In this issue, Linda Kohanov emphasizes the importance of caring and collaborative behavior in nature by sharing an extended excerpt from her upcoming book. In Chapter One: Evolution of Power, she summarizes and expands upon scientific and cultural research that may very well blow your mind, including a long-suppressed theory on mutual aid as a factor of evolution, and why animals we consider “domesticated” may actually have gentled and domesticated us. The author also explores common misconceptions about horses as “prey animals” and humans as “predators,” arguing that “this colorful yet simplistic interpretation of the horse-human relationship encourages experienced and amateur riders alike to ignore the daily reality of what both species are capable of.”
“I’m excited to this share this pre-publication version of Chapter One from The Five Roles of a Master Herder because if offers an optimistic vision of our future—if we’re willing to take some important cues from nature,” Linda says. “Multi-disciplinary research reveals the heart of evolution by showing that caring for others (beyond parenting direct offspring) is not a human invention. I hope that people will share this chapter with friends, colleagues and family members to diffuse unnecessarily pessimistic, mechanistic views of ‘the struggle for survival.’ A pattern for renewal and mutual support already exists in nature—if we’re willing to open our minds and our hearts to the benevolence of the human-animal bond.”
While Linda is hard at work finishing the final chapters of The Five Roles of a Master Herder, she also has a few spaces left in two fall workshops. For information, see Harnessing the Invisible and Black Horse Wisdom by clicking on the titles.
Evolution of Power
from The Five Roles of a Master Herder
Like many people, I’ve long appreciated the peace and renewal that nature offers. But I’ll never forget the day I first glimpsed the benevolence, and highly adaptive intelligence, of the human-animal bond.
In the mid-1990s, I was boarding my horses at a rustic private facility located next to a large desert preserve. While I enjoyed exploring the trails with my experienced cow horse Noche, I also looked forward to quality time with Rasa, who couldn’t be ridden because of a chronic leg injury. Increasingly, the saddle collected dust as I took long walks with my night-haired companion, letting her roam off lead to nibble the dry, nut-flavored grasses as we meandered through a vast, primal landscape. Occasionally, I would also invite my year-old, mixed breed dog Nala to accompany us, hoping she would soon develop the ability to override her more aggressive instincts and protect, rather than chase, the horses.
Rasa was well suited to assisting me in this task. While other herd members would charge off at a gallop when Nala raced after them, the black mare would trot a few steps and slow down to a walk, shaking her mane in protest, kicking out slightly in warning, but never making contact. Her restraint with Nala seemed intentional: Many times, I had seen Rasa run coyotes out of her pasture, though her actions also had a playful quality to them, as if herding small predators was a hobby she adopted for her own amusement.
One evening just as the sun was slipping below the horizon, the three of us were heading home after a relaxing, uneventful hike. Suddenly, Nala crouched down slightly, narrowed her eyes and growled. Rasa raised her head and stared in the same direction. Moments later, announced by the sound of rustling leaves and snapping branches, a small yet imposing herd of cattle emerged from a nearby mesquite grove. I wasn’t sure if the animals were merely curious or potentially dangerous, but I couldn’t help focusing on their impressive horns as one of the larger females began to walk toward us with several others falling in formation behind.
At nearly 80 pounds, Nala was not a small dog. Even so, she turned tail, ran straight to me, and huddled against my legs for support, looking up as if to say, “What should we do now?” My only possible herding tool—Rasa’s lead rope—dangled from my shoulder. Just as I was considering whether to stand my ground or carefully walk away, the black horse pinned her ears and lunged toward this rangy bovine contingent. The cows lowered their heads, backed up in synchrony, and turned away. Then, just for good measure, Rasa trotted back and forth in an arc, as if she were drawing a curving line in the sand, creating a protective bubble around Nala and me that was clearly not to be crossed.
I was astonished. Noche was the seasoned cow horse, not Rasa. If anything, I would have expected my dog to rush at the cattle as the mare ran home. For weeks afterward, my brain worked overtime, combining and recombining the “facts” I had learned about the “drama of survival.” Ultimately, I was less confused by Nala’s reticence to attack than why an herbivore, and a slightly lame one at that, would defend us both.
It took me 20 years to collect research capable of shedding some light on this event. (As in the case of emotional and social intelligence, pivotal studies on animal behavior that seem so obvious now simply weren’t available in the 1990s.) Slowly, bits and pieces of the puzzle were revealed through multiple disciplines, infusing my writing with lots of questions and, thankfully over time, a growing list of answers that eventually allowed me to discern some useful patterns.
In this chapter, I summarize and expand upon the most relevant theories and examples presented in my previous books—ideas that in some cases challenge our most treasured, tenacious views about nature while foreshadowing a more balanced, mutually supportive approach to power. In the process, we’ll revisit long-held misconceptions about the instinctual behaviors, emotional vitality and intellectual capacity of all animals, including the talented, sometimes overly aggressive species known as homo sapiens.
Most people are familiar with Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Related research by Peter Alekseevich Kropotkin, however, has virtually gone underground. The Russian geographer and naturalist published Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution in 1902. Over the next 50 years, the book was rejected, in some cases actively suppressed, by royalty, fascists, capitalists, and communists alike. Based on a collection of essays and magazine articles he wrote in the late-1800s, Kropotkin’s observations of supportive social behavior in nature struck some corporate and political leaders as “dangerous.” In fact, even before Mutual Aid made it into bookstores, Kropotkin was obliged to put his keen, insightful intellect to other uses, namely figuring out how to escape from jail.
The czarist era Russian nobleman hadn’t intended to cause so much trouble. Born a prince (though he rejected that title at age 14), he had significant connections and resources to draw upon. When Darwin’s book On the Origin of the Species appeared in 1859, Kropotkin was inspired to contribute to the scientific literature on this topic. Commandeering a group of ten Cossacks and fifty horses, he trotted off to Siberia, hoping to gather case studies to support and further define the intricacies of evolution. But soon enough, he was confused and disillusioned by what he saw—or perhaps more specifically, by what he didn’t see.
