The Lovable Cat:
My cat may manipulate me psychologically, but he'll never type
or play the piano.
Our cat is called "Cat," though that might have horrified T. S. Eliot, who said that
each cat must have three different names. But at least our previous cat, Macavity, was
named after a famous poem from Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, the
original cat book. Cat has endeared herself to us, despite her lack of understanding of
the human habit of reading (she prefers to sit on one's chest, between eyes and book; our
Macavity at least consented to sit on one's shoulder).
STEPHEN JAY GOULD, The Panda's Thumb
Dogs have masters.
Cats have staff.
Given an evolutionary turn of mind, one cannot help wondering why cats can be so
endearing. Perhaps they are the original Teddy Bear, taking advantage of the softness
which human beings display toward human infants? Taking advantage of an emotional
response is an old and honorable technique in the animal kingdom, though usually
involving "protective mimicry," where predators avoid certain prey because they "taste
bad." For example, Henry Bates noted in 1862 that some Brazilian butterflies have
adopted the color and markings of poisonous species, but without the poison (rather like
posting burglar alarm signs on your windows but not bothering to buy an alarm system).
Mimicry is a fascinating trait in nature, demonstrating that natural selection sometimes
operates on appearances rather than reality, that it isn't as specific as you might think,
that indiscriminate "prejudice" is an important fact of life. All of which provides some
clues to how the domestic cat became domesticated.
T. S. Eliot intoned: "A CAT IS NOT A DOG." One's evolutionary suspicions are not
aroused so easily by the domestic dog. After all, dogs can be working animals, the
surrogate shepherd or the hauling husky. Cats are sometimes depicted in humor as
working animals: I've always liked the story about the cat that ate cheese so that he could
breathe down the mouse hole with baited breath. The usefulness of cats is, however,
borderline at best. While Cat proudly presents us with shrews, mice, and the occasional
bird (usually in the middle of the night), would anyone take the trouble to domesticate
a wild cat for such a purpose? However useful farmers may find cats around the barn
(and cats were valued for catching rats during the plague years), something else surely
was responsible for the domestication of the cat from its wild ancestor, the Kaffir (or
Cape) cat, Felis lybica (which still is found on the Mediterranean islands, in North
Africa, and even in Indian deserts).
One suspects that a cat adopts a human in the hopes of being adopted back-and thus
fed. Certainly present-day cats play up to humans in a variety of ways. Consider the
greeting ceremony. I am not thinking here of our cat's "Here I am, everyone"
vocalizations upon entering the house, but of a feline behavior that few people realize
is a greeting. It turns out that the characteristic rubbing up against furniture is mostly a
greeting to people in the room; it doesn't often occur when a human observer is absent
and a TV camera substituted. It is difficult to understand the function of this poorly
appreciated greeting. Perhaps it is just another way of attracting attention? (Certainly
when the cat rubs against me instead and I trip over it, attracts my attention.) Or is it just
a feline superstition? But the cat's lap-loving behavior is more easily understood and
may well be the key to their success as a species: it evokes far more than mere attention.
One has only to observe a human holding a cat to realize what is going on: the pet is
evoking the same reactions that a cuddly baby sets off. Their contented responses when
cradled set off the same flood of emotion in us. Babies babble and nuzzle, cats purr and
rub. Their not-quite-speech vocalizations cause us to respond with smiles and
encouragement. They like being handled, and we like handling them. We like seeing
them happy. There is something congenitally comfortable about cuddling.
(Cuddliness, defined? There is actually a rather pragmatic medical definition of
cuddliness. Part of the neurological examination of a newborn infant is to cradle the
baby and watch-and feel-to see if it begins to conform to the shape of the examiner's
body, to nestle in. Babies with depressed function of the higher brain centers often fail
to mold themselves in this fashion. Just try cradling a wide-eyed, alert cat that wants to
be elsewhere: it too will seem hard and unyielding, even if not struggling to get down.
Because newborns cannot talk and follow commands, there are few simple ways of
testing their cortical functions -- among the others is the response to pacification
maneuvers noted in Chapter I-and consistent lack of response on such tests can be a tip-off to the physician that more definitive tests may be in order.)
