The Covenant of the Wild

THE COVENANT OF THE WILD grew out of a cover story that Stephen Budiansky wrote for U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT in March, It provides a rational framework for understanding the relationship between man and domesticated animals that challenges the impassioned beliefs of animal rights activists. Budiansky’s premise is that man and animals together are subject to forces in nature that are far more powerful than any willful attempt by one species to subjugate another. His book, which includes a reference list of more than eighty items, cites archeological, anthropological, and biological evidence that the domestication of certain species is the result of evolutionary processes that have benefitted domestic animals as much as man.

Budiansky describes the climatic and environmental changes that set the stage for domestication, which happened simultaneously worldwide. He provides evidence that domestication, like the development of agriculture, was a gradual process and not a revolutionary idea. He also describes the mechanisms by which domestication may have taken place, centering on the phenomenon of neoteny, a characteristic of domesticated animals wherein juvenile traits, such as docility, are sustained throughout the life span of the animal.

Budiansky is a science writer, not a scientist, so his book is good reading as well as informative. It is thought-provoking, challenging some commonly accepted ideas, such as the notion that agriculture was an advancement over hunting and gathering. In this glimpse into the vast complexity of the natural world, Budiansky arrives at more enlightened reasons for respecting animals than the simple moral choices apparent to animal rights activists. His tone is generally not polemical, though his criticisms of animal rights activists are impatient at times—he points out that the industrialized society they malign has allowed them to make a living writing books and making television appearances instead of “running around the forest grubbing for tubers.” The book presents a refreshing view of nature as an ever-changing process of which man is one of the current elements, not as a romanticized Garden of Eden that man, apart from nature, is destroying.