“I failed to find — although I was eagerly looking for it — that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution,” Kropotkin wrote on the very first page of Mutual Aid.
He was even more disturbed by the fast-growing relationship between Darwinism and sociology, emphasizing that he “could agree with none of the works and pamphlets that had been written upon this important subject. They all endeavored to prove that Man, owing to his higher intelligence and knowledge, may mitigate the harshness of the struggle for life between men; but they all recognized at the same time that the struggle for the means of existence, of
every animal against all its congeners, and of every man against all other men, was ‘a law of Nature.’”
In Kropotkin’s experience, this potentially destructive view “lacked confirmation from direct observation.” By then, he had witnessed significant instances of mutual support and competition avoidance in the vast numbers of animals he encountered in the Siberian outback. Bears hibernating, squirrels storing nuts for the winter, and herds of large herbivores languidly migrating were the most obvious examples, but Kropotkin also noticed an even more profound theme emerging.
“The first thing which strikes us is the overwhelming numerical predominance of social species over those few carnivores which do not associate,” he wrote, later adding that on the “great plateau of Central Asia we find herds of wild horses, wild donkeys, wild camels, and wild sheep. All these mammals live in societies and nations sometimes numbering hundreds of thousands of individuals, although now, after three centuries of gunpowder civilization, we find but the debris of the immense aggregations of the old. How trifling, in comparison with them, are the numbers of the carnivores! And how false, therefore, is the view of those who speak of the animal world as if nothing were to be seen in it but lions and hyenas plunging their bleeding teeth into the flesh of their victims! One might as well imagine that the whole of human life is nothing but a succession of war massacres.”
Kropotkin insisted that mutual aid is not an exception to the rule; it is a law of nature. Supportive behavior, he wrote, “enables the feeblest of insects, the feeblest birds, and the feeblest mammals to resist, or to protect themselves from the most terrible birds and beasts of prey; it permits longevity; it enables the species to rear its progeny with the least waste of energy and to maintain its numbers albeit a very slow birthrate; it enables the gregarious animals to migrate in search of new abodes. Therefore, while fully admitting that force, swiftness, protective colors, cunningness, and endurance to hunger and cold, which are mentioned by Darwin and Wallace, are so many qualities making the individual, or the species, the fittest under certain circumstances, we maintain that under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life.”
Kropotkin’s view of evolution subsequently moved him to social activism, though in this context his ideas were a bit too revolutionary. To find so many incidents of mutual aid and nonpredatory behavior in the animal kingdom was one thing. To become a vocal anarchist as a result of these observations was quite another. While some of his discoveries won him worldwide recognition as a geographer, he subsequently took on a decidedly subversive mission, disguising himself as a traveling peasant lecturer named Borodin to spread nature-inspired visions of social reform, encouraging peaceful collectives of free, empowered people living in decentralized systems. After landing in a Russian prison as a result of these antics, he continued to promote his ideas throughout Europe upon his escape. From Kropotkin’s perspective, cooperation not only trumped competition in the drama of survival, it hinted at a deeper reality pulsing beneath the twentieth century’s increasingly unbalanced obsession with instinct and intellect.
The Beat Goes On
The heart, and all it stands for, is not a human invention. It’s a force of nature.
Science prefers to dissect it and repair it. Religion alternately strives to promote it and control it. Art is unabashedly fueled by it. And yet leaders in all these disciplines have tried to hoard the heart’s legendary wisdom by spreading, throughout history, the incessant propaganda that our species is the only one that feels, cares, suffers, yearns, loves—and therefore deserves to thrive at the expense of all the others.
At the same time, oddly enough, far too many leaders engage in activities that require suppressing empathy and connection. The Egyptians, after all, did not build the pyramids with compassion as their prime directive. From slavery and war to modern factory farming, child labor, and environmental devastation, conquest-oriented pursuits demand that people sacrifice their hearts to the glory of some brilliant idea, outlandish ambition, or intriguing profit-making venture.
In the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth centuries, the concept of evolution emerged as yet another way to justify callous, opportunistic behavior. Co-opted by aggressive political and business factions that had previously used the Divine Right of Kings and other religious metaphors to control the masses, Darwin’s theory was reduced to slogans that promoted survival of the fittest and competition for limited resources as laws of nature. Dictators, robber-baron style capitalists and other human predators felt all the more inspired to develop “efficient” ways of exploiting resources, animals, and people who were touted as less evolved. Communism purported to level the playing field, but these experiments also failed as they relied on centralized control, suppression and fear to gain “cooperation” in executing their initially idealistic plans.
The heart was missing in all these endeavors, reinforced by the notion that nature itself was an unfeeling, unintelligent, mechanical process. Darwin’s writings, however, explicitly contrasted with this premise. “There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties,” he wrote in his 1871 book The Descent of Man. As far as emotions were concerned, he also asserted that “the lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery.”
It took over 140 years for scientists to officially confirm this aspect of Darwin’s theory. On July 7, 2012, “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” stated “unequivocally” that “non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of consciousness states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” The document acknowledged that “neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviors in animals.” This includes “all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.”
Research in the late-twentieth century also confirmed Kropotkin’s thesis that sociability is an important factor in survival and in the ongoing evolution of multiple species. There’s even a bio-chemical basis for this inclination. The hormone oxytocin, present in all mammals, buffers the fight or flight response in favor of “tend and befriend” behavior. This powerful neuropeptide, once thought to be released only in females during labor and milk production, also appears in men when they engage in nurturing activities, including petting and caring for animals. In both sexes, oxytocin heightens learning capacity, social recognition circuits, and pain thresholds. It also helps heal wounds faster, lowers aggression, and creates a sense of connection and wellbeing.
