I'm traveling to Las Vegas to go to The Amazing Meeting, and so blogging may be patchy, but I will try to report back on what's going on in the world of skepticism and science promotion. In the meantime, I have to restart the feminist pet wars, by taking issue with Jill's assertion that cats are useless. Oh sure, in our puritanical culture, where pleasure is considered suspect, at best a waste of time, then cats are not only "useless" but aggressively so. Even as I'm a fan of laying around feeling pleased with yourself, I sometimes walk by my cats and tell them that they need to get up and wash something. Or at least quit puking on shit. Be useful!

But the beauty of cats is they give the finger to the mantra of cheerful industry. They remind us that because something isn't industrious doesn't mean it's useless. When you come careening around a corner and run into a wall, the subsequent laughter at your expense is a net positive in the world. When you jump on someone's blanket-clad feet and knead them for 10 minutes before passing out cold, the warm fuzzy you provide adds something to the world.

Jill's responding to this post by John Tierney about the uselessness of cats. He's writing about a paper on the evolution of cats that seems a little disdainful of what I think is kind of awesome about cats.

All the other species, in the authors’ view, were bred by people for their desired qualities. Cats, being without utility, were not. Instead, they domesticated themselves and chose their own mates without human interference.

It all came about, the researchers concede, because of wild cats’ powers of observation. They had the wits to notice that the first human settlements were full of uncleared garbage strewn about by their slovenly inhabitants and so were overrun with rats, mice and sparrows.

The cats decided to move into this inviting new ecological niche, even though the price of admission was to develop a disdainful tolerance of people.

You hear a lot from people who haven't had cats that cats don't actually like people. To my mind, this is a ludicrous statement. Independent-minded doesn't mean they don't have affection for you. Sure, you can say they rub on you, sit in your lap, and punch your suitcase angrily when you pack it because they're purely mercenary, but you don't know that any more than I know 100% that they kind of like you.

I detect anti-cat stereotyping, I'm afraid to say. Pets are subject to the same vicious stereotyping that women are familiar with. Independent-minded self-starter who doesn't take commands, go out of her way to please you, and who seems to have an internal life that's not all about you? If cats were women, they'd be tarred as "career women" and "cold", no matter how loving and kind they are. Loyal to a fault, living only for the master, obedient, eager to please, and seemingly not possessing many interests outside of the master (well, a couple of cute hobbies like chasing the ball that don't conflict with the loyalty-and-obedience traits)? If we're talking women, that's the patriarchal ideal!

And people wonder why so many feminists like cats. I applaud cats for taking control of their evolutionary destiny. I don't want a pet to be too industrious. I get pets because they're relaxing. I don't require strict obedience from a pet, and I like cats because they don't obey you, but in exchange they don't need as much from you as dogs. There's just less codependence in the cat/person relationship. And what's great about that is that cats show that just because they're not codependent doesn't mean they don't love you. See the above picture, if you want a data point.