The Binding of the Fenris Wolf

Some thoughts on human domestication

Back when the World was young the trickster god Loki had three children by a Frost Giantess. Amongst them was a gigantic wolf, Fenris.

When the other gods got a look at Fenris they were afraid. They all agreed he must be subdued but none of them was prepared to fight him. So, after deliberation, they came up with a cunning plan.

They challenged Fenris to a trial of strength. He must allow himself to be bound three times and would show his strength by breaking free.

Fenris was forced, for pride's sake, to agree to these terms. Twice the smith of the gods forged great chains of iron and twice Fenris burst them with little effort.

For the third attempt the gods got more crafty. They went to the Svart Alfar, a underground and extremely magical race and the Svart Alfar wove a magical cord. The thin cord was woven of things like the sound of a cat's feet, the weight of moonlight and similar non-existent ingredients.

When Fenris saw a thin cord after those chains he was, not unnaturally, suspicious. But it was really to late to back out. So, against trickery, he demanded to hold that hand of one of the gods in his mouth as a kind of hostage. Fenris is bound to this day and Hiemdal has only one hand.

Now Fenris, in the beginning, wasn't particularly evil. Dangerous, of course, unpredictable and frightening but not with any particular desire to destroy. Having been bound by trickery, though, has changed him. His fury knows no bounds. If he gets loose now it's Ragnorack. He'll tear the moon from the sky and devour the gods.

Now consider this story as an allegory. Loki, the trickster god can be taken to symbolise cunning or intelligence (as, I suspect, can the serpent in Genesis). Fenris, I believe, is human instinct sometimes caring but often violent. And the magic cord? What we call civilisation, learned behaviour and beliefs passed down, like genes, from parents to children. Like the cord it's manufactured from non-existent ingredients, myths and imaginary emotions.

Humans are a domesticated species. A domesticated species is a species whose behaviour has been modified through a combination of selective breeding and training to fit within the requirements of our society. A domestic animal is quite a different thing from a captive animal or even a tame animal.

Fenris is not dead, merely bound. There's a permanent conflict between the bidding of our instincts and our society and, though most of us see it as necessary, we can't but resent it. This leads to perversion, which to me is performing an act because it's taboo as an act of defiance against God, Society or conscience. In other words against our domestication.

Perversion can be harmless or liberating. It depends on whether the taboo defied is really necessary. However in the perversion of crucial taboos, for example against murder, lies the origins of Evil as a motivating force.

I know the concept of evil for Evil's sake is somewhat unpopular these days but I believe in it. People tend to thing that evil acts are undertaken for some gain, slipping through the net of conscience. Of course many criminal acts are, indeed, in that category but some acts defy that kind of analysis. Sometimes there's no imaginable gain and even rationalisations in terms of the feeling of personal power start to look decidedly threadbare.

Human vs. Non-Human Domestication

We call it human society. The traditional assumption is that it's an invention of human beings which then imposed itself on non-human animals. That humans control it and non-human domesticated animals are "mere property".

But there's another way of looking at it. The proto-dog hanging around the fringes of a human camp, at first to scavenge, eventually accepted. The herbivore who discovers the benefits of the human persecution of predators, the advantage of an area where humans are the only predator. The humans who notice that certain plants attract herbivores where they can be killed when needed. Society as a kind of conspiracy between humans, other animals and even plants who also gain considerable evolutionary benefit from domestication.

Now doesn't that make a more believable picture? Not some Neolithic genius with a eureka moment but a tribe noticing something accidental is actually useful. Domestication by degrees. Social arrangements that work spreading themselves at the expense of those that don't.

But human societies have something that no herd or troop of animals has ever had. It has language. It has an unprecedented capability to pass knowledge from one generation to the next. This gives it something wholly new. It gives it a capacity to evolve separately from the creatures that compose it. And so societies become evolving entities and take on many of the characteristics of life forms in their own right. Once they begin to evolve evolution gives them motivations of their own, not always identical to those of their members.

At the same time living in such a society changes the parameters of evolution for all the creatures involved. Co-operating with the society becomes a requirement for survival. The long process begins by which the meek are inheriting the Earth. In effect all of us, human and non-human alike, are being selectively bred for domesticability.

Most of us would like to think that society exists under the control of, and primarily for the benefit of us humans. We want it to place a high innate value on humans, over and above their utilitarian value. We expect it to be speciesist.

We humans control society don't we? Well, yes and no. Do neurons control your behaviour. They do and they don't. Certainly they carry the information but the body doesn't conform to their individual wishes. What of the great leaders? Don't they impose their wills? Yet doesn't society select certain types of people as leaders. If Hitler hadn't been born wouldn't German society, under the stress of losing WWI, have found another demagogue?

It's not that simple, of course. Human ideas do have an effect. Yet the way that ideas are selected or ignored seems to be dictated by the needs of the society in which they occur. New ideas are like the random mutation of genes.

But society places a high value on human lives doesn't it? Murder is reckoned the ultimate crime. Animal lives, on the other hand, are protected only as property. Ask yourself, though, what the production cost of an educated westerner would be. Include the food he or she eats up to working age. The cost of clothes, education. Above all include the opportunity cost of the skilled work that parents put in to the production effort. A little thought suggest a figure well into six figures. Human life, in our society at least, is anything but cheap.

When road schemes are planned there is an expectation that people will be killed on any piece of road. In order to evaluate competing schemes, which may well trade price against probable deaths, an actual financial figure must be assigned to a death. Last I heard, in Britain, this figure was [[sterling]]700,000. I think we can take it that, in making this figure explicit, it's likely to have been exaggerated. That puts it into the same ballpark as the production cost, especially if you take into account the detrimental effect on friends and relatives. It starts to look as if the value places on human life is no more than utilitarian. Your society will spend your life if the profit is great enough, whether in war or on the roads.

Murder the ultimate crime? If so, necessarily so. Not so much murder as the ability to make credible death threats is a huge source of power, in fact arguably the wellspring of all political power. A state cannot allow just anyone to have that kind of power.

Humans are free while other domestic animals are physically constrained. This is generally true but the exceptions are revealing. Humans gain physical freedom progressively through childhood as they become more trustworthy. What's actually happening is that constraints on behaviour, both for our own safety and for that of society, are initially imposed physically, just as they are on non-human domestic animals but with humans these constraints are progressively internalised. Should that process fail then the human involved is regarded as either criminal or mentally incompetent according to the nature of the failure and, guess what? Physical constraints are re-imposed. The amount of physical freedom is not speciesist. It's based on the capacity of the beast to constrain it's own behaviour.

So when people make the "Dreaded Comparison" of animal domestication to slavery, don't take it too seriously. By implication to compare domestic animals with slaves assumes that non-slave humans are comparable to wild animals. We're not. We are domesticated animals.