Of course, a cat is not a baby. It doesn't even look like one, and babies certainly lack
whiskers. So this is not the usual sort of protective mimicry based on appearances.
Predatory birds learn to avoid snakes with the characteristic colored bands that adorn the
coral snake; the birds presumably think that such snakes "taste bitter." Ingesting venom
is almost as bad as getting bitten, so birds without the ability to avoid coral snakes may
not reproduce very well. Other snakes with similar markings, poisonous or not, seem
to be avoided by the birds as well-so they survive better and produce more little snakes
with similar colors. The birds presumably have enough other prey to eat that they
haven't made their color prejudice a little more discriminating. This Batesian mimicry
is just another elegant example of natural selection, of the survival of those species with
a good gimmick or an imperfect predator. Is the cat still another successful mimic,
despite the lack of physical resemblance to babies? Using sweetness rather than
bitterness? Playing on human psychological propensities rather than physical
The evolution of Felis domesticus (also known as Felis catus) tells us something about the evolution of human reinforcers, about what we find sweet and pleasurable, and why. Although "sweet" has a specific meaning when looking at the neurophysiology of the
tongue's taste buds, the concept of sweetness extends to other areas beyond food. There
is a symbiotic relation between parent and offspring: the infant needs much assistance
to survive, and the parent "needs" to propagate its genes. Genes which reinforce this
symbiosis are to the benefit of both parties (and hence propagate the genes). Parents
who respond to the sight of an infant by picking it up and cradling it are more likely to
propagate their genes for doing so. Sweet is more than quick-energy food related to our
ancestors' fondness for for trees: it is usually a selfish gene at work in a more global way.
After all, nurturing an infant is not a universal trait: some species invest nothing in their
offspring after birth. They just try for large numbers and leave them to fend for
themselves (e.g., many fish and frog species). Other species invest a lot in a few
offspring, the so-called "K selection." They had to evolve ties which bind parent and
infant together psychologically for appropriate period of time. A gene leading to cooing
can interact with a gene leading to cradling, to the benefit of both. Indeed, all of our
elementary human pleasures probably have such a background. Anything that is sweet
today is a clue to what was go for the species a long time ago.
But the features which trigger such responses (Konrad Lorenz called them "innate
releasing factors") need not be perfect imitation of the original object. While the
selection process may have involved a human baby, the trigger feature may simply be
anything about the right size which combined cradling and cooing (like the predatory
birds and their snake nothing may have made us more discriminating in whom or wh we
cuddle). If the cat's purr can substitute for the coo, the cat has lucked in to a good deal.
Because it can become the recipient some of the affection usually reserved for babies,
it will stand much better chance of receiving food and shelter. Cats with purring genes,
or genes leading them to seek being cradled, will survive much better than those without.
Over a long period time, wild cats in contact with humans will slowly develop some of
those attributes which we humans find sweet, simply because we don't feel as compelled
to feed and shelter the ones that are aloof. It probably started with orphaned kittens of
Felis lybica being raised by some children playing house.
This "lap-first" theory says that the cat was domesticated b mimicry of a trigger feature
of the parent-infant symbiotic relationship. And what are those trigger features?
Certainly not whiskers! But the ethologists studying ducks haven't had to use stuffed
ducks -- something the right size and color, and maybe a little fuzzy, will work just fine
to set off many behaviors in a real duck (indeed, for some ducks, Konrad Lorenz himself
sufficed). For humans, one way to find out would be to use a stuffed animal and then
subtract features until the cuddling response is lost. A do-it-yourself ethology
assignment: Borrow some well-used stuffed animals with missing eyes, ears, or legs.
Get some new versions, so that you have a full range of physical features. Now get a
stopwatch and see how long people will hold each stuffed animal before laying it back
down and selecting another. Soon you'll have a reasonable idea of the essential trigger
features for this kind of sweetness. Alternatively, consult the doll manufacturers. Or the
literature: Lorenz noted in 1950 that the animals for which humans feel affection have
large eyes, bulging foreheads, chins that tuck in rather than jut out, and a springy elastic
consistency -- all characteristic of human infants.