The wonders of oxytocin have spurred further research into the long-term transformational effects of the human-animal bond itself, leading to an unmistakable conclusion: Caring for others is a part of nature that has taken on a life of its own, moving far beyond incidents that occur in parenting direct offspring. Evolution has a heart. It’s much more than a fleshy pump. We ignore its vast connecting wisdom at our peril. And we evolve in direct relation to how consciously we embrace it.
Seeing is Believing
Social media abounds with animal videos illustrating strong interspecies relationships and heroic acts of protection. Most striking, of course, are interactions between carnivores and creatures that would normally be considered food. In one popular scene, a polar bear gently plays with a Siberian husky. In another clip, a wild deer emerges from the woods to frolic with a large family dog.
“Well, that’s easy to explain,” one scientifically-minded colleague told me. “Over thousands of years, our ancestors selected for friendly canines that could be trusted with our chickens, our sheep, our goats, and our children.”
“But how do you account for the overtures made by the polar bear and the deer?” I asked in response. We both shook our heads in silent wonder.
In still another video, we see the stunning effects of oxytocin. An Irish barn cat, who has just given birth, becomes enamored with a group of ducklings nearby. With her system swimming in the ultimate bonding hormone, the feline’s mothering instincts override her hunting instincts. One by one, she carries the hatchlings back to her blanket, not to eat them, but to nurse them. And the fluffy yellow puffballs begin to snuggle, softly chirping, sipping milk alongside her purring newborns! As time goes on, the connection grows stronger, with the fast growing ducks waddling behind their adoptive mother, towering over their feisty kitten siblings on morning walks to explore the farm.
Granted, these clips feature domesticated animals that were bred to live with other species. But naturalists have also observed coyotes and badgers hunting ground squirrels together, and zebras engaging in cooperative migratory activities with wildebeests. Beyond these scientifically validated examples, there are thousands of impressive amateur videos capturing supportive, even altruistic behavior among wild animals. One of my favorites, “Battle at Kruger”
illustrates quite clearly that mutual aid is an essential factor on both sides of the predator-prey dynamic.
In what starts out as a typical African safari video, a family of water buffalo are walking beside a large watering hole. The
camera pans toward several lions prowling slowly through the grass a hundred yards away.
Sensing danger, the bull turns and begins to run, herding his cow and their calf away from the scent of these massive cats. The pride leaps out of hiding and races toward the youngster, pulling it down with such momentum that the baby bovine and several adult felines skid down a small hill and plunge into the pond. It appears to be a bad day for everyone, however. The water-logged predators must now deal with another factor: a crocodile, who tries to steal this convenient meal away.
Working together, the lions drag the calf back to shore, whereupon they face something even more menacing: Just as they’re about to take that final, fatal bite, the bull and cow return—with reinforcements—namely an angry mob of close to fifty buffalo. (Most astonishingly, the rest of the herd was not close enough to see the attack. The calf’s parents had to go find their compatriots and somehow lead them to the rescue.)
As they arrive on the scene, the water buffalo appear fully prepared for battle. Bulls and cows trade leads as different
individuals try to drive off the predators from optimal angles. Finally, one nervy buffalo leaps forward and scoops the nearest lion up with his horns, tossing her six feet in the air. The rest of the herd gains leverage as a result, scattering lions in all directions, surrounding the now standing calf, welcoming him back to safety.
At no point in the video do the buffalo waste any effort trying to kill the offenders, letting them disperse relatively unharmed (though bulls have been known to kill lions presumptuous enough to hesitate in their retreat, let alone try to fight back). This tendency to avoid fighting to the death, to “live and let live” is a major characteristic of what I’ve come to call “nonpredatory power.”
Clearly, we know very little about the collective intelligence and altruistic tendencies of water buffalo. How, after all, did the bull and cow communicate this dire situation to fellow herd members, let alone rally a posse to rush to the scene and take personal risks to rescue someone else’s child? According to commonly held beliefs about “prey” animals, they should have run in the other direction, leaving the unfortunate calf to his fate.
One thing’s for sure: large herbivores are not the dim-witted, cowardly weaklings they’ve been made out to be by human politicians, philosophers, scientists, and animal trainers who over-identify with their own predatory tendencies.
Twenty years ago, I heard the first of many talented cowboys waxing poetic on what became a very popular theme. “Humans are predators, and horses are prey animals,” he said during a well-attended lecture-demonstration. “And yet they allow us on their backs. Imagine that, letting a lion on your back! Isn’t that incredible?”
Audiences rarely question this now often-repeated notion. Over time, however, this colorful yet simplistic interpretation of the horse-human relationship encourages experienced and amateur riders alike to ignore the daily reality of what both species are capable of. In the first place, humans are not carnivores. While some people habitually act predatory in just about any context, homo sapiens are omnivores with a strange, sometimes confusing mix of physical and behavioral characteristics. For instance, horses and other herbivores have eyes on the sides of their heads, emphasizing peripheral vision. Humans, like lions, look directly ahead, reinforcing a goal-oriented perspective scientists believe was designed for stalking. Even so, we have no fangs, and our nails can’t rip through paper let alone flesh. With the teeth and digestive system of a vegetarian, we have to cook our steaks and cut them into bite-sized portions—if we choose to go that route. But we can also thrive on plant-based diets.
The problem is we’ve grown up in a culture of conquerors where predatory behavior is rewarded in far too many businesses and reinforced in far too many schools (especially in the highly competitive, sometimes cut-throat world of higher education). Those who refuse to claw their way to the top often have trouble imagining an alternative because popular metaphors related to power are almost exclusively carnivorous.
The persistent image of human as predator actually disempowers more sensitive members of the population. Remember, misrepresentations of Darwin’s theories were promoted throughout the twentieth century to justify aggressive, opportunistic corporate and political interests. During that time, it was also useful to portray nonpredatory animals as gutless, anxiety-ridden prey. Gentle, caring people often follow suit, neglecting the skills needed to use power effectively, sometimes even accepting the role of victim because they can’t stomach becoming a tyrant.
