Animal interface: the generosity of domestication

Nigel Clark, ‘Animal interface: the generosity of domestication’, pp.49-70 [not this version], in:

Cassidy, R., Mullin, M.H., Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (Eds.), 2007. Where the wild things are now: domestication reconsidered, Wenner-Gren international symposium series. Berg, Oxford; New York.


Market-driven pressures to minimize inputs and maximize outputs of animal bodies have led to increasingly industrialized agricultural practices in which technologies of control and modification are applied to ever more intimate aspects of biological being.

One way of looking at domestication is to see it as a shortening and tightening of nutrient cycles: an imposition of `efficiency’ that seeks to exclude links in the food chain that come between human consumers and those living things they wish to consume (De Landa, 1997: 08). Viewed in this way, domestication appears as an anticipation or prototype of the kind of `economic’ logic that is a definitive feature of the era we call `modernity’.

There are many ways of defining what it is to be `modern’, but to put it simply we might say that it is a way of thinking and doing that likes to know its goals, and sets out to attain them in the most efficient and speedy manner.


It is to apply a calculus to life and labour such that the value of all things can be known and the costs or benefits of any action discerned – preferably in advance.

Much has been said about the way that the modern quest for order, clarity and mastery has undone itself; how it has generated new forms of mess, confusion and insecurity. It is becoming apparent that `economies’ that seek to cycle inputs into outputs with greater speed and tighter control often confound their own logic.

Mishaps such as nuclear meltdowns, chemical spills and atmospheric carbon build-up are characterised by ‘creeping, galloping and overlapping despoliation’ which confer on our era a new and frightening profile of endangerment (Beck, 1995: 109).

In the ‘runaway’ or ‘undelimitable’ event depicted by risk theorists the linear relationship of cause and effect is derailed: something enters the equation that was not accounted for, something leaves the circuit that was unanticipated.

Some philosophers and social theorists have found much to affirm amidst the goings-on that exceed the realms of calculativity and knowing. They find in the shadow of our projects other ways of being and doing that are not – cannot ever be – fully encompassed by the dominant ‘economic’ logic.

If breakdowns or outbreaks ensure things don’t always go according to plan, so too can breachings, ruptures or collisions help change us and our world, especially when we look further afield than the kinds of high-tech accidents that garner so much media and critical attention.


It is not simply that we are being called upon to crash through the closed circuits of knowledge production or capital accumulation with extravagant gestures of altruism. It is as much that we learn to see and acknowledge the relations of giving and taking, caring and being cared for, hosting and visiting that are always already at play in the more official economies we partake in.

The field of animal domestication, I want to suggest, offers fertile ground for exploring the give and take, the eating and absorption, that links different kinds of bodies.

In particular, the willingness of researchers in the field of animal domestication to consider at once behavioural and somatic shifts, intended and unintentional transformations, and changes in humans as well as other animals promises much for a conversation with philosophers of ‘corporeal generosity’ [Rosalyn Diprose, 2002].

Any opening between bodies is always, to some degree, unpredictable, which can make it next to impossible separate out a risk from a potentiality. This means, as Derrida notes, that it may be difficult to distinguish giving from taking, or to tell a guest from a ‘parasite’ (2000: 59). Where the encounter is between different species, as we will see, such undecideables or uncertainties may be at their extreme.


My bringing together of the theme of animal domestication with the concept of giving or generosity has its origins in an engagement with a certain kind of overrunning of borders, a specific form of excessiveness, which might at first glance seem a rather perverse point of departure.

The fate of plant and animal introductions, and sometimes the very motivation for introducing species from other regions, is one of the more striking ways that that actual practices of exploration and colonisation contravened the whole idea of laying down a ‘grid of intelligibility’ [Foucault].

The disorderliness, indeed contrariness, of the practice of species introduction appears especially pronounced in the event of domesticates which are released, or ‘overrun the border’ of containment of their own volition, and turn ‘feral’.


[…] my encounters with the unruliness of introduced animal life on the colonial periphery drew me into the longer and broader history of domestication, with an eye to the constitutive role played by deviations, accidents and irruptions.

