Domestication Now!

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?

34 thoughts on “Domestication Now!

  1. Isn’t ‘domestication’ itself a loaded concept? It is but one mode of interspecies interaction, and does not even exhaust human relationships with a single species – such as the pigeon (see Jerolmack’s ‘The Global Pigeon’).
    As to the Anthropocene, as I tweeted (partly in jest) to Kerim the other day, if you want to be cutting edge, you go for the Cthulhucene. Donna Haraway has been thinking about how human, machines, other species, work together for quite a while now, and why Anthropocene & Capitalocene both need to leave room for Cthulhu –

  2. loaded with assumptions sure but it’s a key term that’s worth resignifying. Few interesting terms are innocent, and it’s valuable because it can be used across species lines–as in, we’re not the only species who does it, so how does our understanding of it shift when we exactly consider this wide genre of interspecies activity. Cthulhucene looks fun but a challenge to pronounce. thanks!

  3. Just don’t tell the likes of Monsanto about these non-human forms of domestication! They don’t need any more justification for their “totalitarian agriculture” than they already have. Global “food” conglomerates aside, you have some great thoughts here, and some good points of departure for further investigation of domestication / subordination in the larger animal kingdom: something I have longed to look into more deeply. Thanks!

  4. Humans are not 90% bacteria; this is a myth. Moreover, plants haven’t been trying to do anything at all for tens of thousands of years, not in any meaningful sense of that phrase. Plants have certain attributes; what they do not have is the ability to ratiocinate. If their attributes cause them to be propagated widely, this isn’t because of the plants’ having thought of the best strategy to enable this. Domestication is complex and obviously the properties of the plants and animals involved are key, but only truly foolish people – or tailors of invisible cloth – could see in plants’ properties the desire to be domesticated, except in a purely metaphorical sense.

  5. As the work of Bruno Latour makes clear, the status of any scientific fact or claim is contingent on assembling allies and agents who will attest to its durability and relevance. That said, the 90% claim is in reference to the quantity of cells in the human body, not its entire physiological mass (mostly water).
    On the matter of plant intelligence, this is a surging topic of investigation, summarized well by Michael Pollan (New Yorker, 12/23/13: ) but also see Daniel Chamovitz’s What A Plant Knows ( ). However, plant ratiocination isn’t necessary to justify a more nuanced view of the interspecies dynamics we call domestication. Indeed, my suggestion that we look to examples of other species that engage in domestication is exactly oriented to undermine the anthropocentric conceits we bring to assertions about this dynamic. “Intelligence” seems hardly requisite and may well be overstated. What is certainly a myth is that humans had some clear “idea” of what we were doing in the early stages of domestication–such as the narrative whereby some intrepid human crawled to the back of a cave and dragged out a wolf pup with the idea that it could be tamed and hence we came to have dogs.

  6. Latour is a charlatan. There is no reason to take into account anything he says.

    With regard to plant intelligence, even if plants could be deemed intelligent in some sense, it is prima facie absurd to suggest that plants have developed long term strategies for their interactions with humans. To suggest such a thing is tantamount to Sheldrakeism or Chopraism. It’s unbelievable that there are such currents in the academy, although it is heartening to know that many public supporters of Latour et al are willing to express their doubts in private.

  7. “Sheldrakeism”!! Haha, fighting words in some parts, friend. The point here is not whether plants are intelligent; rather, to de-emphasize intelligence altogether in discussions of domestication, since it’s at the crux of anthropocentric accounts of this dynamic. Thanks

  8. But discussions of domestication are obviously going to be anthropocentric. Domestication is a human thing; it involves other organisms and their properties, but it chiefly involves humans changing and altering them. No, humans are not free to alter the different species according to their whims – but domestication is nonetheless something humans do to plants and animals; the plants, at least, are not complicit in it. They do not have sufficient agency to decide to be domesticated or not, so it’s moot whether the process ends up benefiting certain plants in the long term or not. I see no reason to question this at this point.

  9. the last point in my post is that plenty of other species domesticate others–it’s not just humans who do it. This can shift our understanding of is doing what to whom.

  10. “it is prima facie absurd to suggest that plants have developed long term strategies for their interactions with humans.”

    It isn’t at all clear that humans had any long term strategies in their interactions with dogs, cats or corn. Or that if they did, those plans panned out. I suppose it depends on what you mean by long term. There are several species that became part of our social life without our particularly intending them to do so, and some which have adapted to our adaptations as it were. (Which is partly what leads me to see the concept of ‘domestication’ as overly limiting). Intentionality may not be a very good guide to an understanding of how those relationships evolved, or of ongoing interactions.

