefer going outside to relieve their bowels.

I spent most of 2006 dating a girl who lived with three cats. Sometimes, the smells would get a little crazy. I eventually sketched up designs for a pretty simple fans-and-tubing, forced-air solution to the smells, but by the time I had a design worth building we had broken up. Sometimes I flip to those pages in my sketchbook and think about a patent. There must be a market, because nothing causes a guy to lose wood quite like a strong wave of catshit smell washing over you mid-coitus.
posted by autodidact at 8:03 AM on June 30, 2007


weapons-grade pandemonium: Je suis sûr que mon chat est en ligne. The voices he hears on the Internets are choreographing his conniptions.
posted by lukemeister at 8:04 AM on June 30, 2007


autodidact: Yes, there is a market, but most of the technology is in the self cleaning cat boxes, not a venting system. One even washes/flushes itself. However, cat turds can still sink up a house quick from the time it is dropped to the activation of automatic cat boxes, so maybe your idea still has its place.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 8:23 AM on June 30, 2007


Well that's just typical.
posted by carter at 8:28 AM on June 30, 2007


nothing causes a guy to lose wood quite like a strong wave of catshit smell washing over you mid-coitus

solution: stop having sex in the litterbox
posted by amyms at 8:33 AM on June 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


solution: stop having sex in the litterbox

but by the time I had a design worth building we had broken up.

Looks like autodidact agrees, amyms.
posted by notyou at 9:11 AM on June 30, 2007


nothing causes a guy to lose wood quite like a strong wave of catshit smell washing over you mid-coitus

I fixed that for you.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:28 AM on June 30, 2007


Is this new? I recall reading years ago about how dogs & cats imposed themselves upon us, rather than us having domesticated them.

I heard about it (regarding dogs) on Nature. In it, Coppinger makes this point I like:

The theory was that ancient people took wolf pups from their dens, adopted them, fed them, trained and tamed them. Biologist Raymond Coppinger, who has spent over 45 years working with and studying dogs, says that this story is nothing more than a romantic fairy tale. "I call it a 'just so' story. Nobody who has ever trained a wolf had any success if they started after 19 days," says Coppinger, a professor of biology and animal behavior at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

"We've got a graduate student doing it now. You take them out of the den when they are 13 days old and their eyes aren't open, and you spend 24 hours a day with them, socializing them with people, bottle feeding them. You have to have a time surplus society like mine, where you have graduate students with nothing else to do. Mesolithic people would have been struggling for life. They wouldn't have had time." In addition, Coppinger says, even tamed wolves aren't likely to be docile when it comes to food-or breeding. "I work with tamed wolves all the time. I don't care how tame they are, try to take their bone away. It's even worse when it comes to breeding. You start to fool around with wolves when they're in a courtship performance, you could die right there on the spot."


Given that the initial steps would've been so prohibitive, it seems more likely natural selection pressures pushed wolves into dogs and from there into more tamable dogs. The pressures that selected for behavioral characteristics that allowed them to be more tolerant of humans (pdf) brought along a host of other changes that helped the whole process along, like droopy ears and other morphological changes, and retaining juvenile behaviors into adulthood.

This always leads to Belyaev's Farm Fox Experiement, which shows a similar process in foxes, which I wouldn't mind having as a pet. Temple Grandin and Mark Deesing also look at this sort of thing in this paper.

It's always had me wondering about cats but I've never really been able to find anything on it. It makes sense that it might be a similar process. I heard about this cat study on All Things Considered the other day I just haven't had the time to look into it further, so thanks for this, amyms.
posted by effwerd at 10:16 AM on June 30, 2007 [4 favorites]


Science Magazine article abstract and PDF (bugmenot.com does not have logins for their paid content)
posted by christopherious at 10:51 AM on June 30, 2007


One of my PHD students turned her dissertation on dog domestication into a more general book explaining the relation between hormone fluctuations, domestication and the persistent problem of speciation. She has a number of peer-reviewed articles out but that book is intended for the more general public. It directly addresses, and I think, explains, most cases of animal domestication.
posted by Rumple at 11:27 AM on June 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


oh of course cats domesticated themselves, we are their slaves no doubt about that. I was just accidentally ripped eye to chin by a startled siamese that I still love (though he no longer sleeps close to my face) so I'm guessing they are smarter than humans. Our efforts at domestication wouldn't have been as much to their benefit.

Ok at least smarter than me.
posted by pywacket at 12:10 PM on June 30, 2007


"Best case scenario - You get the smartest, most talented cat in the world. You still have a box of crap in your house" - Red Foreman

This is pretty interesting stuff. Cats chased mice into the first grain silos, and found a much better arrangement with the monkeys filling the silos. Makes sense to me. If my reward for trespassing were free meals and massages, I'd probably come back.
posted by EatTheWeak at 12:28 PM on June 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Any theories on why cats domesticated themselves so badly? Are they just lazy?
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:34 AM on June 30 [2 favorites +] [!]


