Cats survival strategy 15th April 2020

A lot of words have been written about the behaviour of cats and how living with humans for ten thousand years has affected that behaviour.

I have two 'pet' theories that seem kind of obvious to me, but I haven't seen elsewhere.

Behaviours selecting for like-ability

Humans today generally divide animals into two groups; animals we will eat if we think they're tasty, and those we think it's wrong to eat.

It seems reasonable to me that this strong differential between those two types of animals would have been smaller in the past.

Modern farming has provided humans with a food supply that is both more bountiful, and more reliable than the food supply over the past 10,000 years.

Before our food supply was reliable, there would regularly be periods of hunger and famine. During these periods humans would get very very hungry, and things that they wouldn't normally eat would suddenly start looking quite tasty.

People wouldn't do this for fun, but when the winter has been long, and their children are close to death due to malnutrition, the idea of converting a cat into some stew, and some baby sized fur clothes is going to be more appealing.

He caught a mouse once and would not shut up about it. The whole family had to come and praise him.

People are, in general, not completely stupid.

Even if you're desperately hungry, you're not going to grab the nearest cat to kill. You're going to figure out which cats would be missed least and pick one of those.

A cat that has demonstrated how many mice it can kill is going to be viewed as a useful member of the community. A cat that just eats the mice it catches away from human view is not going to be viewed as useful, and so is far more likely to be selected for stew.

So yeah, we managed to train cats to bring us dead and dying vermin. Go humans!

Behaviours selecting for fun.

One of the reasons that cats domesticated themselves is that for them, living in a human settlement is far safer than living wild.

But there are a couple of things that are still very dangerous for cats and have the potential to prevent the cats from passing on their genes.

Aggressive dogs

Even today, some aggressive dogs will try to catch and kill cats. This is despite humans selecting for non-aggression in dogs since the time when we last used them for hunting.

Vehicles

Ever since the invention of the wheel, cats have been killed in accidents where they have been struck by vehicles. This is selecting for cats that are scared of vehicles.

My dad has multiple cats, one of which is very smart and full of character. In the evening when my dad goes for a short walk to get some exercise, she will walk with him along the road. If a vehicle comes along the road, she will dart off to hide in a bush up a small embankment to completely avoid the risk of being hit by the car.

A similar thing is happening to the crows in rural France. They are becoming more wary of vehicles due to occasionally being struck by them. Near where my dad lives in Normandy, the roads are long and have little traffic. The crows will fly off when a vehicle gets to within 300 meters of them.

Human against human violence

Aggressive dogs and vehicles are two big risks to cats individual survival that still occur, but another big risk to cats being able to pass on their genes has been humans killing other humans.

Due to the current lockdown, people are currently rediscovering that being stuck at home is kind of annoying. But being stuck in a home with the modern internet is not too bad.

It's hard to imagine how unpleasant it was for humans living through winter before we had developed water resistant clothing.

In Britain (where I live) the winters, while not harsh, can be quite long and depressing. Due to the position of Britain next to the north Atlantic, there are periods where the weather is quite bad, with rain and wind, for weeks at a time.

Until humans had invented and were materially well-off enough to have suitably warm and water resistant clothing, there would be periods of weeks (and sometimes even months) where going outside would cost a huge amount of calories, and so humans would be 'stuck' inside their homes.

Up until relatively recently, it was common for many families to live in one building.

Having people be stuck at home, for weeks at a time, with very low food supplies and not much to keep them busy is a recipe for people developing animosities to each other. And it's pretty easy to imagine those animosities to develop into acts of violence between people living in the same house.

Before modern medicine, it's possible that a single fight could end up killing enough adult humans in a tribe, to leave that tribe in a non-viable state, where all the surviving humans would decide to leave that place, to join another tribe.

Even if there were no human fatalities, having families fight against each other could end up with some the people living there suddenly leaving, would decrease the cats food supply through there being fewer mice being drawn to human activity.

For cats living in that home, either scenario would be a disaster.

For the whole colony of cats living there, it would be either the end of their line, or kill a large number of them before they could find residence in another human habitat.

Obviously there is no direct way for cats to stop violence between humans, however they can help prevent it happening in the first by providing some entertainment to humans.

Kittens are adorable, and adult cats will play with each other, or with humans if they have a piece of string. Even today, cats playing this provides a nice bit of stimulation and entertainment to humans despite all the other sources of entertainment we have available.

It's very easy to imagine that for many families and tribes, the entertainment provided would be the difference between violence breaking out or not.

For most of human-cat co-existance, any genes in cats that result in providing entertainment for humans would have had strong natural-selection benefits over a long period of time, which is why cats today are so good at entertaining humans.

The corresponding natural selection for humans who like cats and find them entertaining are probably also worth considering.

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