Moreover, my sense that a ‘restricted’ economic vision fails to account significant aspects of the interface of humans with other animals – and between other animals themselves – has prompted an exploration of others ways of conceiving of ‘transactions’ between species.

Alongside what is often a rather crude and narrow expression of economic interest, tales of the biophysical transformation of the colonial periphery hint at alternative motivations or sensibilities. For a start, some early animal introductions seem to have been initially perceived as a kind of gift – whether to later settlers or to existing inhabitants.

Such anecdotes might well be taken as an anthropomorphising of our fellow creatures. But other readings are possible, once we are prepared to accept that the dividing line between the ‘human’ and other animals is a blurry and contingent one.

The turbulent, messy conditions of the colonial periphery that I have been speaking about may offer clues to vital moments in the ‘animal interface’ that are harder to follow in regions of more established agricultural regimes.

In this section, I want to pursue the idea, in a more general sense, of domestication as an unrestricted or other-than-rational economy. My intention is not so much to discredit the notion of more calculating economies, as to help loosen their hold on the western imagination.

The problem with viewing human interaction in this way, critics have noted, is not only that it has a tendency to subsume all the activities and processes present in the modern world into a singular logic, but also that it projects itself onto social worlds outside the sphere of western modernity.

Even more tellingly, there has been frequent recourse to the model of a restricted economy to explain the workings of the biophysical world. Nature, too, comes to be construed as a realm of scarcity and limitation, where resources circulate without excess or remainder, every input is carefully recycled, and nothing is squandered.


The study of animal and plant domestication is one amongst many fields in which questions of utility and need have been prominent. This is hardly surprising, given the extent to which famine and malnutrition have stalked our species, and the undeniable evidence that agriculture can support many more people per square mile than hunting and gathering.

While it may be some time since scholars have espoused theories of the ascendance of a calculating and motivated `rational man’ (see Ingold, 2000: 27, 63), we might still discern the traces the restricted economic imagination in the theorisation of domesticatory practices. Both Sandor Bökönyi and Juliet Clutton-Brock’s oft-cited definitions of animal domestication, for example, foreground human control or mastery of animals in the interests of profit (see Russell 2002: 287, Clutton-Brock 1994: 26).

Alongside the question of how, and for whom domestication ‘works’, however, there is a growing willingness to acknowledge that significant moments in the wider field of domestication exceed such evaluations.


Speaking more generally about a disposition toward animals that he believes can be found wherever humans associate closely with other species, Tim Ingold extends this sense of an affective relationship.

The acknowledgement of the importance of emotive ties between humans and animal domesticates takes a leap forward in Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto (2003).

But the broader point she makes about the communion between different species extends beyond the dog-human attachment. The’otherness’ of species not our own, in this sense, is not taken to be a barrier to affective relations, but is seen as a foundation for ethical and emotional relating.

While Haraway also points to the advantages and drawbacks of the association with `significant other’ animals, it is precisely her move away from the necessity of such accounting that seems most provocative. As she would have it, to enter into a close relationship with another species is to open a network of unknowable and immeasurable outcomes.


Like it or not, every body relies on the generosity of other bodies, not only in the sense of what is corporeally bequeathed by parents and forebears, but also through that which is taken on by processes of imitation, or incorporated through the material transactions we have with others. We are what we ingest, absorb or appropriate, in other words.

A social life that encompasses domesticated animals, in this light, can be seen to rest more primordially on a kind of mutual dispossession than on the possession of animals by human actors; a letting go of customary precautions and boundary maintenance on the part of each participating species.

While Levinas reserved his concerns for the inter-human realm, his considerations on the significance of the ‘caress’, as opposed to the act of grasping or seizing, invite extension to the human encounter with animal others.

While he concedes that animals suffer, and that the ethical should extend to all living beings, Levinas is nevertheless circumspective. The significance of the suffering we witness on the face of the other invites a conversation: an opening he is reluctant to extend beyond the potential for dialogue of our own species:

“The human face is completely different and only afterwards do we discover the face of an animal” (Levinas cited in Llewelyn 1991: 65).

