By Juliana Adelman
At the risk of boring those of you who are not already on your holidays, I thought I would offer a few thoughts on changing ideas of historical actors. To get straight to the point: are dogs the new working classes? The idea of history from below reaching beyond the human species is not especially radical in ‘animal studies’ circles. Nevertheless, I am guessing that most historians would be reluctant to embrace the idea that a nonhuman animal be treated as a historical actor with agency. I would tend to agree, even as a person who studies the history of animals and who rather likes dogs.
There are some compelling reasons to consider animals as actors and as having some kind of agency. For starters we are animals and we don’t really quite understand what it is about us that is so different from other animals. Genetically, it amounts to very little. So far scientists have found a very small number of uniquely human genes (discovered by Aoife McLysaght’s laboratory in TCD). In terms of intelligence, we are aware that other animals are highly intelligent and have sophisticated means of communication. As I noted in a different post, dolphins have recently been dubbed ‘nonhuman persons’ because of their intellectual capacity (as defined by humans). There is, however, the minor matter of not leaving written records.
Various historians of human-animal relationships have tried to demonstrate animal agency by suggesting how the behaviour of animals might have altered the behaviour of humans. It is true that the needs of animals that humans rely on can lead to social and economic changes. For example, the requirements of urban horses for fresh food created a farming industry to feed them. The manure they created then necessitated road scavenging to collect their waste. Their physical limitations (especially pulling carriages up hill) set standards for road building. Katherine C. Grier’s book Pets in America begins to suggest how pets might have played a role in changing the emotional states and needs of their owners. Certainly she manages to demonstrate the complex economies that have developed around American pet ownership.
Nevertheless, the links between all of these scenarios is not animals but people. Our reliance on animals and animal products places certain limitations on us to which we must respond. One needs only to think of the recent crises over BSE and foot and mouth disease to see that this story is continuing and will continue far into the future. Can the animals be said to force this response? I’m not even sure this question is worth answering. It seems to me that we have enough to think about when we try to account for how human society has been affected by its reliance on animals.
This ramble was inspired by a thoughtful reader’s report on my book proposal. The reader suggested that I ought to be thinking of what the history of human-animal interactions might have to say about the intersection between history and evolution. Can we see, in historical time, evidence for the coevolution of humans with other species? What would history look like if we viewed it from an ecological perspective as the story of how our species manages to continue its domination of particular environments? Perhaps instead of uniquely intelligent beings functioning in a complex society of our own devising we are simply a means of exponentially increasing the planet’s population of dogs.