Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Tamed: Ten Species That Changed Our World

I often wonder how humans someone how managed to invent things, like cheese or bread, was it all a big accident? In Tamed, Alice Roberts takes ten species and looks at how they became domesticated into what we know today.

The book is ordered in a chronological way, with the oldest cases of domestication first, based on archaeological findings and carbon dating. The first being dogs and it explains how the wolves may have become friendly with humans in exchange for food and then they became beneficial for hunting. In each case, there is quite a lot of dry data to go with the hypotheses, and Alice is often clear that we don’t have absolute proof.

It also covers cows, chickens and horses and well as plants such as wheat, maize, potatoes and rice. These foods don’t necessarily come from where we think they do and they quite removed from their ancestors. There's quite a lot of history mixed in with the archaeology as we follow the parts these species played in the lives of humans.

The reason for the late adoption of this vegetable seem to include some deep-rooted but rather odd superstitions. Potatoes, perhaps because of their odd, misshapen tubers, like deformed limbs, were linked to leprosy. The fact that potatoes were not mentioned in the Bible was also a source of suspicion.

I found the parts about genetic modification fascinating. It looks at both sides of the argument, the environmental concerns and the involvement of big businesses that take advantage. But it also had case studies of crops that have helped poorer countries feed themselves. At what point does it go beyond selective breeding and into dangerous territory? And is it as dangerous as we have been led to believe. I didn’t feel Alice was arguing for either side which was very refreshing.

I wasn’t that clear on why apples were included as being instrumental to human success. Yes, they can be stored over winter and transported easily compared to other fruit, but it felt a bit like she was running out of species to get to a round number.

As human society evolved, and our ancestors began to live more densely, as well as relying on extensive social networks to survive, it seems that we may have - quite inadvertently - domesticated ourselves.

The tenth species is actually humans, which seems a bit of a cop-out and is used to round up the rest of the book. At this point I felt it was getting repetitive, but overall it was an interesting read that gave me some theories to my questions. I would say you’d need some basic biology knowledge before going in but overall it was an accessible read on a fascinating subject.

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Book Source: Purchased

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