In nature, however, carnivores and herbivores both display intelligent, richly nuanced behaviors that contradict stereotypes. Photos of African lions lounging twenty feet away from observant yet relatively relaxed herds abound on the Internet. Horses, zebras, water buffalo and elk will often graze relatively unconcerned as a predator who has recently eaten a big meal walks through their pasture. Yet when an agile carnivore is on the prowl, large herds will scatter long before the cat can get so close. Nonpredatory animals conserve energy for true emergencies by assessing the intentions and emotional states of other species at a distance.
This is why horses allow humans on their backs. As we go through the various rituals necessary to ride them, they can tell we’re not planning to eat them. But here’s where it gets tricky for humans who deal in clichés. These agile, socially intelligent animals also understand the difference between mutually respectful, supportive behavior and aggressive, needlessly controlling behavior.
Dominant and/or more sensitive herd members have even higher standards for anyone who adopts the physically intimate leadership role that riding requires. It’s also important to remember that horses like to play games with power, speed, boundaries and assertiveness. Young stallions in particular are not at all shy about challenging a two-legged handler in the same ways they’re accustomed to sparring with each other. Older more experienced horses tend to be calmer and more accommodating, but they also know how to drive off predators.
In this context, it’s especially important to remember that herbivores sometimes choose fight over flight, and not only when cornered. If you’re naïve, presumptuous or ornery enough to act like a predator in their presence, most will become evasive or even run, while others are more likely to attack. And heaven help you if you’re dealing with a herd of empowered adults.
Kropotkin emphasized that the collective defense strategies of large nonpredatory animals are highly intimidating to even the most ambitious carnivores. “In the Russian Steppes, (wolves) never attack the horses otherwise than in packs; and yet they have to sustain bitter fights, during which the horses sometimes assume offensive warfare,” he wrote in Mutual Aid. “If the wolves do not retreat promptly, they run the risk of being surrounded by the horses and killed by their hooves.”
Large cats are more dangerous than wolves, of course, but lone hunters also know their limits. Recently, a horse owner named Talea Morgan-Metivier posted an astonishing nighttime video of a mare chasing a mountain lion out of a small corral—with her two-day old foal trotting merrily beside her.
Trance of Conditioning
These and countless other examples challenge our culture’s most cherished beliefs about the drama of survival, opening up new possibilities, new nature-based metaphors, for a more evolved approach to power. Several uniquely human attributes currently hold us back, however. That big homo sapiens brain we’re so proud of can act like a steel trap, bolstering a species-wide tendency to cling to old beliefs that contrast with an ever expanding view of reality. Scientists, politicians, religious leaders and even horse trainers are guilty of this. For centuries, some members of these seemingly unrelated groups conspired to treat animals (and until very recently, women and other races) as mindless, soulless machines.
Hoping to avoid the cardinal sin of anthropomorphizing other species, far too many researchers promoted a dismal, sometimes damaging form of mechanomorphism—in extreme cases conducting sadistic experiments on “unfeeling” animals, and “un-evolved” races (and I’m not just talking about Nazi experiments, though they were among cruelest and most disturbing). This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why it took well over a century for the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness to emerge after Darwin asserted that all creatures possess some level of emotion and intelligence.
During lectures for my first book The Tao of Equus in 2001, the persistence of this mechanistic belief system was still apparent. People would occasionally walk out in disgust when I suggested that horses and other animals had feelings and were intelligent enough to move beyond pure instinct. Since then, hundreds of books and documentaries on the emotional lives of animals have swayed a wider public, but there’s always a learning edge. On tours for The Power of the Herd twelve years later, I faced another round of resistance when I presented the idea that, as omnivores, we were capable of choosing freely between predatory and nonpredatory forms of power. Audiences on the whole were encouraged by this view, but some equestrians were dismissive, even hostile. I was surprised to find that a small but vocal number of people felt an almost religious fervor in categorizing all humans as predators, perhaps because the oft-touted opposite, “prey,” was too horrifying to bear.
Built upon the deceptively efficient, sometimes-lethal combination of predatory power and mechanomorphism, modern civilization continues to indoctrinate humans into this steely interpretation of life in a thousand subtle ways. From the laboratory and classroom to the boardroom and even the barn, stoic authority figures urge people to leave their feelings at the door. When ambitious leaders make decisions that marginalize others, the ubiquitous line “it’s business, not personal” purports to absolve the aggressors.
What will it take to wake from the trance of our conquest-oriented heritage and reclaim the ability to choose among a much longer list of natural, mutually supportive, socially intelligent behaviors?
The First Step
In this effort, it’s helpful to appreciate the differences between carnivore, herbivore and omnivore behavior, while recognizing “predator” and “prey” as situational designations. We sometimes forget that lions, wolves, tigers, and coyotes are also preyed upon—by other carnivores and by human trophy hunters. At the opposite end of the spectrum, fully empowered, adult herbivores do not act like victims in daily life. The young and old of all species are most at risk for finding themselves in the role of “prey animal.” Their survival depends on the actions of courageous parents, siblings, pride or pack members, herd members, and even individuals from other species who put themselves at risk to protect the vulnerable.
Still, there are important distinctions between the assertive, non-lethal forms of power herbivores develop and the killing-consuming orientation of carnivores, though lions, wolves and their domesticated cousins can also adopt nonpredatory behaviors, especially in relationship to animals, and people, they consider kin. Nature depends upon predators to keep life in balance with available resources, but through mutual aid, the hormone oxytocin and the impressive protective abilities of potential prey, four-legged carnivores are prevented from decimating large populations. In trying to justify callous, sociopathic tendencies, conquest-oriented cultures over-identify with inaccurate, cartoon-like images of humanity’s status as “king of the jungle,” using the idea that we are at the top of the food chain to exploit other species without reservation. The repercussions are reliably catastrophic.