    “Latour is a charlatan. There is no reason to take into account anything he says.”

    I would put a little water in Bricmont’s wine. Latour has said a few silly things in his time (what professor has not?), but he’s also been an acute observer of scientific practice – or so the scientists themselves agreed. In any case, what John Hartigan quotes him as saying here is a fairly standard picture in both the philosophy and sociology of science. It may be wrong, but I don’t think you can Podsnap it away quite so easily.

  11. The funny thing on Latour: I referenced him to allow the “90% bacteria” claim can be seen as an artifact…a little more interesting than “myth”

  12. I didn’t mean, ‘Latour is a charlatan, therefore that is wrong’. I meant, ‘Latour is a charlatan, so his saying something doesn’t lend any weight to it’.

    Let’s take something like maize – something domesticated so completely it has taken years and years to understand the route by which its proposed wild ancestor was modified. Did the maize have some idea of what was happening? Was the maize self-aware, with a strategy at each step? The humans had plans: They might not have been long-term plans for the domestication of the plant and changes to its structure, but they were plans aimed at making life easier and better nourished.

    The ancestral maize plants were passive in every conceivable way. They did not act. They do not and did not have knowledge and they didn’t act on the basis of beliefs. They were and are acted on by people.

    Why is it that trendy and original ideas in anthropology involve denying fundamental characteristics of human beings, the ostensible subject matter of the discipline? Why is it, moreover, that they involve the denial of self-evident things?

  13. You cannot do an ethnography of maize: Maize is not a person.

    Plants cannot think like humans can, they don’t have beliefs like humans do, and they don’t have mental states on which to base their actions like humans have. They are not active agents in processes like domestication. They are entirely passive, and if their attributes make them better suited to being domesticated than other individual plants, this is a fluke of genetics and not down to planning on the plant’s part.

    I find it impossible to believe that you, and Bruno Latour, and Donna Haraway, are serious in what you are saying. It is prima facie absurd, and at second and third sight too. Only the desperate need for originality and novelty over fact and reason could lead you down this path.

    I would suggest reading an apparently rather astute theorist of human behaviour: Hans Christian Andersen.

  14. “Why is it that trendy and original ideas in anthropology involve denying fundamental characteristics of human beings, the ostensible subject matter of the discipline? Why is it, moreover, that they involve the denial of self-evident things?”

    Perhaps because many things which once seemed self-evident no longer seem obvious. Once seemingly clear distinctions like mind vs body turn out to have a thousand shades of grey.

    That doesn’t mean that differences can’t be accounted for. Consider as a possible useful analogy the difference between black and white and greyscale images. Which is more accurate? Which employs better science?

  15. “What could destabilize anthropocentrism more than the recognition domestication allows that we’re not the only species doing it?”

    This is a fact that is well known to anyone who has bothered to actually read what are often very old articles in sociobiology. Anyone who has taken a single introductory seminar in biological anthropology (at least in my four-field anthropology program) develops an understanding of this very old information.

    In many ways, West is correct, but I will only list one of those ways in which he is correct: The human species is somehow different from other organisms.
    I mean, come on, an ethnography of Corn?

    In another sense, McCreery is also correct: We once understood certain characteristics to be exclusively human (e.g., tool use); however, our current understanding of comparative behavior is of such that we no longer consider this to be the case.

    Yet, we know that this is how science works: Our understanding of the world advances given various breakthroughs in technology, observation etc.

  16. “Ethnography of corn.” An interesting idea. Let’s bracket for the moment the assumption that ethnography can only be done with humans because only humans can tell us how they think and feel about things. What, then, would an ethnography of corn entail? Perhaps a study of the interactions of corn with other species in some place where it is grown.

    My mind drifts back to growing up in southeastern Virginia on what was then a place in the country on which my family planted a large, at least an acre of vegetable garden. Sweet corn was one of our crops, delicious fresh out of the field and frozen in large quantities for consumption during the winter. In school I was taught that the Native Americans (we called them Indians) who once lived where we now did planted corn in individual hills with beans and squashes and fertilized by fish inserted into the hills with the corn seeds. My father plowed and harrowed the field with our tractor. The seeds were purchased from the Burpee catalogue []. The corn was then planted in rows separate from those in which the eggplants, tomatoes, beans, cantaloupes and watermelons were grown. Chemical fertilizer was used. I recall spending many long days with a hoe in the corn rows, fighting the crabgrass and other weeds that threatened the crop. There was also predation to be considered. Deer, raccoons, birds and worms also liked the taste of corn. Taste may not have been involved, but smut was another common threat.

