Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age / The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication, The
The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age. By Harriet Ritvo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987. viii+347 PP. Illustrations, notes, index. Paper, $18.95.
The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication. By Stephen Budiansky. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992, reprinted 1999. xxiii+190 pp. With a new preface. Reference list, index. Paper, $14.95. Growing interest among environmental historians in the relations between humans and domesticated animals invites attention to two older works on this topic.
Harriet Ritvo's The Animal Estate uses human-animal relations as an analytical framework. Ritvo argues that animal-related discourses in eighteenth and nineteenth century England revealed Victorian concern with social dominance. Not only did taxonomies of animals reflect social and cultural beliefs, but animals were sites where issues of social status, discipline and empire could be contested and resolved. Ritvo opens with a theoretical essay focused on the changing taxonomies of animals in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She then analyzes concerns with status, social discipline, and empire using the rhetorical structures of pedigree stockbreeding, pet-keeping and showing, the humane movement, the campaign against rabies, zoos and menageries, and big game hunting. In each case she demonstrates the ways in which animals produced and reinforced the boundaries between social classes and racial groups. Prize cattle breeding reinforced the traditional hierarchies of rural society, while in the cities, elaborate structures of dog and cat shows and breed associations reflected the fluidity and insecurity of social status. Humane legislation was used to define and control working and lower class behavior, and the debates over vivisection and rabies revealed a divide between humane and scientific discourses that simultaneously reinforced and undermined class unity and control. British imperialism was re-enacted in zoological gardens where the lower classes could participate vicariously in imperial conquest and racial superiority, while the changing practices of big game hunting reflected the change from conquest to administration of exotic animals and peoples. Each of these topics is worthy of book-length treatment, but by bringing them together Ritvo blurs distinctions between domesticated and wild animals, livestock and pets, animal welfare and animal research, or native and exotic animals, and reveals a larger pattern of power relations at work in English society. This is a book of impressive scholarship and conceptual daring.
Stephen Budiansky's The Covenant of the Wild points to the opening of a new sub-field focused on human-animal relations. Though he frames The Covenant of the Wild as an attack on a loosely-defined "animal rights" movement, his larger purpose is to change the popular understanding of domestication as being either a heroic act of human triumph over nature or a tragic act of human domination of nature. Budiansky describes domestication as a process of co-evolution between humans and animals that was both biological and historical. At the end of the Pleistocene, rapid climatic changes brought humans and animals into close proximity, and favored animals that were the animal equivalent of weeds-"opportunists," or adaptive generalists. These animals gradually moved into human society, exchanging attributes of "wildness" for food and protection. Noting that domesticated animals resemble the young of their wild ancestors and relations in appearance and behavior, Budiansky suggests that "a rapidly changing environment created a natural selective pressure that favored neoteny" (p.tot), or the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood. Humans would have selected (and been more able to control) animals with neotenic variations because they were more tractable. According to Budiansky, so-called "artificial" selection by humans was anything but. Furthermore, the relatively small numbers of domesticated animals indicates that domestication was not an inexorable occurrence, but involved a high failure rate. Domestication did not violate nature, disrupt evolution, or enslave animals, but was itself evolutionary. Budiansky reminds us that evolution is an impersonal process of change, the purpose of which is selection for fitness and the ability to propagate. From an evolutionary perspective, the rights or desires ascribed to individual animals are irrelevant. Though Budiansky can be as breezy and reductive as the animal rights movement he criticizes, nevertheless The Covenant of the Wild presents a clear explanation of evolution, natural selection, and domestication, and a compelling argument for rethinking definitions of nature.
In The Animal Estate, Ritvo uses methods of intellectual and cultural history to examine ideas about animals and symbolic uses of animals. However, she moves beyond these approaches to locate human-animal relations at the center of English social and cultural identity. Budiansky turns to the paradigms of evolutionary biology to argue that a "covenant" between humans and animals was an integral part of evolutionary history. Both books elide distinctions between nature and human society, wild and domesticated animals, and natural and artificial selection that have governed discussions of human-animal relations until now. These books break new ground by showing that animal-human relations are neither peripheral nor ephemeral concerns but central to an accurate understanding of the historical process. Both challenge the declension narrative that long dominated the writing of environmental history, and replace it with more complex and nuanced narratives.
However, these books also demonstrate some of the difficulties in writing about animals as historical actors. Both books are as much about humans as they are about animals. Ritvo's "creatures" are abstractions that reveal the power structures among the English rather than animals with material presence. And though Budiansky describes animals as actors, he treats them categorically as "domesticated animals" and uses dogs for most of his examples. As environmental historians attempt to bring animals back into history, the challenge will be to put animals at the center of analysis in order to understand how their biological nature and requirements affect surrounding social and physical environments.
Ann Greene, a doctoral candidate at the University ofPennsylvania, is completing her dissertation, "Harnessing Power: Horses and Technology in 19th c. America."