Homo sapiens has woven some powerful and age-old symbiotic relationships—in biology, mutually beneficial collaborations between species — with more than a few genera of plants and animals. Sometimes though, it’s not absolutely apparent which should be considered the senior partner in the pairings.
Wheat, corn, rice and potatoes didn’t naturally clear forests, drain swamps, terrace mountains and cross oceans to dominate mind-boggling acreage on the face of the planet. That piece of natural history required the axes, plows, shovels and engines of their primate partners.
Millet and spelt, for example, some might say could be judged to be doing exponentially better, all things considered, than whatever bonus mankind gets out of its liaison with those grains.
Among the higher orders as well humankind has maintained a number of ancient symbioses with dogs, horses, camels, sheep, cattle, pigs and many other species. There’s give and take in all these partnerships, but much favoring the preeminent and all-powerful human race.
Few creatures fail to recognize man’s absolute suzerainty; felis catus is one. Cats not only have failed to truly submit, but to the contrary have many cultures almost mesmerized instead, providing in return nothing near the benefits cats have enjoyed since casting their spell on Fertile Crescent farmers at the dawn of the Neolithic age.
Certainly, cats have been of service to humanity.
There must be at least some truth in cats first being incorporated into ancient agricultural settlements in order to patrol their grain stores — which the felines wouldn’t eat — so as to devour the mice and rats who were undoubtedly attempting to do so.
To whatever degree that is factual, mouser duties have long since been sidelined. Hundreds of millions of domesticated cats living pampered lives in heated, cooled and watered dwellings provided by their human caretakers are hardly there to catch mice.
People have put more of a premium on a different feline attribute now taking the place of pest control: charm. This is not a trivial vantage. There are scientific studies whose findings point to the real health benefits of owning a cat. These include reducing the risks of cardiovascular disease (including stroke), lowering of blood pressure, and relief of stress and anxiety.
They live among humans because we find them cute and adorable. Their job, in order to receive food, water, shelter, medical attention along with incessant pets, caresses and boundless forbearance for all their mischievousness is simply to be who they are.
Cats seem to have perceived this human infatuation from some time ago. There are even indications that feline meows have in some way been influenced to mimic babies' cries. At least it’s fairly certain that, aside from a brief period during their kittenhood vocalizing to their mothers, for the rest of their lives cats only meow to people.
In stark contrast, man’s other faithful companion, dogs, earn their keep at least to some extent. They’re full-time personal bodyguard, night watchman, extrasensory monitor of danger—along with specialized breeds rising to the important status of guide, drug and explosive detector, police and rescue K-9, military working dog, and more.
Few canines ever mistake who is master and who pet with regard to their human wardens. Felines aren’t confused either, only that they often come to a different conclusion. A recent study published in the journal "Animal Cognition" in 2013 found that cats fully recognize their owners’ voices calling at them, and may simply opt to ignore acknowledging.
It’s not difficult to hazard a guess as to how house cats might have come to develop such a cavalier view of their association with humans. There are few princes, satraps or sultans who ever lived the life of luxury, security, comfort and convenience as the average cat in the modern home.
This species must inhabit the uppermost reaches of the top one percent of the most successful biological winners ever to exist. Only the very luckiest living things will manage as pleasant and carefree a life as the typical domestic tabby enjoys at present, courtesy of its human attendant who sees to all the bills.
The best proof of the unsurpassed sway of felis catus over all other beasts might soon be indelibly inscribed in the historical record. Of all the millions of animalia of the mother planet Earth, it’s an excellent wager that it will be some future astronaut’s kitten who will soon be the second lifeform to arrive on the Moon.
There is no place where humankind goes now without bringing along its favorite pet.
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.