On this count, Llewelyn is not convinced. Downplaying Levinas’s stress on speech, he argues that the face of an animal can appeal to us, even call us into question.

Taking his `reanimation’ of Levinas in the direction of political ecology, Llewlelyn concludes by pointing to our responsibility to preserve the conditions for the flourishing of other beings – an obligation which for him encompasses both domesticated and free-ranging creatures (1991: 254-5).


Alphonso Lingis proposes that we humans acquire many of our gestures, postures and desires through communion with animals. And it is not simply, nor even primarily, our glimpses of charismatic free-living fauna that has such affect, so much as the ongoing and intimate exchanges we have with more familiar creatures.

It is broadly agreed amongst scholars in anthropology and animal science that there is a set of characteristics found in domesticated mammals which helps distinguish them from free-ranging counterparts. Such changes include loss of skeletal robustness, shortening of the muzzle or facial region, and retention of juvenile behaviours into adulthood (Leach, 2003: 349).

What has frequently been passed over in this context, as Helen Leach (2003) has recently noted, is that animal domesticates are not alone in such bodily modifications.


Leach directs our attention to the parallel between the somatic transformations observed in the archaeozoological record of animals // going through the early phases of domestication, and changes noted in human morphology over corresponding periods – pointing to the shared shift from robustness to gracility which is especially evident in the face and head.


From the perspective of an `economy’ of corporeal generosity this raises the prospect that by `giving’ shelter and protection to other animals humans precipitated bodily transformations shared with these other species, changes that could not have been intended or anticipated.

But there is an even more provocative sense in which we might draw a connection between convergent human-domesticate evolution and the generous, receptive attitude to others affirmed in the work of Levinas, Lingis, Diprose and fellow ethical philosophers. As Leach points out, a number of the transformations she investigates – including ‘cranio-facial’ reduction and general loss of robustness – have been linked to the phenomenon of neotony or paedomorphosis – which entails the retention into adulthood of certain features associated with juvenility (2003: 354).

Evidence suggests that these morphological changes are related to non-aggressive and tolerant behaviour, which are likewise characteristic of immature animals. This conclusion is supported by Belyaev and Trut’s account of a silver fox domestication project which aimed for docility and tolerance of humans but unexpectedly produced accompanying cranio-facial reductions (Leach 2003: 354-5).

While the connection between neotony and domestication remains uncertain, and indeed contentious (see Price 1998: 49), it raises intriguing possibilities for drawing together the question of animals `lending’ themselves to domestication and the issue of the openness of humans to closer bonds with other species.

For as Konrad Lorenz proposes, humans too display some familiar neotonic characteristics:

I am convinced that man owes the life-long persistence of his constitutive curiosity and explorative playfulness to a partial neoteny which is indubitably a consequence of domestication (cited in Grandin and Deesing 1998: 20).


Fluctuating environmental conditions, Budiansky reminds us, favour life forms that can vacate and colonize ecological niches rapidly: which is to say species that are adaptable and opportunistic (1999: 73-5).

Having observed the behaviour of animals, both domestic and free-ranging, as they confronted unfamiliar objects or conditions, Guthrie-Smith concluded: ‘Curiosity is by no means confined to humanity’ (1999: 304).

This is the scenario illustrated in their hypothetical hunter-meets-wolf cub tale, though it might be added that canid and hominid might best be seen as selecting each other – given that the individuals of both species seem endowed with exceptional fearlessness and inquisitiveness.

This is the scenario illustrated in their hypothetical hunter-meets-wolf cub tale, though it might be added that canid and hominid might best be seen as selecting each other – given that the individuals of both species seem endowed with exceptional fearlessness and inquisitiveness.

Taken as a precondition of domestication, then, it is not so much the genetic predisposition for placidity and homeliness that appear pivotal, but an openness and receptivity to `otherness’.

