When does PostNatural History begin?

From an evolutionary perspective, any two species that choose to live in close proximity for long enough are likely already adapting to one another’s presence and co-evolving in some way. Dogs and humans most likely started out their storied affair along these lines, either as informal hunting companions who shared in the benefit of the kill, or as the “self-domesticating” wolves who were less skittish around humans and therefore benefited from food scraps thrown away at the edge of the camp site, or both.

The details of the early stages of the domestication of any species are a bit foggy and are still the subject of spirited debate amongst zooarchaeologists. However, these early stages of co-evolution and proto-domestication are actually not where PostNatural History begins. At this stage of the relationship, these friendlier wolves were still free to come and go, and to have sex and reproduce freely with their only slightly wilder counterparts. As such, they had not yet left the traditional narrative of natural history via natural selection. 

So, is there a beginning? A patient-zero of the PostNatural? Let’s try a thought experiment: If we take any two individuals of the same domesticated species and travel backwards in time to visit their common ancestor, there is a curious thing that happens. We will find it living in some form of captivity: a farm, house, laboratory, or some other “domestic” situation. This truth is embedded in the word itself: the Latin root of the word domestication is domus, the home. The relationship between humans and the domesticated was undoubtedly going on long before, but things seriously changed when they moved in together.

In short, PostNatural History begins with captivity. Regardless of whether an organism is endangered, extinct, or proliferating, it is either captive or it isn’t. Its habitat and reproductive options are either under human control or they are not. When you visit a farm, or a zoo, you know which side of the fence you are on. It matters to you, and it matters to the animal. If an organism is reproducing inside a fenced or caged area or aquatic tank over many generations, this evolutionary selection process will eventually leave a mark—literally in its DNA. Some species appear to have been more willing at the outset to be domesticated than others, but one must at least acknowledge the asymmetry of this relationship. This is where the story of evolution becomes decidedly more anthropocentric, and perhaps not coincidentally it is usually where natural history museums begin to stop paying attention altogether.

The last century has seen not just an acceleration of the old breeding techniques, but a whole panoply of new technological developments that specifically bypass the “natural” biological and hereditary limitations on breeding. In its broadest sense, genetic engineering can be described less by the specific techniques used, and more so by the fact that the results could not be achieved “the old fashioned way.” Despite the assurances of some scientists that, “we have always been engineering the world,” the fact remains that no amount of selective breeding will pass the genes of an orb spider’s silk production into the mammary gland of a goat. There are both qualitative and quantitative differences: Never before have biological traits been readily copy and pasted between distantly related species. Never before have genetic sequences been private property. Never before have the tools of manipulation been at the service of so many different agendas. Never before has evolutionary change happened so quickly, and so globally. 

The Center for PostNatural History has created a framework that unites these categorical differences by dividing the story into four main registers: Captivity, Breeding, Engineering, and Re-Wilding. The first two categories correspond fairly closely to the standard theories of domestication. However, virtually all histories of domestication tend to end with the affordances of selective breeding and animal husbandry, which is a problem. This is where the blind-spot that obscures so much of PostNatural History is the most opaque. 

While the first three phases are necessarily sequential, they do not correspond to historical eras. Captivity necessarily precedes breeding, and breeding precedes engineering. However, all three are continuously happening today. The final category, re-wilding, is what happens after humans let go of the reins—metaphorically or accidentally—and life is allowed to renegotiate these enculturated changes on its own terms.