Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Pat Shipman’s Animal Connection

July 23, 2010

I love that rush of wow! that comes with discovering an exciting journal article about animals, and animal-human bonding.

This week, in reading Pennsylvania State University anthropologist Pat Shipman’s latest work, I got just such a rush. In the August issue of Current Anthropology, Shipman argues that, in addition to the making and using of tools; symbolic behavior including language; and the domestication of other animals, we humans are defined also by what she terms “the animal connection.”

The urge to connect with and care for other species, Shipman writes, “is universal among humans, is capable of powerfully transforming behavior, and is absent or extremely rare among other species.”

The central testable hypothesis at the heart of Shipman’s article is that “human adaptive changes were causally linked to the animal connection.” It all began 2.6 million years ago when our ancestors first processed animal carcasses with stone tools. These early humans would have focused “on the behavior of prey (in order to obtain more food) and that of predators (in order to minimize interference competition),” Shipman writes.

The next stage kicks at around 200,000 years ago when Homo sapiens emerged, and embraces the time period of first art. Here Shipman brings into nice juxtaposition the ancient artists’ proficiency at rendering animals in gorgeous detail and their distinct indifference to landscapes, mountains, water sources, shelters, humans, plants, nuts, fruits, berries, tubers, and even certain animal species (birds and reptiles) as subjects.

Around 40,000 years ago, the next stage begins, and it is characterized by the domestication of animals. Shipman rightly recognizes the “reciprocal” nature of the animal-human transformations that emerged during early domestication, and links them aptly with the tool-making and information-gathering aspects of the two earlier stages.

I have a few quibbles with Shipman’s views:

*To conclude as Shipman does that “animals in experimental situations are capable of fairly sophisticated communication” undersells some superb science on complex communication by wild and captive primates, elephants, and cetaceans.

*The 2.6 million year old start date for the animal connection is arguable. In negotiating African ecosystems that teemed with predators, wouldn’t keen attention to, and tracking of, animals by human ancestors have been adaptive even earlier?

*Mounting evidence suggests that animals played an important role in humans’ emerging spiritual life, for instance in art and burials. At the least, it’s a solid hypothesis deserving of mention.

*I would succumb to academic ego to wish that my work on ape communication, the evolution of human symbolic behavior, or animal-human bonding had been cited by Shipman, but significant omissions do occur in the anthropology of animal-human relating, including works by Tim Ingold and Molly Mullin.

*I know exactly what Shipman means—and doesn’t mean-- when she writes, “Domestic animals are another kind of extra-somatic adaptation or tool that expands the resources humans can exploit.” Still, given current horrors of humans’ treatment of other animals, I blanched a bit at those words tool and exploit.

These suggestions are meant as friendly amendments. Shipman has brought brilliant focus to the long evolutionary history of the animal-human bond, and takes it to a new level by identifying a suite of adaptive human behaviors linked to it.

The Current Anthropology article offers a neat step forward in theorizing about the evolution of human behavior. Sometime in early 2011, Pat Shipman’s book about the animal connection will be published. I plan to be one of its first readers.


  1. July 23, 2010 4:52 PM EDT
    Barbara -
    Thanks for focusing on my paper. We agree on so much that it was a thrill to read your book.

    The paper is a much-condensed version of my idea and the journal insisted on my cutting 1/3 of the original manuscript out, so a few folks did not get the mention they deserved. I agree with you totally about communication among animals in the wild -- that there is a lot of it and it is pretty sophisticated -- but I would not call what nonhuman animals do under natural circumstances "language."

    Another good point you raise is: why wouldn't paying attention to other animals be a benefit all along, to any species? It would. It is simply that when you go from being a prey animal to being a predatory animal (but STILL potential prey) via the short-cut of inventing tools, you change your ecological position dramatically and rather fast (compared to normal evolutionary processes). This means that the pressure to pay attention and focus outward is heightened over what any other animal experiences and you add the danger of interference competition with REAL carnivores on top of looking out for who wants to make you lunch.

    Yes, "tool" and "exploit" are dangerous words, certainly subject to misinterpretation. I hadn't considered that some folks might take my hypothesis as license to behave inhumanely!
    - Pat Shipman
  2. July 23, 2010 5:43 PM EDT
    Pat, thanks for writing in here. I see what you mean, that the transition to becoming predatory makes for a very intense evolutionary selection funnel, if you will. And yes, it is challenging indeed to condense material into a relatively brief journal article; this one is an effective teaser for the forthcoming book.
    - Barbara J. King
  3. November 1, 2011 1:31 PM EDT
    Delicacy or not, "tool" and "exploit" are exactly the correct words for most human-animal relationships post-domestication. We are lucky, I think, that love, care, and respect often colour the human-animal relationship, but when it comes to the crunch, it's the human advantage that takes precedence almost every time.

    One thing I missed in the book (maybe it was there, but if so I missed it) was some guess at least as to where the universal urge in our species to study and keep other species actually derives from. A few other animals regularly tend another species (ants/aphids, for instance) but this trait is rare and limited in scope. Not with us, who keep tamanduas, otters, tarantulas, giraffes and God knows what.

    I have a theory that this urge to keep other species has a couple of roots. One, the mothering behaviour, so extended in our species as to span years and be strongly present even in nullparous females and human males. Two, our strongly developed ability to imitate each other -- so strongly developed that we go on to imitate almost anything. Is there a human child who doesn't know what to do if you ask him to be a horsie or a tree?

    And a lot of that imitation seems to be made possible by our heads full of words. Pre-language, anyone could watch and mimic a horse, but they would be hard pressed to imitate fictional or non-existent people and creatures. But last night was Halloween, and I saw a lot of ghosts and at least one unicorn.

    - Noni Mausa

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.