To mitigate the dysfunctions that lead to war, economic crises, and environmental devastation, our species needs to cultivate an advanced knowledge of natural principles. In an act not unlike pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, we must learn to function more like ecosystems rather than rabid predators or meek and disempowered prey. If we cannot evolve, consciously, in this way, apocalyptic predictions will become a devastating reality, and life on this planet may reach the point of no return.
Here’s the good news: A pattern for this transformation already exists, one that occurs over and over again, throughout history and around the world, whenever carnivores, herbivores and omnivores combine forces through the process of mutual domestication.
Made for Each Other
In 1992, Meg Daley Olmert, an Emmy award-winning documentary film creator/writer, was developing a series about the human-animal bond. Her interdisciplinary findings resulted in unexpected insights on how our ancestors formed associations with other animals, eventually resulting in interspecies partnerships that not only changed the course of history, but the behavior and neurophysiology of our own species in the process.
Olmert’s lack of a formal scientific degree allowed her to think outside the box in ways that Ph.D.s devoted to narrow fields are often unable and/or reluctant to do. Her vast experience integrating anthropology, biology, and animal behavior for television, including such series as National Geographic Explorer, The Discovery Channel Specials, and PBS’ The Living Edens, allowed her to make a leap of consciousness that brought a significant new theory to light on oxytocin’s role in the mutual domestication of humans and animals. Olmert’s years of dedicated research eventually produced the 2009 book Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond, which I highly recommend reading for its amazingly accessible discussion of interspecies evolution.
Over the last thirty years, studies involving rats, prairie vols, dogs, and humans have demonstrated that oxytocin makes mammals less fearful and more curious, encouraging individuals to not only form pair bonds, nest, and nurture their young, but to leave the nest and explore unfamiliar territory, most especially new relationships. In her book The Oxytocin Factor, Swedish scientist Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, M.D., Ph.D. reports that “when given oxytocin, groups of rats of the same sex become more gregarious and less afraid of contact. As aggression in the group decreases noticeably, friendly socialization replaces it. Rather than avoid each other, the rats prefer to sit next to each other. This closeness leads in its turn to the release of still more oxytocin.”
The hormone is increased on both sides of an interaction when mothers nurse their young, and when animals of any age groom each other. In undertaking her influential research to understand how the hormone works, Uvnas-Moberg used oxytocin injections to isolate its effects. Subsequent experiments showed ever more startling results, including elevated pain thresholds, faster wound healing and heightened learning capacity. But she could never fully separate oxytocin’s influence on an individual’s physiology from the hormone’s prime directive: to calm and connect with others.
“Surprisingly, to a lesser degree, animals that live in the same cage but have not directly received the oxytocin also show the same changes,” she marvels. “The other animals in the cage become calmer and have lower levels of stress hormones.” Astonished by this contact high effect, she gave the untreated companions a drug to suppress oxytocin. Sure enough, the hormone’s inherently contagious nature was blocked, confirming that those original oxytocin-injected rats were somehow able to activate the oxytocin systems of their cage mates. Subsequent experiments showed that oxytocin’s benefits could be spread not only through nursing and direct touch, but through smell, vocal tone, and the concentrated attention that mothers engage when adoring their newborns, and people of both sexes exhibit in gazing at beloved pets. This potent little peptide has also been shown to dramatically increase focus and social memory, while making people more trusting and trustworthy.
As Meg Daley Olmert contends in Made for Each Other, “The triumph of trust over paranoia enabled humans and animals to come together in domesticated partnerships and emboldened people to move beyond the social limitations of kinship and tribe and live harmoniously in a civilized world….When humans began to keep animals and animals submitted to our care, we inadvertently created a chemical biofeedback system that changed our hearts and minds.”
Olmert’s wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary research also makes a strong case for the hormone’s influence on people helped through animal assisted therapy. Most significant is a 2003 South African study led by Johannes Odendaal and R.A. Meintjes showing that “when eighteen men and women interacted with their dogs (talking to them and gently stroking them) the owners’ blood levels of oxytocin almost doubled — and their dogs were also twice as enriched with oxytocin!” Along with this rise in the hormone came a significant decrease in blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, as well as an increase in beta endorphins and dopamine.
Promising studies have confirmed that oxytocin relieves some of the anti-social tendencies of autistics and can help people with Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) calm down and focus. But the hormone doesn’t easily pass through the blood-brain barrier, making pharmaceutical versions used in scientific studies problematic for daily use. “”Repeated injections of oxytocin in high doses has been shown to affect the emotional centers in the brain,” Olmert explains, “ but that method of delivery is neither painless nor efficient. Nasal sprays also manage a degree of penetration. The problem is to reach the brain with the spray, you have to inhale almost three tablespoons of the substance. Even after all that unpleasantness, the effects are short-lived.”
Nature’s way is currently the only way for large numbers of people to benefit from oxytocin’s impressive, multi-layered effects. With this realization, however, comes an inescapable paradox: City-based life works at odds with the very biochemical processes that made our species less aggressive and more likely to collaborate with others. Olmert joins psychiatrist and animal-assisted therapy pioneer Aaron Katcher in observing that, “In our abrupt shift from farm to factory, we did a lot more than just put down the plow. More critically…we broke the bond with animals that helped make us civilized human beings. Katcher sees the fallout from this sudden interspecies divorce every day in children who are too wild to participate in polite society,” namely the increasing numbers diagnosed with ADHD.
And what about all those hyperactive, hyperaggressive wolves on Wall Street? Wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony to discover that after eons of evolutionary trends encouraging sociability and mutual aid, concrete jungles cause people to devolve into increasingly more vicious behavior?
