In the late 1990s, the study of kinship got zapped. A similar surge of new thinking is transforming another classic anthropological concept—domestication. In both cases, breaches in the fine lines between biology and culture open up generative possibilities. With kinship, ethnographies of the new reproductive technologies led the way (e.g. Sarah Franklin’s Embodied Progress, 1997). With domestication, multispecies ethnographies are provoking a reassessment of this mainstay of anthropological analysis. And, as with kinship, unsettling the human in relation to “nature” frees up domestication as a means to think differently about anthropology and culture.
Why domestication now? Let’s start with the Anthropocene: it’s not just our carbon based economy driving drastic climate change; the fact that we and our domesticated species comprise 90% vertebrate biomass on the planet matters greatly. Then there’s the giddy question of agency: who’s doing what to whom when it comes to species transformations? Michael Pollan framed this nicely in Botany of Desire: “All these plants, which I’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves” (2001:xv). Mulling his garden further, he recognizes “the truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom”. This insight launched his effort to “take seriously the plant’s point of view” concerning four domesticated species—apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes—that “have spent the last ten thousand or so years figuring out how best to feed, heal, clothe, intoxicate, and otherwise delight us,” (xvi) in order that we propagate them more widely and fully. Once the capacity of these life forms to work upon us is acknowledged, the real fun begins.
Another aspect is that the domus—the core of domestication—is getting more complicated. Not only do microbes outnumber us internally by 9 to 1 (a core fact in multispecies analytics), they colonize our built environments, as well. A fascinating study in Science, based on the Home Microbiome Study, reports that bacteria travel with us from one dwelling to another; settling in while we do the same, and playing crucial roles in keeping more harmful bacteria at bay. Just as “the human” is harder to maintain when we realize we’re 90% bacteria, so too, basic assumptions about domestication crumble when domiciles no longer appear to be strictly human artifacts.
The domus increasingly complicates the ability to delineate between the species we genetically and behaviorally alter and those that evolutionarily adapt to our habitats. This is glimpsed both in how the human past is being rethought and some tantalizing new ethnographies. James Scott depicts domestication as arising in the “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camp,” dense assemblages that combined not just livestock and cereal plants, but attendant birds, obligate weeds, and “a great pilgrimage of rodents, insects, parasites, worms, fungi, bacteria, and so on, all specialized to the complex and, over time, selected to thrive in that niche.” Meanwhile, in Alex Nading’s Mosquito Trails, “houses are very much alive” (2014:99), teaming with life forms such as Ae. aegypti that “do something more than make people sick; they are productive of political and social relationships”(85). Similarly, in Dar es Salaam, Ann Kelly and Javier Lezaun reconfigure domestication in relation to current urbanism: “Considering the city, in its physical and political dimensions, as the domus of human-mosquito cohabitation illuminates the foundational and often unexamined assumption of public health interventions” (2014: 379). Furthermore:
“Our reading of the anthropological notion of domestication helped us chart the paths and scales of multispecies (dis)entanglement: not because the cohabitation of humans and mosquitoes in Dar es Salaam involves taming, appropriation, or control—central themes in the anthropological literature on domestication that are inapplicable to our case—but because the concept draws our attention to the role of a shared built environment—in this case, the city, understood as both urbs and civitas—in shaping human–animal connections.”
But perhaps the most exciting aspect of a revitalized deployment of domestication is the fact that so many other species do it too. Dugongs (Dugong dugon) or sea cows (Sirenia) are herbivores that cultivate and graze specialized seagrass communities. Ambrosia beetles (subfamilies Scolytinae and Platypodinae) are fungiculturists, carving intricate tunnel systems or “galleries” where they raise fungi. Other include the North American marsh periwinkle (Littoraria irrorata), a mollusk that farms salt marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), which harbors an ascomycete fungus, drawn when the snail injures the grass and fertilizes the wound its own nitrogen-rich feces. But these are almost sideshows to the hosts of termites, wasps and ants that domesticate other species. Leafcutter ants not only fertilize fungus, they apply fungicides in the form of antibiotics from their own bodies to limit unwanted life forms. Notably, too, these species all manifest sociality in the form of division of labor, just as was apparently requisite in the rise of agriculture among humans. What could destabilize anthropocentrism more than the recognition domestication allows that we’re not the only species doing it?