Book review: ‘Tamed’ by Alice Roberts


Many was the time I helped my farmer friend sort her beef cattle for market. They spent half the year grazing on the Moor, semi-wild, hardly ever encountering human beings. Getting them home was always a major challenge: some of the older cattle knew the ropes, but the younger ones tended to be skittish. Occasionally, one or two—usually adolescent males—would stand their ground and have a go at you. The more bolshie animals were usually the first to be sold to the butcher. Only the more docile beasts stood any chance of breeding next season.

As Alice Roberts points out early on in Tamed, the process Darwin dubbed artificial selection, whereby humans determine which traits in domesticated species make the cut to the next generation, and which are weeded out, is really just a special case of Darwinian natural selection in action. All else being equal, farmers much prefer docile animals to belligerent ones, so docility is a highly advantageous trait as far as farm cattle are concerned.

Cows are just one of the ten domesticated species Roberts investigates in this excellent book, the others being dogs, wheat, maize, potatoes, chickens, rice, horses, apples, and—somewhat surprisingly—humans. She describes the science behind various human-desirable traits, along with the latest research into where and when each species was originally domesticated, from which original wild species, and how the domesticated forms subsequently spread around the world.

As with Roberts’s TV work, and her earlier book The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, I was impressed at the way she goes into exactly the right level of detail, treating the reader as an intelligent adult, rather than feeling the need to constantly dumb down. She explains a number of difficult scientific concepts clearly and engagingly. In an entirely different context, I recently attempted to explain one of these concepts myself for a chapter in my next book. Rather irritatingly, I had to concede Roberts’ explanation was far clearer than my own, so I made a note to myself to go back yet again and try harder!

Quite unplanned, I happened to read Tamed a couple of weeks after reading Jean Manco’s Ancestral Journeys, about the prehistoric and historic flow of peoples and cultures throughout Europe. Although the subject matter was different, the two books complemented each other very well.

Tamed is a thoroughly excellent read. Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Richard Carter

A fat, bearded chap with a Charles Darwin fixation.

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