Taming the Pack
One thing we do know for sure: close contact with animals has a measurable, positive effect on high-powered investment specialists. This oddly specific, counterintuitive insight was confirmed in the late 1990s when award-winning research scientist Karen Allen decided to assess what effect a new pet might have on people who didn’t already own one. So she picked a particularly tough crowd: unmarried, hypertensive stockbrokers.
In the first part of the study, she asked them to perform tricky arithmetic calculations—without their computers. As expected, the blood pressure of each participant spiked during the math tests. Phase two of the experiment required that all forty-eight of Allen’s subjects take an ACE-inhibitor called lisinopril, which successfully brought their resting heart rate within normal range. Half of the brokers were then randomly selected to adopt a cat or dog from a local animal shelter.
Six months later, they returned for another round of cranial gymnastics. After the initial round of number crunching, Allen upped the ante, adding the decidedly uncomfortable element of having these already agitated people rehearse speeches to a client whose money they’d just lost. Despite drug treatment, the blood pressure of all the traders rose when performing these mentally and emotionally challenging tasks. But the medication-only group experienced double the stress response of those lucky stockbrokers who took the same tests with their new furry friends present. And these people weren’t even petting their pets! The unrestrained animals were sitting quietly nearby or wandering loose around the room.
Upon hearing the astonishing results, several subjects in the control group decided to even the score by adopting a dog or cat soon after the experiment ended, taking full advantage of the calming, supportive presence that an animal companion can provide.
As decades of studies have shown, oxytocin buffers the flight or fight response, making mammals braver and more open to collaboration. But there’s another hormone that adds just the right amount of spice to the mix, particularly in the context of leadership development. In The Oxytocin Factor, Uvnas-Moberg compares the “calm and connect” effect with a similar substance, vasopressin, which differs by only two amino acids. This behavior-altering peptide also encourages pair bonding, especially during sexual activity, but in a wider social context, it promotes a decidedly more active approach.
Vasopressin “instills courage by making the individual feel aggressive and fearless. The rat, male or female, is prepared to attack, mark territory, and vigorously defend itself. Oxytocin instead fosters courage by diminishing the feeling of danger and conveying the sense that there is less to be afraid of. Animal studies appear to show that oxytocin has a special ability to make animals ‘nice.’ Physiologically, therefore, a substance related to strength and readiness (vasopressin) is a close relative to one that produces friendliness and caring (oxytocin). They function in different ways, and we need them both. As the popular Swedish fictional character Pippi Longstocking says, ‘The one who is powerfully strong must also be powerfully nice.’”
Nowhere is this paradoxical combination exercised more dramatically than in nomadic pastoral cultures where people must nurture and stand up to large, potentially dangerous animals. Here, herbivores, carnivores and omnivores up the ante on mutual aid, dramatically modifying their own instincts to collaborate with creatures that would otherwise be seen as enemies, competitors, or dinner.
Humans and herding dogs, for instance, must relinquish a territorial orientation to migrate with their grazing companions while also tempering aggressive behavior to nurture, direct, guard and protect the entire interspecies social system. Tribesmen and women must be brave, appropriately assertive, and alert around animals ten times their size. Cattle and horses must be respectful of children smaller than their own newborns, and refrain from running from, or attacking and driving off “family members” that, in any other context, would be seen as potential predators. From birth, all members learn to respond respectfully to the subtle, meaningful, constantly changing body language cues of multiple species, suggesting that a particularly powerful combination of biochemical factors and behavioral modifications acted upon those of our ancestors who chose to form partnerships with large herbivores.
Meat provides a surprisingly modest part of the pastoral diet. Modern tribes mix grains, roots, fruits and vegetables (gathered, traded, or planted and reaped during seasonal migrations) with lots of dairy products, everything from butter and cheese to fermented mood-altering drinks like koumis, which Mongolia’s nomadic horse tribes make from mare’s milk. Some cultures, such as Africa’s cattle-oriented Maasai and Siberia’s reindeer-based Even people, occasionally consume blood from living members of the herd, though milk remains the staple. (Moving with the animals keeps these people physically fit — electrocardiogram tests applied to four hundred young adult male Maasai found no evidence of heart disease, abnormalities or malfunction. Despite significant dairy consumption, their cholesterol levels were about fifty percent of that of the average American.)
In the majority of these traditional cultures, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, horses, and other animals aren’t treated as slaves or commodities, but as valued members of an interspecies society. Herders exhibit tremendous pride and affection toward their animals, who in turn, trust their two-legged companions to lead them to greener pastures, oversee their mating, assist their birth, and milk them — the ultimate oxytocin-producing activity.
Close interaction with agile, nonpredatory animals promotes mental, emotional, and relational balance — as well as a form of empowerment that deftly combines fierceness and sensitivity. It is, after all, much more dangerous to herd, ride, or milk a large herbivore, even a domesticated one, than it is to hunt it from a distance. Interspecies affinity, attention to nonverbal cues, mutual respect and mutual trust are literally survival skills for herding cultures.
The Power of Observation
While archeological records indicate that pastoral cultures gained increasing sophistication between ten and six thousand years ago, cave paintings suggest that humans and animals engaged in a much longer process of mutual observation, and that this in itself had a transformational effect. In Made for Each Other, Meg Daley Olmert contends that quietly watching other animals could have jump-started the oxytocin response that eventually set the stage for interspecies partnerships.
Here she emphasizes that the hormone can be produced not only by touch, but also by the highly concentrated focus that mothers show when adoring their newborns. She also thinks oxytocin may be released during the “hunter’s trance,” a term the evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson coined to describe an expanded state of awareness he encountered when observing animals in nature, in which heart, breath, and mind were quieted, resulting in heightened concentration and attention to detail. (Still, it’s significant that Wilson was not hunting in these cases, but watching ants and other animals with pure curiosity and no expected outcome. Wilson’s choice to name this pleasant, slightly altered state “the hunter’s trance” suggests that he hadn’t differentiated between the intensely aware predatory stare of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and the soft, appreciative, inviting gaze of those ancient naturalists who were capable of actually bonding with animals.)