This is the central puzzle for me, too, Astro Zombie. They really make very few concessions of utility or love compared to dogs-- or cows or pigs or chickens, for that matter.

It's the chief reason I am morally certain their Toxoplasma gondii is sculpting our brains, by direct infection or (more probably) stimulating our immune systems, so as to force us to love them out of all proportion to their merits.
posted by jamjam at 1:17 PM on June 30, 2007


Yeah, to add a bit more to what UboRoivas mentioned, the prevailing theory about dog domestication is that wolves were attracted to the middens of human settlements which led to a loose, erstwhile relationship and then eventually to domestication.

This theory about cat domestication is similar in the animal-coming-to-us aspect—which is distinct (if you discount pests) from all the other domestications I can think of—but otherwise the cat-human relationship is quite different from the dog-human relationship.

There are three reasons for this.

The first is simply the matter of the length of the domestication. 12,000 years may sound like a lot, but it's nothing compared to how long dogs have been with us, which is probably twice as long and some estimates stretch to 100,000 years.

The second is the great distinction between the nature of pack/social animals such as dogs and solitary hunters, like cats. Humans are, like dogs, pack/social animals and it is relatively easy for dogs to integrate into human social structures and even vice-versa.

I think it's often commonly underestimated just how central our social nature is to human nature and how much it pervades how we think and understand the world. Dogs share some of these perspectives. Humans and dogs communicate fairly well—in some aspects, phenomenally well, as we see with dogs' ability to read human facial expression and body language better, even, than chimps or any other animals.

Cats, on the other hand, have only become reluctantly social in domestication. Both housecats and feral domestic cats can be much more social than wildcats in some situations, but the relationships are still pretty volatile and sparsely utilitarian. The most persuasive theory I've seen about how domestication has altered cats' social relationships is that the primary—the only, really—relationship instinct available for domestication purposes is the mother-kitten relationship.

Humans act as surrogate permanent mothers to cats' permanent semi-infantilization. There's various evidence for this infantilization of cats, including the fact that all other adult felines of every type, including even feral domestic cats, cease to meow at adulthood. My opinion is that this pseudo-maternal bond allows humans and cats to experience something that humans recognize as "love" with their cats, and where from the cat's viewpoint it's a mild version of the comfort and dependence version of love that a kitten knows for its mother. In this I don't think that cats are being strictly and mercenarily utilitarian, they genuinely love their owners in a real sense. On the other hand, it's a sort of narrow love when compared to the more broad sense of love relationships that occur in a true social context as is available to dogs and humans. And then aside from that aspect of the cat/human relationship, what's left is the opportunism of food supply and a warm bed. The cat doesn't have all the various instinctual social needs that both dogs and humans do and to which the human versions dogs have adapted themselves.

However, they've only been domesticated a short time to begin with, and then only as work animals existing outside of the human social sphere...that is to say, they've not been domesticated (widely) as pets until modern times. Given time, our domestication of cats may turn them into social animals that relate to us as we see the world. Such a cat will probably be a nice companion...though a lot less fascinating, in my opinion.

The third reason is sort of the major consequence of the first two. The actual practical relationship that cats have had with humans has been utilitarian and distant. Cats haven't shared the fire like dogs have, they've kept to the dark corners where they've caught rodents and slept. It's only recently that they've been brought into the household. We haven't really domesticated them as pets until modern times and so our relationship with them is not quite so intimate...yet.

Personally, I find the parallels and complementaries in the human relationships with their two modern pet animals to be both deeply fascinating and surprisingly satisfying. I wrote earlier that humans were pack/social animals and this is often underestimated. However, as social as we are, we are not herd animals, for example, and the term I prefer to describe us is "semi-gregarious". We do have a big dose of individualism in our nature. Because of this, I think that the individualism of cats, though far more alien to us than the sociableness of dogs, resonates with a part of our inner selves. Dogs represent our social nature while cats represent our solitary selves. Our relationships with each satisfy something in us, and, I think, connect us to the rest of life on our planet. This is a good thing and we might have evolved differently, whether we were social or solitary. We may seem to have little regard or feel little connection to other life—but while one can easily imagine a much stronger connection, one can also imagine a much weaker or nonexistant connection that sees all other life as inherently hostile and needs be exterminated at the earliest opportunity. I couldn't hazard any real "scientific" guess, but my gut tells me that it's more unlikely than likely that a species would evolve to our level of intelligence with a capacity to feel love for creatures not of its species.

I wouldn't expect cats to do so on their own, for example. With our help, however, they seem to be learning.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:17 PM on June 30, 2007 [20 favorites]


If you think that house cats are really domesticated, think about about owning one the size of a german shepherd.