    The Pollan gambit inverts this egocentric trip down memory lane by adopting the corn’s perspective. What does it reveal? Are there fresh insights here? Where will they be found?

  17. Perhaps because many things which once seemed self-evident no longer seem obvious. Once seemingly clear distinctions like mind vs body turn out to have a thousand shades of grey.

    When did mind/body seem like a clear distinction? Surely a long time ago – before Phineas Gage and his railroad spike. It’s more or less obvious now that the ‘mind’ must at the very least supervene on the body, that there is no ‘mind’ independent of the body.

    Claiming that consciousness is an amorphous force of the universe and that even dust motes are conscious – that would be an absurdity of a similar kind to the claims of Pollan et al. The fact that plants don’t develop long term strategies for interacting with humans is self-evident, and that’s not because we’re all blinkered. It’s self-evident because there’s no reason to think that it’s wrong.

    Maize can’t think. You can’t do an ethnography of maize. The only mechanism I can see that would allow for this is the same mechanism that operates widely in continental thought and the social sciences: the emperor’s new clothes. No one wants to look stupid or lacking in insight, everyone wants to get ahead at court.

    And just as no one in Andersen’s story (there are older versions, btw) argued with the little boy about whether or not the clothes were real, so no continental theory enthusiast will argue about this stuff, not really. There’s never any push back. Just retreat, safe in the knowledge that few in the academy will want to argue about it.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to maintain an absolute distinction between humans and other non-human organisms – tool use, language, etc, are not unique to humans. But that doesn’t mean that plants can think or that because something is alive it has some kind of agency equivalent to that of a human. At the very least, humans have much more highly developed versions of traits found in other species, and human selective modification of plants and animals is different to dugongs grazing on sea grass. Cultivation isn’t the same as domestication.

    Moreover, domestication almost never happens to only one species in a human context. It’s something humans can think about, process, analogise – and suddenly they start domesticating more than one plant or animal. It’s not haphazard. It’s humans doing stuff to plants, and generally humans doing stuff to animals too. Plants aren’t the ones with the strategies.

  18. Well, I actually did an ethnography of maize. Sure, it’s a massive species (genomically & agriculturally), but the same conceit holds with ethnography on humans: that you can take a place-based sample of a species and have it be representative. For that matter, maize is an excellent cipher for place-based dynamics, as many plants are. It started out as an ethnography of plant geneticists, but then I realized I was more interested in what’s happening w/ the species rather than what’s going on in the heads of the scientists. And I disagree: thinking subjects aren’t requisite for ethnography. We’ve over-valorized internal subjective spaces as the target point for cultural analysis. There’s more to culture than what’s going on in peoples’ minds. The last chapter of this ethnography—which should be finished by the end of the year—is “How to Interview a Plant” and details the steps involved in engaging such nonhumans as ethnographic subjects. Here’s a preview:

  19. Let me get this straight: Anthropology is the science of humanity. One of the discipline’s methods is ethnography. You are applying this method to study corn.

    You are less interested in studying plant geneticists than you are in a plant. This is fine. There are many people who study plants.

    From what I gathered then is it safe to conclude that what you are doing is not anthropology? You might be best suited to directly engage with botanists because they dedicate themselves to studying plants.

  20. I’m using ethnographic methods and I doing cultural analysis, so it’s definitely anthropology, which I take to be the science of culture, which, in turn, is not exclusive to humans (see my post, “nonhuman cultures”). We’ve drawn too narrow a view of anthropology, considering it only to be about “Man”—that limited version has been critiqued for some time now. “Culture” is metaphorically extended to humans roughly 500 years ago. Much prior to that, “cultivation” was developed as a means to talk about the multispecies relations entailed with plants like maize; we lose all that when we equate it only w/ subjective states/meaning. So in studying the cultivation of maize, I’m very much doing an anthropological project. What we bring to such accounts that differ from those of natural scientists will have to be the subject of another post. But as far as botanists, yes, I’m going that too, in Spain.

  21. May I suggest an amendment: “We lose all that when we equate [culture] only w/ subjective states and meaning w/subjective states.”