In any case, once activated, oxytocin would have encouraged humans and other mammals to buffer the flight or fight response and take social risks, eventually boosting the impulse toward what Kroptkin called “mutual aid.” And, quite possibly, something else: A relaxed, concentrated focus, combined with intense dedication to and/or adoration of the subject matter, is also characteristic of creativity, suggesting that the biology of the human-animal bond could very well have been a factor in inspiring the earliest, most impressively detailed Paleolithic paintings at the Chauvet and Lascaux caves in France, some of which are over 30,000 years old.
As David S. Whitley marveled in his 2009 book Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief, “this first art consists of true aesthetic masterpieces — works of art that fully rival our greatest creative achievements, of any time and place.” At Chauvet, only one, vaguely human figure can be discerned: the lower portion of a woman’s body. A nearby image depicts a human-bison hybrid. The vast majority of the paintings are highly realistic, artistically accomplished representations of animals. But it also appears that the artists were able to get closer to some species, both physically and, more importantly, emotionally. Horses are the fourth most frequently painted subjects, behind felines, mammoths, and rhinos. And yet, these early equines are among the most vividly portrayed animals in the cave, clearly showing individual characteristics in striking detail.
One of the most famous paintings, featuring four horses, captures facial expressions that an artist would only pick up from close, direct observation of individual living horses. The smallest, most youthful animal has bulges along the bottom of its jaw—a classic sign of a colt or filly whose adult teeth are coming in.
Many of the lions also show specific facial features capturing intricate moods and behaviors, leading Olmert to come to a startling conclusion in her book: The cave artists “knew these animals — not just as a species but as individuals. These were neighbors, close neighbors.” What’s more, she insists, the “impressive detail and graphic skill” of the paintings “tells us those animals were not terribly frightened of us.”
While depictions of mammoths and rhinos are more plentiful at Chauvet, the attention to detail is much more sophisticated in the feline and equine paintings. Lions employ teamwork to hunt, while horses activate mutual aid to protect each other, factors that did not escape Olmert in her assertion that ancient humans learned much from watching their four-legged neighbors. “Our ceaseless need to assess the strengths and weaknesses of animals, to cope with their overwhelming presence or threatening absence, was a matter of life and death,” she writes. “But analyzing animals proved to be more than a survival strategy; it became school, television, even church. It is no wonder that a history of staring at animals has left us with a brain that still can’t help but seek them out and try to understand them.”
The plot thickens ten thousand years after Chauvet when it becomes clear that the Lascaux cave artists were even more obsessed with horses. Out of 915 images at Lascaux, horses represent over sixty percent of the recognizable animals, followed by stags at a mere fifteen percent, aurochs and bison each at under five percent, and felines appearing 1.2 percent of the time. Wolves, generally considered to be the first animal willing to be domesticated, don’t even appear in these paintings. And here again, only one human figure abides among a bestiary that scientists now conclude had nothing to do with “hunting magic.” According to Whitley, “animal bones excavated from living areas at the mouths of the caves” revealed that “there was little if any correlation between animals painted and animals eaten.” Since then, he and a few other scientists have promoted the idea that the paintings were evidence of ritual trance states, that shamanism led to the birth of human creativity.
But what if the explanation was a bit more obvious than that? What if the most detailed paintings were ancient portraits of the artists’ favorite animals — and by that I mean individual animals with whom these people were forming increasingly trusting, intensely inspiring, transformational relationships? After all, while archeological evidence of people riding horses doesn’t show up for a good 18,000 years after Lascaux’s artists closed up shop, who’s to say that these people weren’t being called out by the animals themselves, following their lead, moving informally with ancient herds thousands of years before human beings developed the technology to confine and restrain the horse?
People forming loose associations with these animals would not have left an archeological imprint, but that doesn’t mean theorists should dismiss the possibility, especially considering the detail and vibrancy of this artwork.
“We cannot know what the cave painters were thinking,” Olmert commented after I presented this theory to her in 2012. “What we can know is what they painted—and it was always, overwhelmingly, animals. This overwhelming depiction of animals is clear evidence of the preoccupation of the Ice Age mind. And what we now know is that this degree of focused, long-term attention to anything will trigger the activation of oxytocin in the watcher. Since these animals were watchers of us as well, we can say with complete confidence that oxytocin was flowing between the species, creating the powerful bonds that would change the world.”
A New Story
Most people assume that our ancestors advanced from hunting and gathering to traveling with domesticated herds. As the story goes, homo sapiens finally settled down and claimed the land through agricultural innovations that, in turn, led to the invention of cities. Archeological evidence, however, reveals a much more interesting progression. Nomadic pastoralism was a specialization that grew out of early farming communities. For thousands of years, up until this very day in fact, migratory animal-centered cultures evolved beside sedentary forms of civilization, with each developing a unique body of knowledge.
Before we move forward, let me be clear: I’m not promoting one lifestyle over the other. I’m instead outlining a theory on the evolution of power itself, one that has an optimistic outcome. If we adopt the social intelligence and leadership skills pioneered by our nomadic cousins, while still valuing the technological innovations that could only have been perfected in a sedentary context, we may very well experience a transformation of consciousness that nature seems to have been promoting all along. Our very survival may depend on it.
But first we have to expand our minds and tell each other a new story, one in which humanity becomes a partner, rather than a conqueror or director, in the co-evolution of several intelligent species. This epic, far-reaching tale is not based on fantasy. Rather, it weaves together the latest findings on oxytocin, mutual aid, and the ability of herbivores to assess the emotions and intentions of carnivores at a distance, among other relevant insights.
