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Changing Conceptions Of Wildlife In Darwin's Century, Wildlife In The Twentieth Century, Wildlife In The New Millennium

Prehistory makes clear that our ancestors continuously conceptualized their relations with the myriad forms of plants and animals with whom their existence was interwoven. These ancient musings, more mythological than scientific, were the first sustained efforts to comprehend the order of nature. The noun wildlife has been in use no more than 125 years. But the swirl of ideas around wildlife, however inchoate, is nearly as old as the human species.

Reconstructions of the conceptual dimensions of wildlife prior to the advent of agriculture are based on carvings, paintings, burial, and other material artifacts as well as the study of contemporaneous indigenous cultures living outside the cocoon of industrial civilization. While generalization remains provisional, the Paleolithic era of hunting and gathering was marked by notions of plants and especially animals as totems and dual presences. As totems the other species taught their two-legged kin the ways of the world: survival more than anything else. As dual presences the others encouraged the notion that all creatures were shape-shifters, bound up in the ongoing cyclical process of life in relationships based on reciprocity rather than dominion. The "economy of nature" (itself a modern term) was conceptualized as sacramental, based on the myth of the eternal return.

The New Stone Age (c. 15,000–10,000 B.P.) slowly but inexorably overturned the established notion of one creation binding all creatures together. The cultivation of cereal grasses and domestication of animals led to a binary categorization of the wild and tame. The wild encompassed the plants and animals not under human control. Unwanted plants intruding upon fields became weeds. Population blooms of insects that ravaged the fields became plagues. Animals that preyed on livestock became predators.

The tame included the lands and domesticated species under the control of civilization. Domestication entails selection for characteristics that, however desirable for human purposes, would in many cases be lethal in a natural environment. Cereal grasses were valued because their seeds were retained in the head so that they could be harvested. Domesticated cattle were valued because they were docile and amenable to herding.

As permanent settlement spread, lingering memories of a time before agriculture when humans were intimately entwined with the others were expressed in sources such as the Gilgamesh epic and the Old Testament. Psalm 104 praises the glory of a creator god and the intricacy of the living creation. Even as the psalmist sang, there was a dawning realization that humankind was not a good steward: "I brought you into a fruitful land, to enjoy its fruit and the goodness of it; but when you entered upon it you defiled my land, and made the home I gave you an abomination" (Jeremiah 2:7).

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Well-being to Jan Ɓukasiewicz Biography