Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Cats and agricultural history

Although this forum is a close cousin of Jurisdynamics -- indeed, Agricultural Law is a member of the Jurisdynamics Network -- Agricultural Law can't assume that all of its readers are familiar with the quirks of its slightly older sister weblog. Jurisdynamics' taxon of the week feature, for all we know here at Agricultural Law, is a mystery to our readers. Furthermore, in light of this forum's reference to Hemingway's hexadactyl cats during its beta-testing phase, a brief word on cats seems in order.

A month ago, Jurisdynamics designated Felis silvestris catus, more commonly known as the domesticated cat, as the taxon of the week. The reason is one that everyone interested in agriculture should appreciate.

The story of feline domestication is the story of civilization. Foraging societies have no real use for the cat. But once humans began living in sedentary settlements, they quickly recognized the value of a superb rodent-killing animal with no proclivity of its own (unlike dogs) to eat grains, fruits, or vegetables. As urban landscapes dominate more of the human environment, the cat has become the consummate city pet. Although the number of American households owning dogs exceeds the number owning cats, cats outnumber dogs in absolute terms in the United States. Originally domesticated in support of agrarian society, cats now rule in the twilight of the farm.

Any person living with a cat understands that no cat is ever truly "owned" by a human. Among putatively domesticated animals, the cat is unusually capable of getting by without human asisstance. The saga of human-feline mutualism, which is often non-obligatory on both sides of the relationship, thus offers lessons for game theory. Given how late the mutualistic relationship arose in the shared history of humans and cats, those lessons may shed especially clarifying light on how spontaneous, opportunistic partnerships arise within human society.

The cat depicted here is Sasha. Her tortoiseshell coloring is an expression of the complicated genetics of color in cats. Among other things, being a "tortie" all but guarantees that Sasha is female -- male torties, mosaics in the genetic as well as casual sense, have the feline equivalent of Klinefelter's syndrome -- and that her tortoiseshell coat can't be duplicated through cloning.

Suffice it to say that Sasha is irreplaceable.


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