They say travel is broadening, and this comfortable (cuddly?) view of cat evolution has
been challenged by several encounters. The first involved a feral cat, a domestic cat
gone wild. The Friday Harbor Labs are on a large nature reserve up in Washington's San
Juan Islands near Victoria, British Columbia. The apartments for the researchers are in
a sylvan setting: It's really a wonderland, where deer graze outside your window, where
the rabbits don't even bother to interrupt mowing the grass when you walk past. At
night, there is a parade of raccoons making the rounds of doors where they are likely to
get handouts. Some are quite aggressive and will march indoors and stridently demand
the food off your dinner table: real masked bandits. Others will hang back timidly.
One night in the midst of this parade came a most impressive cat. It had the kind of
large, bright, all-seeing eyes that one tends to associate with human geniuses. It was
quite wild, in the sense that it would not approach humans. There was clearly a working
understanding between this feral cat and the raccoons; the cat may have been
outnumbered, but one sensed that it had won a few arguments. Now they shared the
bounty. But unlike the aggressive raccoons, the cat wouldn't come anywhere near the
door. Timid may have described the raccoons that held back, but one would hardly label
this cat timid: it lived and breathed intelligent caution. It wasn't skittish; it was crafty
and dignified, engaged in a war of wits with two other species simultaneously.
Was this feral cat acting like the wild predecessor of the domestic cat? Was the cat
originally a camp follower, staying on the outskirts of human habitation and living off
the garbage pile, gradually becoming tame? Was the lap the final step, rather than the
first step? Not quite like wild kittens being raised as infant surrogates.
Later, during a sabbatical year in Jerusalem, came a massive exposure to "feral cats."
The streets there were full of cats raiding garbage cans. And they were quite wary, never
investigating an outstretched hand, much less a lap. I rather pride myself on my ability
to make friends with any cat, but I was rebuffed every time. But the reason seemed
rather clear: children threw rocks at them whenever possible. Adults cursed them-and
not just the ones in competition for the same resource, such as the tramps who came
around an hour in advance of the garbage truck, searching through the trash cans for
anything edible or useful. Everyone seemed to treat cats as a pest, to be driven away.
Had the symbiotic relationship between cat and man completely broken down? And,
since one tends to think of the people there as being a bit closer to the land and the
conditions under which the original domestication of the cat might have taken place,
what did that say for my pet theory for cat domestication through infant mimicry?
Might Israeli cats be a different subspecies than the North American cats, since they
acted so differently and since no one seemed to treat them as pets? Most of the cats in
North America are descendants of ones brought over from England or the Netherlands
in the seventeenth century. Maybe, I surmised, the Jerusalem cats were closer to the cats
that the Egyptians had worshiped; indeed, some of our earliest knowledge of cats comes
from mummified cats dating back to at least 2500 B.C. Over 300,000 mummified cats
were found a century ago; the study of their remains might have taught us much about
the evolution of Felis lybica into Felis domesticus -- but these feline mummies no longer
exist, as 19 tons of their remains were shipped back to England by some entrepreneur
to be ground up for fertilizer. Alas. Lacking data, one can always speculate.
Armed with my tentative theories about Middle Eastern cats, I consulted with an Israeli
zoologist. She said that my data base was insufficient for another reason -- that I just
hadn't been in an Israeli home yet that had a pet cat. Many Israeli homes turn out to have
pet cats. Some of those cats on the streets are indeed strays, but many are also someone's
pet. They act entirely differently indoors, just like normal cats, seeking out one's lap.
But outdoors, they've learned to run at the sight of people. From which one might
conclude that the North American cats have simply been more successful at making
friends -- at adopting people, as it were.
So was it lap-first or lap-last; did people adopt the cat or vice versa? Having had a
whole family group of hominid fossils dug up in recent years, perhaps we will just have
to hope that a suitably ancient hominid will be found with a cat skeleton cradled in its
The evolutionary analysis of the domestic dog, Canis familiaris, and the corresponding
trigger features in human behaviors will be left as another exercise for the reader.
(HINT. Dogs like to follow one around, gaze up admiringly, play catch, romp, be a good
pal-all rather like a _____. The fundamental difference between "cat-people' and "dog-lovers" is therefore____________.