The word “cow” (or something very similar) has referred to the same bovine animals for more than a thousand years. But vernacular terms can be misleadingly robust. For example, the lives of medieval domesticated cattle were very different from those of their remote descendants, and these differences were reflected in their bodies, their behavior, and their relationships to their human owners. In consequence, to eighteenth-century eyes, the few such herds that continued to lead medieval lives appeared to be wild animals, perhaps even surviving representatives of the aboriginal aurochs. In subsequent centuries, developments in both livestock husbandry and biological science have made it possible to analyze these animals (among many others) anatomically, physiologically, and, most recently, genomically – although such evidence has not discouraged more recent attempts to resurrect the aurochs. And if the unruly behavior of throwback herds once made domesticated cattle seem wild, genetic analysis has conversely called the wildness of a different bovine species into question. The genome of many current American bison, the beneficiaries of a protracted and apparently successful wildlife conservation program, turns out to include substantial contributions from domesticated cattle. In these apparently opposing cases, changes in the animals themselves have been masked by linguistic stasis. And these changes broach larger issues of the nature of domestication and the value of wildness.
Harriet Ritvo is the Arthur J. Conner Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and past president of the American Society for Environmental History. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination (Harvard UP, 1997), The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Harvard UP, 1987), Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras: Essays on Animals and History (Virginia, 2010), and The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism (Chicago UP, 2009).
Harriet Ritvo’s Sydney visit is being jointly organised and funded by the Environmental Humanities program at the University of New South Wales, the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University and the Human Animal Research Network (HARN) at the University of Sydney. Her larger Australian visit has been organised and funded by the Human Rights and Animal Ethics Research Network, University of Melbourne.