And though it undoubtedly rests on a too literal reading of Levinas, it is tempting also to reflect on the primacy of the face, and the resultant accentuation of the eyes, in the morphological shifting linked to neotenic non-aggression. But what we might say, with more confidence, is that the give and take between heterogeneous species exceeds any sense of deliberation or planning: contributing to bodily and behavioural changes with a utility that can only ever be grasped in retrospect.


I have been suggesting that a certain strand in western philosophy concerned with excessiveness and its expression in the act of giving might be brought into convergence with the archaeological and biological inquiry into the emergence of animal domestication.

But there is a sense in which ‘gifts’ and ‘generosity’ are loaded terms, importing an everyday connotation of beneficence that does not always sit comfortably in this context.

“Corporeal generosity”, as Diprose puts it, “is writing in blood that says this body carries a trace of the other” (2002: 195). And in this way she reminds us that giving is always risky, that the offering or receiving of a gift, by virtue of the potentiality it conveys, is inevitably a kind of rupture or violation.

The word ‘gift’, Marcel Mauss noted, shares the meaning of poison in the Germanic languages, a reminder that the favoured present for the ancient Germans was alcoholic (1997: 30). In the annals of close human-animal association, however, it is not poisons but pathogens which manifest the dark underside of the generous encounter.

Pathogens, we might say, play on the terrain of the exorbitant: they are the gift that keeps on giving. Where there is intimacy, there will be microscopic life to-ing and fro-ing between partners, and where the parties themselves happen not to be conspecifics there is an opportunity for micro-organisms to move permanently across species boundaries (see Garrett, 1995: 572-9).

In a more general sense, it is the agglomeration of human and animal populations that provides the conditions for contagious diseases to take hold. Such social animals as cows, sheep and pigs would already have been reservoirs of pathogens prior to domestication; settled agriculture providing the density of hosts – both human and domesticate – to evolve and sustain diseases (Diamond 1998: 205-6).


Across Eurasia, human populations gradually came to terms with the diseases they had exchanged with their livestock, an accommodation achieved through the costly selective pressure of successive plagues over thousands of years.

Indeed, evolution – our own as much as that of any other species – is partially propelled by infectious micro-organisms.


Just as a generous or hospitable relationship between animal others is premised on a withholding of violence, so too does a lasting host-pathogen association depend on the way bacteria, in the words of biologist Joshua Lederberg ‘withhold their virulence’ (2004: 55). For a pathogen to survive, it must avoid too rapidly destroying its host, and in this regard it is in the interests of both species to evolve towards mutual tolerance.

Whether we take this metaphorically or literally as a domesticatory relationship, it is a cogent reminder that the larger organisms who enter into the association we more typically call ‘domestication’ are always already the outcome of ‘generous’ encounters: exchanges at once generative and deadly.

The idea of an embodied generosity hinging on the susceptibility of living beings to the `affect’ of other bodies helps turn our attention to the open-endedness of interspecies relations. It reminds us that the adaptability and creativity of living things is not simply an attribute of life in the `wild’, and neither is it a capacity that has been entirely appropriated and overwritten by human technological practices.

If taken literally, the idea of a generous and generative ‘animal interface’ – for all that it may implicate differentiated species – would seem to imply at least a modicum of shared physiological, neurological and limbic faculties.

Then again, the rich mutual responsiveness of microbial life and larger organisms suggests that there are ways of communicating that do not depend on anything remotely approximating a common sensory system.

The ability of a virus – barely even complex or sensate enough to qualify as `living’ – to `read’ a host’s bodily makeup well enough to confound its immunological system and to appropriate it’s mechanisms of cellular reproduction – together with the host’s ability to develop novel immunological defences to an uninvited microscopic visitor – hints at just how multilayered `recognition’ can be.


In this regard, then, the concept of an embodied generosity seems to offer a way of holding open, at once, danger and possibility, the threat of destruction and the chance of generativity. If the animal life we depend upon, not to mention our own ‘animal lives’, is the outcome of such generosities, then, along with our fears, we have a lot to be grateful for. How to express that gratitude while continuing to satisfy our appetites remains a challenge with an open and endless horizon.