Outside of ourselves

Why “coevolution” is not an insult


Living beings have interactions, whether they are from the same species or not. Some are plain for all to see (such as the interactions between hunter and prey, just to name one), others less evident (the necessity for oxygen of much of the animal life forms, for example, provided by plants by means of photosynthesis). The very notion of ecosystem is rooted in such an assumption; it is defined as the assemblage of both all living organisms and matter, that interact in a specific environment forming a self-sustaining and balanced system. The domestication of animals by human beings (ignoring the fact that such measures have not been a human exclusive) has been built upon a system of interactions that have, in time, brought upon the selection of traits considered “useful” by means of reproductive management of those specimen that possessed them (while now it continues by direct identification and potential manipulation of the same traits at a genetic level). The history of Homo Sapiens is, as such, as much about Homo Sapiens as it is of those other life forms that have walked side by side with it through time.


Just like that, the notion of coevolution comes into the picture. It can be either antagonistic (such as in the case of the already mentioned interactions between hunter and prey, seen as the focus would be to constantly outmaneuver the opponent and either get food or escape effectively) or mutualistic (where different individuals adapt to be reciprocally advantageous, ending up in a cooperation of sorts), and it obviously includes Homo Sapiens as a species. The phenomenon of coevolution is also what allows us to understand and justify the process of domestication of some types of animals by some distant ancestor of modern-day humans as something different from a rational and calculated decision. It is somewhat unlikely that some hominid “chose” to utilize the ancestors of dogs to reach whatever objective at hand. It is far more plausible to assume that a first contact simply happened by chance, and that only at a later date (and in a manner similarly defined by chance), such interaction begun to stabilize in something that was advantageous for both parties.


Where mutualistic coevolution allows us to acknowledge and justify (at least at the level of conjectures) the first steps of animal domestication by humankind, it also offers the chance to peek at a starting point for the interactions within the ancestors of humankind itself. Those skills required to interact with animals (be they humans or not) are themselves a matter of biological evolution and as such it is possible to assume they developed in conjunction, progressively enhancing our perception of the intentions of others (be it a dog or another person). Homo Sapiens is descendant from a line of extinct primates, originally frugivores; when paired with the absence of traits common to carnivores predator, this piece of information allows us to hypothesize that the consumption of meat came at a later date and as an integration to a diet originally composed only of vegetables. The first steps on such a path may have been the consumption of carcasses, while active predation may have come at a later stage and been made possible by the production of instruments and weapons (in order to compensate the limited offensive options of the hunters) as well as the development of the skills require to coordinate group efforts.


In his recent book Umani e animali: questioni di etica (Roma, Carocci editore, ottobre 2016), Simone Pollo (professor of Bioethics at La Sapienza Università di Roma) states that those abilities that allow, to name a single example, players on the same team to coordinate their efforts are likely the same (or a more complex descendant of those same abilities) that helped out our ancestors in hunting down preys. By the same token, the insight that allows us to understand when it is better to avoid bothering some angry dog we just encountered (and the very fact we are able to recognize it as angry, in fact) is likely what made it possible to our ancestors to grasp the intentions of their prey and anticipate its movements and actions (Pollo S., Umani e animali: questioni di etica, pp. 21-22). Furthermore, it is possible that same set of skills did not represent an evolutionary dead end but rather a foundation that made possible further enhancement of various other aspects of life considered inherently “human”, such as the development of language. Since different points of view on humanity exist, some of which would count it as separate (and in some manner even superior, either by right of birth or historical and evolutionary contingencies) from the rest of the animal world, it is necessary to keep in mind that animals have inhabited and keep inhabiting our culture in multiple and various ways. They have been protagonists of the first expressions of art as we know it, and it is their visage that the first representations of divinity have assumed as well as having played a major role in fairytales and narrations we tell our young (Pollo S., Umani e animali: questioni di etica, pp. 23-24). It is as such somewhat difficult, then, to recognize to humanity’s ancestors alone the merit (if we even wish to call it that way) to have carried us where we are now, and to have made us what we are.

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