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The Domestication Spectrum: How Our Relationships With Plants and Animals Define Our Existence

by Kyle Chamberlain, The Human Habitat Project

Our bonds with other species are as vital, to survival, as our bonds with other people. If we don’t choose our company carefully, disaster is likely to ensue.

As a species, we should be shopping for the best relationships. There’s a lot a stake, and we don’t want to be abused or neglected. When searching for a good fit, we should keep in mind the following characteristics of good relationships.

Healthy Relationships Are:

  • Supportive
  • Stable
  • Trustworthy
  • Reciprocating
  • Versatile
  • Low Maintenance

Any signs of abusiveness, jealousy, extreme neediness, aloofness, instability, selfishness, should be bright red flags. To satiate our needs, we require an assortment of healthy relationships, from lovers and close friends, to co-workers and acquaintances. We know that too few or too many relationships can be a bad thing.

The most conspicuous relationships of the human species involve domesticated plants and animals. Our common pets, and almost all the food items in a grocery store, are domesticated organisms. These are the barnyard plants and animals we learn about from the moment we begin to talk.

But these creatures were not always domestic. All of them descend from wild ancestors, just as dogs descended from wolves. In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond provides an excellent overview of domestication’s history. The domestication of food plants and animals was the basis of the Neolithic Revolution, when Old Word hunter/gatherers became farmers. Diamond make a good point: the reason we domesticated wolves and wheat, instead of moose, zebras, or cheetahs, is because wolves and wheat had a natural tendency to associate with people.

Wolves, for instance, probably first encountered people while scavenging meat scraps from hunting camps. Since wolves and people where both social hunters at that time, and since both species had something to gain from cooperation (increased hunting success), it was highly likely that a relationship would form.

It was the same way with plants like wheat, which probably thrived in man made disturbances before it was domesticated. Out of this relationship people gained food, and wheat gained habitat. Moose, zebras, and cheetahs don’t associate with people, if they can help it, and don’t have much to gain from a relationship.

When examining the planet’s organisms, we find a whole spectrum of tendencies for associating with people. On one side, we have animals like spotted owls and arboreal salamanders, who have very different needs from people. They want little to do with us, because we have nothing to offer them. Endangered species are likely to occupy this side of the spectrum, because, as we modify their habitat to suite us, it becomes less suitable to them.

In the middle of the spectrum are organisms that have needs and habitats similar to ours. Deer for instance, were not abundant in Western Washington State, until people began clearing the old growth forest to suite their needs. While this activity seriously threatened the spotted owl, deer thrived in the fields and thick re-growth that resulted. Similarly, apple trees have a habit of sprouting up in disturbed forests around human settlements. Since people like to eat deer and apples, this is a happy relationship, and both parties have something to gain. But an important distinction is that these species do not absolutely need us. Deer and wild apples would do fine without human help, perhaps making use of natural burn areas. (Read Northwest Lands Northwest Peoples, edited by Goble and Hirt.)

At the far end of the spectrum are organisms that need humans to survive. Corn is an excellent example. In the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan pointed out that without human intervention, corn could not even reseed itself. Helplessly, corn relies completely on people for it’s propagation. Corn is so needy, it can only survive by rewarding the humans who plant it with prodigious amounts of food. Through the hybridization and genetic modification of corn and other domestic organisms, we make them still more dependent on us. If humans quit supporting them, these organisms would cease to exist.

The Domestication Spectrum:

The most domesticated organisms in the spectrum reward us with the greatest quantities of food, but it comes a cost. Anyone who’s noticed the luxurious lifestyle of some pet dogs has witnessed that cost. I am referring to the frightening phenomenon of co-domestication.

Sure, dogs keep us company, they intimidate thieves, and they fetch the paper. But these same dogs enjoy a constant supply of free food and the freedom to sleep the entire day, while their owners slave away at full time jobs. Who has domesticated whom? This article (PDF) sheds light on how powerfully canines have shaped our species, not just vice versa.