    The reduction of anthropology to labored translations of what we think we are hearing when the people whose lives we study speak to us in languages of which we mostly have only a feeble grasp has been a disaster, leading to what I have labeled “ethnographic involution,” a process analogous to that described by Clifford Geertz in his book Agricultural Involution</>.

    In that book Geertz describes Javanese peasants investing more and more intense labor in smaller and smaller rice paddies as their population increases and becoming poorer in the process. Today we see cultural anthropologists investing more and more intense labor in smaller and smaller research whose results are of little or no interest to anyone who lacks a particular interest in the peoples whose cultures they study–and becoming poorer in the process.

    When anthropology, in the classic American four-field sense, included archeology, physical anthropology and linguistics as well as social or cultural anthropology, it was common for anthropologists to work with data for which there were no living informants to tell us what it meant to them and, in the case of linguistics, to ask questions that no informant not trained as a linguist could answer for us. We were forced, then, to consider what our findings might imply in the broadest possible context, the natural history of humanity as a whole. The ideas we came up with were of interest to all sorts of people because they articulated unexpected aspects of our shared humanity from surprising points of view.

    Today’s cultural anthropology appears to be focused on translating what a handful of people have to say, when what they have to say is, perhaps our fault in the way we present it, largely composed of familiar cliches. Why should anyone who doesn’t have a personal interest in the same handful of people who shared their lives with the ethnographer care what we say that they said to us?

    Think about it.

    NOTE: I can easily imagine readers who will be upset, unhappy, outraged that I dare to say such things. I may be going too far in making these claims. Fear not. I have a thick skin. I am old and have no academic career to pursue. I wil never serve on your hiring or tenure committee. I would be delighted to have them proved wrong.

  22. I think that, at this point, AJWest13 can continue a conversation with maize and get more intelligent responses.

  23. And I disagree: thinking subjects aren’t requisite for ethnography.


    There was a time when ethnographers justified separating anthropology from ‘science’ on the grounds that humans, as clever agents capable of thinking about and rationalising their acts, are qualitatively different from, say, corn, which can’t do those things. You cannot do an ethnography of a plant.

    It’s the same reason that we don’t see books written about the poems of pineapples or the symphonies of dandelions or the scientific investigations undertaken by crabgrass. There may not be an absolute distinction between humans and plants or whatever else you like, but the fact is that dandelions don’t compose symphonies. It would be inappropriate for a musicologist to claim to be doing a musicological study of dandelion-Beethoven.

    It is likewise inappropriate for an anthropologist to claim to be doing an ‘ethnography of corn’.

    I don’t think the emperor’s new clothes mechanism is sufficient to explain what you’re doing. There’s also the sunk cost fallacy to take into account. I suppose you’ve invested significant time and energy in this pursuit; it must be tempting to keep throwing good money after bad. I suggest cutting your losses.

  24. Let me start with a proposition. West is a metaphysician, Hartigan is a scientist. Like other metaphysicisns, West is adamant that he knows the Truth, what in some eternal, essential sense such things as ethnography, science, and mind MUST BE. He will defend his distinctions to the death. His anxieties are evident in appeal to “appropriateness,” as if what is appropriate could be prescribed, and in red herrings like the claim that dandelions do not write symphonies. Neither do Navajos. In contrast Hartigan is a scientist, still figuring out perhaps just what his problem is and how it might best be tackled. He has the scientist’s habit of looking at what other people take to be obvious and looking for the unexpected. He can write, as he does in another post in this series,

    This also reflects shifting sensibilities among researchers, that what we observe other species doing is not a matter of anthropocentric projection but rather a fairly accurate perception of homologous activities.

    Which brings us to a serious question about the possibility of doing an ethnography of maize. It needs to be spelled out a bit more clearly how “ethnography of maize” implies activities perceptibly homologus with those involved in ethnography of humans. That answer may not yet be fully developed. That, however, is no reason to rule out any possible answer. If it were, we would have no science at all.

  25. Hartigan is a scientist

    Remember: he’s doing an ‘ethnography of maize’, and endorses the notion that humans and plants are co-equal partners in the plants’ domestication, which they aren’t, unless you’re happy with the idea that some ancestral maize plants (eg) voluntary died in order to promote other kinds of maize that humans would find more productive. Or, well, unless you’re happy with the idea that maize can voluntarily do anything. Which it can’t. It’s a plant.

    That answer may not yet be fully developed. That, however, is no reason to rule out any possible answer.