When people learned to till the soil, as any modern backyard farmer knows, they had to contend with all kinds of animals sneaking into those primal gardens. It wouldn’t have taken long for fleet-footed herbivores like cattle and horses to begin orbiting around the edges of settlements that planted grains. Yes, of course, these animals were hunted as well, but they were used to living with predators. They knew how to assess the moods of lone hunters as well as those that prowled in groups. Herd members in their prime were also confident that, working together, they could sometimes drive the aggressors off. When faced with the choice of eating low-nutrition forage in lion territory or nibbling on fields of wheat and oats in human territory, well, you do the math.
Without sturdy fences, early farmers needed to guard their crops during the growing season, though luring large animals close to home was an added benefit. Still, settlers found themselves shooing off more individuals than they killed for meat, and a new pastime emerged. Farmers and herbivores were both benefitting from agricultural innovations that satisfied their basic needs. In times of plenty, people and animals became interested in each other for reasons beyond sustenance.
Somewhere between the safety of the village and the unknown reaches of pure wilderness, adventurous members of the two-legged and four-legged clans met on fertile ground. More confident and gregarious animals approached humans who had a similar orientation. As these early naturalists looked at their wary neighbors with calmness, curiosity, and wonder—rather than fear, desperation and predatory intent—horses and other large herbivores sensed that subtle yet crucial difference, relaxed, and lowered their heads to graze. Feelings of fascination and accomplishment motivated these people to sit quietly at the edges of fields and invite the braver animals to take a few steps closer still. Eventually, someone held out a handful of grain.
Once the increasingly trusting animals were amenable to touch, oxytocin would have flowed between everyone involved in much higher doses. The contact high effect would have kicked in as individuals amenable to being stroked and groomed by another species returned to the herd and interacted with their shyer companions. This more subtle release of the hormone would have encouraged the larger population to buffer the flight or fight response and begin to take social risks as well.
There were at least two other significant benefits for the human contingent: a rise in self-esteem and increased admiration from the tribe. In Made for Each Other, Meg Daley Olmert cites a study on this effect by zoologist Dale Lott, who surveyed visitors to a national park where hand-feeding wild mountain sheep is “a favorite pastime:”
Here we begin to understand the simultaneous rush of connection and elation our ancestors would have felt under similar circumstances. But that was just the tip of the iceberg, as it turned out. Because those who were subsequently inspired to explore relationships with ancient horses and cattle would have found that they needed to move beyond the initial thrill of contact to become acutely aware, responsive, and powerful in ways that few people, even today, can fathom.
Riding a horse well is an art form; there’s no doubt. But when I stepped out of the saddle to help my horses give birth, live as a herd, and socialize their children to thrive in the interspecies culture we created together, I experienced an astonishing variety of relational, psychological, emotional, and hormonal factors acting on me from moment to moment. For over two decades, I reveled, daily, in the oxytocin flow of trust and affection, not only with mares and newborn foals, but also during quiet moments with my stallion and his sons. In standing up to unruly adolescents and dominant males, I felt the vasopressin boost of confidence and assertiveness. On several occasions, a more dramatic surge of courage and concern motivated me to put my life at risk to protect the horses (incidents with a bear and a couple of rowdy bulls come to mind). Other times, I stood, dumbfounded, watching Rasa chase cattle and aggressive horses away from me.
Eons ago, a rush of biochemical and behavioral agents inspired a leap in the evolution of multiple species. But it is no less potent when modern people step out of their insulated homes and accept nature’s invitation to experience this transformation for themselves. To be equal with the herd—to strive to be as agile, alert and socially adept as the animals themselves—is much more fulfilling than relying on restraints and extreme confinement to control a large herbivore’s every move. As the lines between species blur, a paradoxical sense of power, humility, awe, and appreciation becomes the baseline for new adventures in connection and innovation.
But there’s something else, something that borders on the mystical: A coordination of behavior and consciousness that sometimes makes it hard to tell who is herding who—who is teaching, who is learning, who is leading, who is following, whose idea it was to do this or that. Sometimes the human element is called to engage a more decisive, assertive role. But pastoralists from multiple traditions emphasize that you must be a faithful student and observer of the species, the particular herd, and the individuals that make up that herd to know when and how to take action. And that means spending most of your time balancing the relaxed yet heightened awareness of a sentinel with the intimate knowledge that comes from acting as a trusted companion rather than a stern and arrogant dictator.
I slowly became conscious of this nature-based wisdom while teaching leadership and social intelligence skills through equine-facilitated learning activities and, eventually, through workshops I could offer in purely human settings. To better articulate these principles, I collected all the research I could get my hands on to understand what living with herds of large herbivores taught our ancestors. Archeological evidence was sketchy, but studies of modern Mongolian, African, Siberian, Middle Eastern, and European pastoral cultures revealed an incredible wealth of information, including how these interspecies societies deftly employ the roles of Leader, Dominant, Sentinel, Nurturer/Companion and Predator to negotiate sometimes fertile, sometimes hostile landscapes.
But the tale of why some of our ancestors put down the hoe and followed their four-legged companions has never been recorded in writing as far as I can tell: And for good reason. The plot travels so far afield from civilization’s deepest held beliefs about human supremacy that it’s highly unlikely that anyone with a sedentary, anthropocentric mindset would have imagined it to begin with. And even if someone had, the story would have been quickly dismissed as too fantastic to believe—and too humbling in its implications.
Current research, however, makes this theory impossible to ignore. I myself resisted it at first, but after years taking notes on what it felt like to be called out by my own horses—to be welcomed into their world and changed in the process—I began collecting increasingly compelling evidence, not only from ethnographic sources but from the accounts of 21st-century naturalists who lived a modern variation on an ancient theme. And a pattern of interspecies transformation began to appear, one that not only occurred in prehistoric times, but continues to happen, now, whenever people soften their hearts, open their minds, and hold our their hands to nature’s most potent yet somehow still unexpected gift.