The Taming of Three Species Talk from Alice Roberts
Wednesday, 27 November 2019
A 400-strong public audience, including pupils from five local schools, attended the much anticipated enrichment presentation from television presenter and anthropologist Professor Alice Roberts at Bolton School Girls’ Division. Professor Roberts’ thoughtful and engaging talk, entitled Tamed: Three Species That Tamed our World, delved into the fields of archaeology, science, history and genetics as she revealed the stories of three species that became our allies; dogs, horses and cattle. She explained that in asking herself what is it that makes us human, she began to question whether we can apply this research to other species, particularly those that are now ‘at our side’; this proved to be the wellspring for her book Tamed, which uncovers the amazing history of ten familiar species with wild pasts.
Professor Roberts reminded the audience that when Charlies Darwin introduced the concept of evolution by natural selection in his book ‘On the Origin of Species’, he started his work by looking at domesticated species. She explained how he bred and used is his own pigeons to explain his theory and she also cited the example of farmers being able to change the breeds of their livestock over time.
For hundreds of thousands of years, Professor Roberts explained, our ancestors depended on wild plants and animals for survival. They were hunter-gatherers, consummate foraging experts, taking the world as they found it. Then a revolution occurred – as their interaction with other species changed. They began to tame them. The human population boomed and civilisation began. As humans moved to a more sedentary lifestyle, small settlements evolved and on the edge of these camps, wolves roamed, scavenging for leftover food. Gradually they became more and more involved with humans and she told how European grey wolves mutated into dogs – even today, the professor noted, there is only 0.5% difference in DNA across all species of dog. This domestication of dogs happened long before that of cattle, sheep, pigs and goats. She then recounted the tale of the differences of opinion between scientists, biologists and geneticists, explaining how dogs split away from ancestral wolves at least 15,000 years ago but, depending on who you believe, it could have been as long ago as 30,000-40,000 years ago in the depths of the Ice Age.
Professor Roberts described how the domestication of cattle from early Oxen began about 10,500 years ago when the world was warming up after the retreat of the ice sheets. She also told how our forefathers could not drink milk but, with the taming of cattle, our bodies gradually mutated, allowing us to drink fresh milk.
Professor Roberts then turned her attention to how humans domesticated horses 5,500 years ago during the Bronze Age in what is now North Kazakhstan. This changed everything as people were capable of travelling further distances, spreading knowledge and making incursions into other people’s camps. Horses were used in warfare, Professor Roberts explained, right up to the First World War.
The professor fielded an eclectic range of questions from the audience including how much DNA do dogs and humans share, where are the oldest horse remains, how do Philosophy and Genetics complement each other, how do genetically modified animals affect natural selection and what inspired you to become an anthropologist (the answer being great teachers).
Speaking about how current agricultural practices are one of the biggest contributors to global warming (40% of the earth’s land surface is given over to farming), Alice finished her presentation by warning that politicians need to wake up to the crisis and that it has taken far too long for humans to realise they are part of nature not separate from it. In order to save the planet, she said, we desperately need to work out how to thrive with nature!
This talk was part of a series of Arts and Sciences Enrichment Evenings hosted each year by the Girls’ Division. Click here to view the full programme of events for 2019/20. Subscribe to our mailing list to receive updates and reminder emails about forthcoming enrichment evenings.
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