Monday, October 25, 2010

When your only tool is a hammer…

There is a certain level of symbiotic adaptation required with even the most simple of tools.  Anyone who has ever developed calluses from using a shovel or hayfork understands how a specific tool can leave its mark.  I have a permanent bump on the last joint of the middle finger of my writing hand that embodies decades of pushing pens and pencils.  Some tools necessitate less visible but more severe adaptations.  Think of the uncountable cognitive adaptations required to use modern communication technology.  And even the skilled operation of a primitive stone knife or axe involves permanent neuromuscular adaptation on the part of the operator. 

My point is that tool use changes the person using the tool.  In cases of simple tool use, the changes are usually benign and perhaps even beneficial (e.g., by increasing muscular strength or overall coordination).  But adaptation to some tools can have far-reaching negative ramifications.

Consider domestication.

In terms of its long-term impact on the human species—and the rest of the planet—domestication is easily the most dangerous and malignant tool ever devised.  And it’s not just the obvious material consequences that make domestication so dangerous.  Domestication changes how we think about who we are. 

Although this applies equally to plant domestication, it is perhaps more obvious with animals.  For foraging hunter-gatherers, there is often an underlying respect and reverence for other wild creatures.  That reverence is lost when the animals are caged and corralled and raised to be driven and milked and butchered.  Intelligent quarry becomes a dumb animal.  The difference is reflected in our metaphoric use of animals in everyday language.  Domestic animals are invariably linked with derisive adjectives: fat cow, dirty pig, mindless sheep, chicken (coward).  Contrast that with the clever fox, the wise owl, the majestic lion, and the graceful deer.

But the conceptual consequences of domestication go far deeper than mere metaphor.  The historic transition from wild-hunted to pastured to CAFO maps on directly to the transition from foraging band to agricultural village to modern megalopolis—from free being to land-bound laborer to mindless corporate wage-slave. 

Tools designed for one set of functions are quite frequently re-appropriated and applied to others.  In this way, domestication provides a conceptual template that is readily applied to the human social world, yielding a rich source for the dehumanization of any group of individuals who serve as potential obstacles to the goals of those in power. 

Perhaps most insidious of all is the ease with which we direct this tool to ourselves.  As individuals, we learn very young to apply the template of domestication to our own thoughts and actions.  Participation in modern society demands that we have the wilderness in our DNA firmly caged.   

No comments:

Post a Comment