Wild versus Tame Essay

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The words wil d and tame go back to ancient Germanic roots, and perhaps earlier still, if they are-respectively-cognate with Latin ferus “wild” and domare “dominate,” as suggested by the Oxford English Dictionary. They always had the meanings they have now, and they also were always opposed. The first English reference to tame, an Anglo-Saxon gloss of 888 c.E., explicitly opposes them. They are defined in relation to each other. A wolf is wilder than a bad or willful dog, but the latter is wilder than a thoroughly subjugated one; the cur is tame relative to the wolf, wild relative to the good pet. Jasper National Park is wilder than Yosemite, and Yosemite is wilder than Times Square. Naturally occurring species of roses are wilder than hybrid single roses, but the latter, even when they are modern hybrids, seem wilder to gardeners than the huge multi-petaled florists’ roses. Formerly cultivated land reverts slowly and gradually to the wild. Tame animals can go wild or feral.

Wild has always had its present double or extended meaning: Natural as opposed to humanmanaged, and uncontrolled or hyper-reactive as opposed to tranquil and calm. A wild person can be violently emotional or somehow remote mentally from ordinary people. Latin ferus has similar extended meanings. Tame means controlled by humans; its secondary meaning of dull and ordinary is not attested before 1600. Wilderness is a derivative of wild, with attributive suffixes. Other languages have equivalent, but not always exactly equivalent, words. Chinese ye implies not only “wild” and “wilderness,” but also “abandoned land.” Romance languages usually use words derived not from ferus, but from Latin sylvaticus, “of the forest,” such as: sauvage (French), and selvatico (Italian). These usually have a negative, even violent connotation, as in the English derivative savage (from the French). Yucatec Maya parallels Latin: k’aaxil “of the forest” and baalche’ “things of the trees” are the nearest equivalent to “wild things.” However, in Maya the connotation is good: The Maya love the forest and have strong positive associations with its inhabitants. Tame in Yucatec Maya is alakbil, “raised by humans,” a close parallel with English.

In short, wild and tame are concepts that are broadly held-every culture feels the need to contrast the home-reared with the natural and uncontrolled, but culture and tradition powerfully influence their connotations. People understand them differently at different times and places. Wild and wilderness had broadly negative connotations through much of history. Conversely, wildness can be so valued that it is imitated. English landscape architects of the 17th-19th centuries laid out artificial wildernesses, and saw nothing oxymoronic about this. Today, restoration ecologists recreate the wild or the wilderness. In most countries, opinions range from strongly pro-wild (as in the John Muir tradition of conservation), to strongly antiwild. This leads to political debates that often become impassioned. The United States, home of the ideas of conservation, national parks, and national wilderness areas, is also home to a powerful pro-development ethic that defines progress as increasingly radical transformation of natural resources into commodities. Holders of these views come into conflict. The concept of tame inspires less emotion, but it too has positive and negative connotations.

From the ancient Chinese (such as Chuang Tzu and Han Shan) and the Desert Fathers of early Christianity to modern conservationists like John Muir and Edward Abbey, many people have found wild areas to be desirable, or even necessary, for personal renewal and contemplation, and have lived in the wild when possible. Conversely, others have found fulfillment only in destroying the wild to produce a tame world of houses, lawns, and factories. Many appreciate both types of landscapes, and are fulfilled only when they can move from one to the other with some ease. This attitude is now often identified with young educated urbanites, but is by no means confined to them, in the Western world or elsewhere. The Maya, and other Native Americans of Mexico, regard the balance of town and wild as essential to the world-a religious or cosmological necessity. Medieval India had almost the same view, widely expressed in Sanskrit and Tamil poetry. The ancient Celtic peoples idealized the wild more than perhaps any other culture on earth, but they usually (though not always) preferred to live in villages and castles.

It is often said today that there is no real wild or wilderness, because all parts of the planet are affected by humanity. However, this claim ignores the relative nature of the world. The usage of wild to mean totally unaffected by human action has never been standard. Wilderness has recently been widely used to mean areas thus unaffected, but this is a rather specialized and recent usage. The French philosopher Bruno Latour has argued that we should speak of natures rather than nature in recognition of these considerations, and the same might be argued for wild had not wilds long been used to mean wild places. Tame contrasts in scientific usage with domesticated. Domesticated, formally, refers to organisms that have been significantly changed by human breeding, such that they are genetically different from any population not managed and bred by humans. Wild animals can be tamed, but are not automatically domesticated. The elephants used so widely in ancient and modern times in Africa and Asia, for war and draught, have never been truly domesticated. Many cultivated tree crops are barely, if at all, domesticated, in spite of long histories of orchard use. Usually these are minor, or new crops such as macadamia nuts, but even such ancient crops as commercial olive varieties may have been propagated from naturally occurring trees rather than deliberately bred.

Wild and domestic forms of a given crop routinely interbreed. This introduces valuable new genes, especially for disease and pest resistance, to the domestic stock. For millennia, people have known this, and deliberately let their crops breed with wild relatives. The search for valuable genes in wild populations of wheat, barley, potatoes, and other major crops is a major research industry. Since pests and diseases quickly home in on particular domesticated varieties, plant breeders must constantly find new resistance genes in wild populations, and also in local landraces developed by small traditional communities in isolated areas. Loss of wild and landrace strains would be devastating to world food security. This is a most immediate and urgent practical reason to preserve wild and non-modernized landscapes. Moreover, domesticated forms can escape from tameness and go wild. If they are animals, they are said to be feral; if plants, volunteer. So an organism can be domesticated without being tame. Such organisms, having been bred to flourish among humans, can become pests. The common dandelion owes much of its success as a weed to a long history of being bred as a garden crop.


  1. N. Anderson, The Political Ecology of a Yucatec Maya Community (University of Arizona Press, 2005); A.C. Graham, Chuang Tzu. The Inner Chapters (George Allen and Unwin, 1981);
  2. Latour, Politics of Nature. How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. by Catherine Porter (Harvard University Press, 2004);
  3. Han Shan, The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, by Red Pine, also known as Bill Porter (Copper Canyon Press, 2000);
  4. Torrance, ed., Encompassing Nature (Counterpoint, 1998).

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