All domestic organisms are the same way. They give more because they need more. The reason they can yield so much more than their wild counterparts is that they have differed the work of their upkeep to us. As much as we have domesticated them, they have domesticated us. We do their bidding, even when it becomes painful.

But do we want to be domesticated? Jared Diamond demonstrated that such relationships have been a primary vector for pandemic diseases throughout history. Almost every plague can be traced back to a domestic animal, even the more recent "swine flu". Domesticated animals also develop much smaller brains than their wild counterparts. Neoteny, or juvenilization, is a common trait exhibited by domesticates, a phenomenon by which adult animals retain the traits of juveniles, becoming helpless, cute, dumb, and compliant. This process can happen in as little as fifty years, as demonstrated by Dmitri Belyaev’s experiment in domesticating the silver fox. The idea that humans have been similarly tamed is a chilling one. (See for effects of domestication.)

Have our co-domesticates made lap dogs out of us? Consider that most of the calories you consume come from just four crops. Consider that most of the carbon that comprises your body was fixed by corn. Or take a drive through Middle America and see it stretch to the horizon; corn, corn, corn, corn…. Or better yet, visit the Gulf of Mexico’s vast "dead zone" where all the fertilizer washed from the Mississippi’s corn and soybean fields accumulates, and becomes a patch of lifeless reeking sea as broad as Massachusetts. (

Who is in charge here? Whose greed is ravishing the planet? Is it the Exxon? Is it George W. Bush? Is it Wal-Mart?!

No. It’s corn. Corn is in charge.

People are conceited enough to believe that we are the cause of this nightmare. But if our species was really in control, the world would look a lot differently. However greedy we may be, it was never in our interest to pollute and overpopulate the planet, dine on high fructose corn syrup, work long hours plowing up the soil, and cover every arable acre with wheat, rice, and corn. This is, however, very much in the interest of corn.

The human/grain relationship is the definition of unhealthy. Of all the plants we could have loved, we’ve chosen the ones that destroy our home and feed us junk. This is abusive. If we had any spine at all, we’d ditch them forever.

As a species, it’s time we had a talk with crops like corn. What we ought to be saying is, "Look Corn, things started out alright between us. I remember when we first got together in Mexico, we hung out with Beans and Squash, we made tortillas together, it was beautiful. But things aren’t the same anymore. Corn, you’ve been so draining lately. I’ve taken you everywhere and given you everything; land, water, fertilizer, herbicide, even genetic modifications – do you have any idea how many prairies and watersheds I sacrificed? I butchered the nitrogen cycle for you! And what do I have to show for it?! Corn-syrup! Lousy corn fed beef! Diabetes and heart disease! That’s what I have to show for it! And if it was up to you, I’d never have anything else. A person can’t live on cornflakes alone! Corn, I’m an omnivore, I need variety, adventure, and Omega 3 fatty acids. I don’t mind having corn on the cob now and then, but corn syrup on every label? You’re even in my gasoline! I can’t go on like this. You’re jealously is insane! This relationship isn’t working for me anymore. I think it’s time I saw other species."

What would it mean, to divorce ourselves from our co-domesticates?

A healthier relationship with our food might resemble our hunter/gatherer past, when we utilized a greater diversity of plants and animals in our diet. Hunter/gatherers across the world eat somewhere in the ballpark of 200 different plant species. We are omnivores, descended from a long line of omnivores. Even our chimpanzee cousins eat about 200 plant species. Primate intelligence may have evolved, in part, to facilitate such an eclectic diet. Ethnobotanists estimate that indigenous people from my home region, the Columbia Plateau, utilized at least 135 plants for food. When we consider how many non-native plants are available to us, as the result of global exchange, it does not seem unreasonable to demand a 300-plant diet. This is not to mention animal foods, which lag not far behind plants in hunter/gatherer diets, in terms of number of species eaten. The markets of the undeveloped world are a tantalizing example of just how much culinary variety we miss out on in the industrialized world. Broadening the scope of our menu would certainly improve our health and the health of the planet.

