Solving The Mystery Of The Cat

By Justin Gardner | Related entries in Kitchen Sink

Even though I don’t have one myself, I’m definitely a cat person. Sure dogs are fun, and there’s no doubt they dish out much more unconditional love than cats, but my reasoning has always been that if I wanted a child I’d go and have one myself. Because that’s basically what a dog is: a child. They need a ton of guidance or else they’ll misbehave, and let’s not overlook the fact that many breeds constantly need attention, reassurance and you have to let them outside to go to the bathroom. To be clear, I’m not dogging on dogs, I’m just explaining why I like cats better.

And I think that’s why I like cats most of all. Because while dogs need masters, cats are looking for roommates.

But that presents the question…why are cats even around? Because while dogs provide protection and were bred for very specific, utilitarian reasons, there seem to be few good reasons why cats were welcomed into our homes.

Scientific American attempts to answer that question and explores why we love them…and why they tolerate us:

Considering that small cats do little obvious harm, people probably did not mind their company. They might have even encouraged the cats to stick around when they saw them dispatching mice and snakes.

Cats may have held other appeal, too. Some experts speculate that wildcats just so happened to possess features that might have preadapted them to developing a relationship with people.

In particular, these cats have “cute” features—large eyes, a snub face and a high, round forehead, among others—that are known to elicit nurturing from humans. In all likelihood, then, some people took kittens home simply because they found them adorable and tamed them, giving cats a first foothold at the human hearth.

So because cats have more human like features, they were accepted into our homes? Interesting theory.

Still, I think there was a much more utilitarian reason, and that is garbage and pest control…

Early settlements in the Fertile Crescent between 9,000 and 10,000 years ago, during the Neolithic period, created a completely new environment for any wild animals that were sufficiently flexible and inquisitive (or scared and hungry) to exploit it. The house mouse, Mus musculus domesticus, was one such creature. Archaeologists have found remains of this rodent, which originated in the Indian subcontinent, among the first human stores of wild grain from Israel, which date to around 10,000 years ago. The house mice could not compete well with the local wild mice outside, but by moving into people’s homes and silos, they thrived.

It is almost certainly the case that these house mice attracted cats. But the trash heaps on the outskirts of town were probably just as great a draw, providing year-round pickings for those felines resourceful enough to seek them out. Both these food sources would have encouraged cats to adapt to living with people; in the lingo of evolutionary biology, natural selection favored those cats that were able to cohabitate with humans and thereby gain access to the trash and mice.

So, you a dog person or a cat person? And why?

(h/t: Daily Dish)


This entry was posted on Sunday, May 31st, 2009 and is filed under Kitchen Sink. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

11 Responses to “Solving The Mystery Of The Cat”

  1. Martin Lindeskog Says:

    I am a cat person. Follow my Morris the cat posts and you will understand why! :)

  2. Todd Says:

    I think I’m more of a cat person … for many of the reasons you described … I particularly like the fact that a cat usually couldn’t care less whether I’m home or not. When they want attention, they come jump on your lap. then a couple of minutes later go back to ignoring you.

    Ironically, at the moment we have two dogs … and no cat.

    Go figure.

  3. the Word Says:

    If cats had opposable thumbs and could carry weapons, they would join Al Cata. Dogs would defend you, protect you and love you. When someone brags up a cat as being different than other cats (in other words, caring that their owner is alive) they always describe what sounds naturally like a dog.

    Justin should be banned from the web for preferring cats :-)

  4. DougL Says:

    Because while dogs need masters, cats are looking for roommates staff.

    Fixed.

    BTW, my presence is tolerated by the three cats that run our household.

  5. Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    Justin, I believe I’ve said this to you before, and I’ll say it again: if you die in your home, a dog will guard your body. A cat will eat it.

    But cat’s do smell better. I’ll give them that.

  6. Justin Gardner Says:

    @alan, haha, I think you have said that before. But I think dogs would eventually eat you too if they got hungry enough.

    @doug, Indeed! They are looking for staff. And this is why I love them. Humans make great pets.

    @the Word, I don’t want cats to be like dogs. A cat that’s like a dog is boring to me. Better to be aloof and self sufficient than loyal and needy. Of course, that’s how I like my humans too, so there’s that.

    One quick note about cats and the idea of defending, there are numerous instances of cats defending their owners and saving their lives. I know because it happened to my mom. So I wouldn’t discard that out of hand, but yes, dogs have a better track record in that regard. Honestly, I think they just have better PR. :-)

  7. Tully Says:

    I like to sit out on my enclosed back porch in the summer, smoking cigars and drinking adult beverages and wathcing the cat go nuts trying to get the porch door open so he can chase birds.

    “THMUBS! If I had thumbs I’d get you, you little winged bastards!”

    But he doesn’t, so he can’t, and has to put up with my derisive laughter at his futile efforts.

  8. ShortWoman» Blog Archive » Follow Up on Anti-Abortion Terrorism Says:

    [...] being violently assaulted; some people think the mortgage meltdown is only beginning; and the mystery of the cat. (I know, Iz no mstry, U gives cat [...]

  9. michael reynolds Says:

    I like to sit out on my enclosed back porch in the summer, smoking cigars and drinking adult beverages and wathcing the cat go nuts trying to get the porch door open so he can chase birds.

    Perfectly encapsulates the superiority of cats. As it happens, I also like to sit outside smoking cigars and drinking adult beverages. But in my case I have to watch our Labrador decide which piece of crap he’s going to eat.

  10. Random Observation Says:

    Actually, it’s not that cat features are more like humans, but they are features humans like better. Most Japanese cartoons take it to caricature level — way oversized eyes; thin straight nose; disproportionate forehead, small mouth.

    All also traits of human infants.

    I seem to remember from one of my psych classes that there is a kind of brain cell that fires only in response to a visual of a human face. However, if you rearrange the features – nose then mouth then eyes or whatever – the cell does not fire, even though all the features are present. Perhaps humans will develop a cat-responsive brain cell.

  11. Chris39 Says:

    Neither nor. What seems to be a contradiction is not, because I´m a great lover of nearly everything fured.While growing up cats and dogs alike were roaming our yard.Cats for sure are more independant than dogs are and therefore need less guidance,but nonetheless dogs have something that cats can´t offer.I´m writing about security and protection.
    Yes it´s true , a dog needs more space (a small garden will do) and more attention but it´s worth it.
    What I like most is visiting my friend Berit , because she´s managing kind of a zoo (lot´s of cats,chicken,dogs and ducks) where she lives.There anyone can see the harmony that all this different creatures live in.
    I think it wasn´t men who domesticated cats,maybe vice versa.
    (I´m not a native english speaker, but I hope this message is understandable)

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