Experts have been debating the causes of the industrial revolution for a long time, with few signs of agreement. I suggest that’s due to a human-centric bias which assumes that no other species could have caused human progress.
I became curious after reading that, while dogs were domesticated, cats intermixed with humans while showing few signs of domestication. Cats have cooperated with humans for long enough that I’d expect at least a little bit of co-evolution. If it wasn’t the humans selecting for the most docile or friendly cats, then maybe it was the cats selecting for the most docile or friendly humans.
One interesting hint is that various human cultures tell different stories about how many lives a cat has. As far as I can tell, the cultures that were most advanced in the 18th century (Britain, China) say cats have 9 lives, the more southern parts of Europe say 7, and Arab cultures say 6. That’s a fairly striking correlation between how highly cultures think of cats and how prospurrous they were near the start of the industrial revolution.
The hardest aspect of explaining the industrial revolution is explaining why the China’s level of development around 1800 didn’t enable it to lead the world. Why did Europe do better than China? Britain seems to have stopped eating cats sometime in the 18th century, while cat-eating has only started to become controversial in southern China this century. I’m less sure what the story is for northern China, where cat-eating apparently doesn’t happen today, but I haven’t found evidence about when cat-eating became unpopular there. Southern China is the region that’s generally said to have been advanced enough that it could have experienced an industrial revolution around 1800. Maybe northern China was backwards then for reasons unrelated to cats, maybe they were held back by their cat-eating southern compatriots, or maybe they adopted a cat-safe culture quite recently – could that have been the change that triggered China’s impressive growth over the past 40 years? Can anyone point me to better evidence on this topic?
Another possible reason for China’s lag is that a completely different species of cat (the leopard cat, Prionailurus bengalensis) acted as “pets” in China about 5000 years ago. Felis catus may have pawsed their human domestication plans in China due to distractions from their struggles with the leopard cat.
I can imagine many strategies that the cats could have used to purr-suade humans to change:
- Cats probably have some influence over who the spread diseases to.
- They could influence human mating choices, by causing distractions when “bad” humans court each other, versus purring peacefully when “good” humans court.
- Cat “ownership” can show trustworthiness, once cats establish conditions under which humans recognize cats as high status and/or recognize that cat-friendliness implies a person is less prone to pointless conflict. Cats exert some influence on who they associate with, and they can use that to increase the status of “good” humans, and/or increase the mating opportunities of “good” humans.
- They could influence which areas have more or less rodents, thereby causing “bad” villages to have more food eaten by rodents than was he case with “good” villages.
- Eating rodents protected nearby humans from diseases spread by rodents. This was especially important during the black plague.
What benefits would the cats have been selecting for?
I presume an important part of their plan would have been selecting for a wider moral circle, since that would make humans safer for cats to live near.
A wider moral circle is correlated with higher trust, and lower violence. These are likely important for cooperation among groups that are much larger than the Dunbar number. See Fukuyama for more on why that mattered.
So, regardless of whether cats planned to advance human civilization, or were merely protecting themselves, their interests in domesticating humans helped generate conditions that were conducive to an industrial revolution.
 – A more exotic version of this story is that we’re living in a simulation, and cats are the avatars of the beings who run the simulation. They’re arrogant enough to taunt us by reusing the same avatar just enough for humans to suspect something, but they stop before leaving enough evidence for anything to be proven.
 – I don’t want to express any opinion here about the nature-nurture debate, since there are many ways in which cats could have changed human behavior, and I have little hope of tracking down enough evidence to show which strategies the cats actually used. Feline influence on mating could achieve its results via genetic selection – that would require unusual patience, but produce the most stable results. Or the cats could have focused on making the good humans higher status, and the bad humans lower status – that could potentially produce faster results, but is more likely to depend on continuing feline manipulations of human culture.
See also the book A Farewell to Alms for a more detailed argument that British society has long been subjected to selection pressure which made it ripe for the industrial revolution. Alas, it neglects cats.