I've got two Maine coon males that are a good 20 pounds each and as strong as ox. I shudder to think what they would be capable of at 100 pounds a piece.
posted by Ber at 2:26 PM on June 30, 2007


The earliest archaeological evidence for dogs is actually only about 14,000 years old, a number that is quite consistent worldwide. I know of no credible evidence for dogs older than about 14,000 years ago. The genetic work on this topic is not very reliable because dogs and wolves are the same species and the domestication process may have been multi-sited.
posted by Rumple at 4:46 PM on June 30, 2007


Come to think, since the Toxoplasmosis rats and mice get from cat feces damages the brains of these rodents so that they no longer fear the smell of cats, it greatly reduces the utility of cats as guardians of grain stores. The rats and mice are drawn in from the surrounding area and eat your grain almost as much as before you had cats, since they are not afraid of them-- the main difference is that the cats have more rodents than they can eat.

It's like we're the grain suppliers for the cats' rat farms.
posted by jamjam at 4:54 PM on June 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


The earliest archaeological evidence for dogs is actually only about 14,000 years old, a number that is quite consistent worldwide. I know of no credible evidence for dogs older than about 14,000 years ago.

I had thought that there was archaeological evidence in middens of domesticated wolves as far back as there have been middens. I don't know when I "learned" that—I'm disappointed that it's untrue. Still, I vaguely recall from a big National Geographic cover story of the evolution of dogs that they have been domesticated much, much longer than any other animal. Looking at Wikipedia, there's mention of a 12,000 to 100,000 year range, though I'm sure that 100,000 years isn't very credible.

Anyway, yeah, my assertion should have been more qualified and it well may be wrong—dogs may not have been domesticated very much longer than cats. I find that so disappointing, for some reason, that I don't want to believe it. Damn those pesky facts.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:12 PM on June 30, 2007


"I left the humans that very day, to spread the good news. And now I travel from place to place. I have walked for leagues beyond measure. I have starved, sometimes, and often I have been hurt. But I have walked on.

In a metal machine I crossed the cold waters. I have preached to solitary feral cars in empty places. I have shouted my message to the stars from rooftops and whispered it to dying cats in alleyways.

I have spoken to one cat, and to many. And wherever I have gone, my message is the same...

Dream it!

Dream the world. Not this pallid shadow of reality. Dream the world the way it truly is. A world in which all cats are queens and kings of creation. That is my message. "

Well, they seem to have had at least partial success, then :)
posted by kaemaril at 5:13 PM on June 30, 2007


Further reading on animal domestication: Guns, Germs and Steel. I found particularly fascinating that cats are the only non-social animal to be domesticated.
posted by ao4047 at 5:51 PM on June 30, 2007


EB -- off the top of my head, I believe the oldest known domestic cat remains are in the 8,000 14C year old range., from Cyprus. It looks like the FPP here relates to a genetic study of living cats, which I believe has particular problems given human role as a selective agent in cat evolution. Also, the article states that domestic cats are descended from a small group of wildcats living ca, 100,000 years ago in the near east, but it does not say that those were domestic cats. So it then becomes a tricky proposition to say where, on the tree below the "five founding cats", domestication and speciation took place, and for not entriely clear reasons they settle on the old standby of terminal Pleistocene around 12,000. These genetic studies seem very useful for establishing relationships, but they often throw up highly dubious results when trying to put a date on lineage splts, etc - the mtDNA clock is, in fact, calibrated by reference to fossils in the first place, so I place more weight on actual fossil evidence. Dogs appearing worldwide, often in human burials, around 14,000 is a suggestive pattern, while a very uncommon presence of cats until ca. 4000 years ago (one or two exceptions aside) is also suggestive.

But I haven't really studied cats. Dogs on the other hand, I know the literature a bit better, and two summers ago puff puffmy team found the oldest domestic dog remains known from the Americas, admittedly only a single premolar, but over 13,000 years old (not yet published). Other than the date, great comment.
posted by Rumple at 5:55 PM on June 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thanks all for great discussion. As I massage my in-house huge white parasite (great pyrenees dog), I am marveling at the degree to which she is adapted to live harmoniously with humans.
posted by zia at 11:13 PM on June 30, 2007


I have a question for those who are still watching the thread - is there evidence that pets have modified humans? Have humans that are pet-friendly done better (had higher survival rates, etc.) than humans who aren't?
posted by zia at 11:18 PM on June 30, 2007


Have humans that are pet-friendly done better (had higher survival rates, etc.) than humans who aren't?

Yes, definitely. There are numerous studies which indicate that pet owners live longer, healthier lives (on average) than people without pets. Here's an article that lists some of the health benefits (physical and emotional) of having a pet.
posted by amyms at 11:50 PM on June 30, 2007


Whether it's the cats themselves or their friend Toxoplasma who did it, I'm certain that it isn't the cats, but the monkeys, who have been domesticated.

Oooh, look at the cute kitten!
posted by Skeptic at 4:46 AM on July 1, 2007




so cats are the Kramer of the pet world.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:08 AM on July 2, 2007


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