A healthier relationship with food might also look a little more independent. By eating from a wider swath of the domestication spectrum, and avoiding the extremes, we could spare ourselves internal and external damages. For instance, most of the vegetable greens consumed by modern Americans come from domesticated crops grown in intensively managed fields, which is totally absurd. There is no shortage of wild greens growing in our waste places, even in urban settings. Commonly overlooked "weeds" such as nettles, lambs quarter, amaranth, purslane, etc. are higher in vitamin and mineral content than their domestic counterparts, and thrive with zero maintenance. Many of these taste as good, or better, than domesticated greens (see They are more than abundant enough to meet the vitamin and mineral needs of everyone. If we incorporated these semi-wild plants in our diets, we would waste less money and energy, and preserve our integrity as low-maintenance omnivores. Instead, most of us continue to be trapped by our bias toward tame, high-maintenance things.

Few societies are as irrational as ours in this regard. Most of the world’s other cultures have realized that while some foods are worth the effort to cultivate, others are best harvested from the wild. The hunter/gatherer Indian cultures of the Northwest were happy to adopt domestic species like chickens, potatoes, and turnips. It was no stretch. After all, they had been gardening tobacco for a very long time. But almost nothing could stop them from harvesting huckleberries, or wild salmon. Only our culture would build the Grand Coulee Dam, thus terminating a free and abundant supply of wild salmon, in order to irrigate potatoes. Most long-established agricultural societies derive a significant part of their diet from the wild. Farming corn did not keep early American societies from dining on venison and nuts as well.

Sea food, the one wild harvest industry our society wasn’t so squeamish about, is rapidly being replaced by high-maintenance fish farms, and other forms of aquaculture. On the whole, the industrial world has done a very poor job of striking a balance between low and high maintenance sustenance strategies. Indeed, we seem to have an uncanny tendency toward the latter extreme. Why? Why would we go to so much trouble? Perhaps it is because, as any government employee can tell you, make-work can be profitable (the Grand Coulee Dam makes another pertinent example). But this is an entirely different topic, perhaps better covered by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine.

If you’re like me, make-work isn’t your forte. You’ve got better things to do than labor for things nature offers for free. You may also like the idea of moving your diet toward the healthy norm – two or three hundred plant species. Find out more about increasing the diversity of your habitat at:


  1. What a fine essay! Captivating and intriguing… This topic has been on my mind as of late. I recently received a copy of The Botany of Desire (PBS documentary) and have been thinking, perhaps what’s happening now is that we really are realizing that our relationships are extremely dysfunctional and perhaps corn has become a predator to humans and the habitats that sustain us… for the long run. Many are looking to gardens, perennial foods and foraging. It seems that a shift is happening and a small number of us are letting more healthy relationships come into our lives. I know that Castanea and I have fallen in love…

  2. What you say is true, and I love the metaphor of a romantic relationship for our relationships with domesticated and semi-domesticated species – but have you considered the reasons why we got into such codependent relationships inthe first place? Why did our fling with corn turn serious, and why are we starting to encourage salmon to be as emotionally needy as wheat is?

    It’s not because we want that kind of relationship, obviously. We want healthy relationships with a variety of species. But with seven billion people on the planet, all of them clamouring either to get or to keep an unsustainable westernised lifestyle, there are just too many of us, and our needs are too large, to use even a modernised pseudo-hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

    If we work on a relationship with the semi-wild greens that you mention as a species, rather than on a very small scale as a few individuals, how will we make sure that we don’t simply denude all the ‘waste’ land of these plants and destroy them? If one child picks a wildflower, that’s not a problem, but if every single child picked a wildflower, there would be no more flowers.

    Intensive farming of domesticated species is a logical way of making sure we have enough for everyone, including enough to re-seed the plant for next year. It may not be a good thing, but until we can reduce our own neediness – ie. reduce our population – to levels that can be sustained without intensive farming and associated codomestication, we can’t hope to fix the relationship. And any new relationships we start without fixing that underlying problem, falling in love with Moringa or Castanea or any other lovely species, will simply start falling into the same old patterns and bad habits once the relationship gets serious.

    I’m sorry, corn, I know you’re trying. It really isn’t you, it’s me..

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