    I’m not ruling out every possible answer. I just see no reason to believe that maize had a strategy with its interactions with humans; I’m not ruling it a priori, I merely see no reason whatsoever to believe it. I see no reason to believe that maize decided to be domesticated in any way at all. I see no reason to look at domestication by ignoring human intention, beliefs, and desires. No reason has been provided for any of this; it’s just been stated to be the latest thing, the new thing, the revolutionary thing that overturns our previous understanding. That’s not sufficient.

    Neither do Navajos.


    Strictly speaking only the librettist is Navajo, but the point is: Navajo people could write symphonies if they wanted to, whereas dandelions couldn’t even want to. Because people are one thing, plants are another. There may be shades of grey in between, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make some pretty important distinctions between things.

  26. I am skeptical about an “ethnography of” an entity. But I do accept that serious analytic work can come from closely tracing certain items. This is not a new approach to discussing history, cultural change, and society. For example, in 1940, Fernando Ortiz Fernandez wrote Cuban Counterpoint, Tobacco and Sugar in which he described the socioeconomic basis of the emergence of the Cuban state by tracing two of its most historically important commodities–this analytic move granted him the ability to both discuss population decline (Amerindian) and displacement (European & African slaves) and also what he called “transculturation,” which was in effect the mutual effects of culture contact on populations. By tracing the two aforementioned entities across time and space, Ortiz highlighted the particular practices associated with their production and consumption. Often these differences displayed how an entity, such as tobacco, could be used nearly exclusively among certain groups, Amerindians, for group ritual purposes and among others, Europeans, for personal leisure. Or how Sugar cane labor would in turn produce rum.

    The question then that comes to my mind is if Professor Hartigan is employing a similar approach?

  27. Has Hartigan actually endorsed the propositions that

    Humans and maize are coequal partners, or
    Maize has a strategy?

    I may have missed something, but in nothing I have read by Hartigan, or for that matter Latour, have I seen anything that would support these claims. And human life as I know it frequently includes unequal partners and rarely includes strategists. Most of us are just bumbling along. Why shouldn’t our interactions with other species be seen in the same light?

    A careful reading of Hartigan suggests to me that what he is up to is pushing the boundaries of conventional thinking about ethnography and he is conscious of what he is doing. Will he succeed? We don’t know yet. Should we say,”You can’t do that” because it violates current conventional wisdom? Remember Galileo? Remember Darwin?

  28. Ok, trying to catch up here on the last round of comments: the ethnographic work I’ve undertaken with maize and in several botanical gardens in Spain over the last four years aims at extending cultural analysis through engaging an array of nonhumans. With maize, I applied Foucault’s concept of “care of the self” to the selfing of maize in greenhouses and experimental fields —it’s not anthropomorphizing; any organism maintaining homeostasis has a self. I’m not suggesting it amounts to a “person” (bearing rights/obligations, though the question of whether a species can be a person is an interesting on (see Carrithers et al, 2011: ) The process by which care of the self easily extends across species lines brings me to theorize “care of the species”, which is the title of the manuscript that I aim to finish this year and that will be published by University of Minnesota Press. You’ll have to be patient on the details, but it develops via a focus on the sexual history of maize, its racial identities, and its powerful capacity to present an account of place-based dynamics, which I take to be central concern of ethnography. As for the cultural aspect here, please see my detailed account in Aesop’s Anthropology; the gist is that “culture” is metaphorically applied to humans; it begins with plants and soil and their interactions with humans (what we call domestication)—more on all this in my following posts on “nonhuman cultures.” But the crux of all this is, I’m more interested in what’s happening with the species than I am in what plant scientists think about (ideologically) as they’re working with maize. This is a significant shift in ethnographic practice, hence my stance that this is an ethnography of maize. And it’s not the kind of analysis that botanists or taxonomists or plant geneticists would generate—to account for the dynamics of cultivation, you need an anthropologist.
    On specific comments: johnmccreery, I couldn’t agree more; I love the idea of “ethnographic involutions” and your critique of the narrowing of this analytical space. And yes, lump me in with the “science” side of the discipline; I’m happy over there.
    TNT: thanks for the tip on Cuban Counterpoint. I’ll have to read it before I have an answer for your question, but I do appreciate the suggestions—sounds quite relevant.

  29. And PS: no I did not say maize/humans are “co-equal” partners. I and many others are questioning the way we figure causal arrows, intention, and intelligence in characterizing domestication–a subject which, given the array of nonhumans who also practice it, needs to be rendered in less anthropocentric terms.

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