The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes us Human

  • Pat Shipman
W. W. Norton: 2011. 336 pp. $26.95, £20 9780393070545 | ISBN: 978-0-3930-7054-5

In The Animal Connection, palaeoanthropologist Pat Shipman describes how humans have been connected with animals for the past 2.6 million years, and how this relationship distinguishes us from other animals. She argues that the evolution of human behaviour was driven by this connection in three stages: toolmaking, language and domestication of animals and plants. But Shipman's book is more a review of what has long been known than the “New Perspective” promised by its subtitle.

Domesticated 32,000 years ago, dogs remain central to many societies, including the Inuit. Credit: W. R. BILENDUKE/GETTY

Shipman starts by outlining the characteristics that separate the fossil hominin Ardipithecus ramidus — found in Ethiopia and dated to around 4.2 million years ago — from other primates. Continuing on through the australopithecines, she describes how, from 2.6 million years ago, “Hominids transformed rocks into stone tools and stone tools transformed hominids from bipedal apes that are [sic] basically herbivorous into predators”. This was the beginning of the animal connection, accompanying the evolution of Homo erectus and its expansion out of Africa.

Shipman goes on to discuss the evolution of human language, the origin of symbolism and the theory of mind. She proposes that language followed from the need for humans to communicate animal-related information in their quest for food. Language “allowed humans to talk about animals and in time, with animals”, she says.

Towards the end of the Pleistocene, around 32,000 years ago, came the first domestic dogs. The cultivation of plants and the domestication of livestock in many parts of the world followed in the early Holocene. Shipman describes what is known about this process, including arguments around the outdated view that the primary motive for domestication was the provision of meat. She also explores 'self-domestication' — the theory that, from scavenging around human settlements, wild animals gradually became habituated, were selected for tameness, and over generations became domesticated. Shipman outlines the distinction of true domestication from taming as “the permanence of the change in the wild animal”. Yet she misses what I believe is the essence of why humans relate so readily to animals, which is supported by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in her book on the evolution of hominins as cooperative breeders, Mothers and Others (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Humans, Blaffer Hrdy says, alone among the great apes, readily nurture each other's children. Without this help, few children in hunter-gatherer societies would survive to adulthood. There are many examples of hunter-gatherers extending the shared care of their infants to the adoption of young animals. So the human desire to enfold other species within our societies may be explained as having evolved from the combined instincts for nurture and domination.

I believe that the inborn human desire to nurture children and animals was followed by the domestication of dogs, and all the livestock animals whose social behaviour allowed it, in hunter-gatherer societies that were under pressure in the early Holocene from population growth and climate change. Shipman describes the conventional theory that domestication follows from the selection by humans of favoured attributes. I see the process as more complicated and in two parts: biological and cultural.

It is now accepted that some wild animals have cultures, that is, the inheritance of learned behaviour. With taming, an animal is brought into a protected place where it learns a new set of social relationships, as well as new feeding and reproductive strategies. Biological domestication is complete only when this 'culture' becomes heritable.

Shipman ends with the conviction that the ancient, innate connection between humans and animals is grossly underestimated in today's urban landscape. I see little evidence for this. Despite the inexorable spread of megacities and factory farms, the connection with both domestic and wild animals still occupies the minds and lives of innumerable people around the world.