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Review: Ten Species that Changed our World by Alice Roberts | Botany One
Review by Alun Salt - May 24, 2018
List books can be good, but there’s a knack to them. Nick Lane’s Life Ascending works because the various features to life he lists come together to build a bigger story. The list is secondary to the story he wanted to tell. At the other end of the scale are 50 Things You Must Know about Peas or similar, where it’s clear the title came first and the author set about filling in the slots.
I’m not sure where Tamed: Ten Species that Changed our World sits on the scale. Ten is a nice round number and conveniently arbitrary to have arguments over what should be included and what doesn’t make the list. On the other hand, the chapters do help come together to give a long view of human history and domestication.
The ten species that make the list include five plants: wheat, maize, potatoes, rice and apples. If the species don’t match the choices you would make, that might be because of the stories Alice Roberts wants to tell. She opens with Dogs and the problems of identifying evidence from the distant past, drawing together some patchy archaeology and genetics. The techniques are similar for wheat where some genetic evidence and Vavilov‘s work are used to piece together the story of how wheat was domesticated. However, Roberts also uses wheat to highlight how human behaviour started to change. Domestication meant a move from a mobile to a sedentary lifestyle and was a massive shift in how human society operated.
When she looks at maize, there is the story of maize but also the story of the discovery of maize by Europeans. The assumption was that the classical scholars of Greece and Rome had known of everything, so maize must have been described in classical texts. So it was initially understood as an exotic Indian or Turkish corn. Roberts notes that the shift to understanding that the New World could be different to anything in recorded European history was quite a change in mindset that took a while to come. She credits Matthiolus in 1570 with being the first to understand that maize originated as something unique to the Americas.
The maize chapter is immediately followed by the potato chapter that opens with the excavation of Monte Verde. Monte Verde is a site in Chile, and it was controversial because it pre-dated the Clovis culture of North America. This was considered impossible, and it’s taken a long while for archaeologists to adapt their models of colonisation in a way that doesn’t make Clovis the primary starting point for early colonisation of the Americas. After discussing the physiology of potatoes, Roberts moves on to the Potato Famine and the possibility of GM potatoes. It’s an interesting chapter and ties early American domestication with its later arrival to Europe and contemporary problems that botanists work on today.
The rice chapter (which comes after chickens) starts with GM and how ancient farming techniques can be used with a modern grain to mitigate Vitamin A deficiency. From here she heads out to a broader discussion about public attitudes to GM crops. It’s a while before she moves to domestication at the start of the Neolithic and then brings the story forward in time again. Some readers on Goodreads have complained about digressions, and I can see why. I like the chapter, but it gets quite a way from rice as Roberts discusses society’s relationship with corporate science.
Apples follow the horse chapter. Horses were a turning point in transport, and apples provides another opportunity to discuss what long distance travel meant for the human race. She starts again with identifying the homeland of apples and Vavilov again gets credit for recognising the diversity of apples in Kazakhstan. It’s traditional for a reviewer to spot a typo to prove he’s read the book. So here I’ll note that the Welsh for apple is afal not avall though I can see how you could get the latter with an anglicised write up of the Welsh pronunciation. Likewise the Cornish for apple is, I think, aval not avel, which means something different. The apple chapter is used to discuss the importance of genetic diversity and having access to the wild relatives of our crops to improve agriculture.
The last species in the book is Humans, but while the chapter starts discussing humans, it’s also the conclusion and so recapitulates a lot of the ideas in the previous chapters.
The strength of the book is that Alice Roberts can explain the limitations of different lines of evidence, and how various approaches can be brought together. That means that she isn’t just discussing what we know but more importantly how we know it. The text is episodic. Whether or not that’s a good thing probably depends on personal taste. The actual words are accessible without being simplistic. The nature of the book is that some of it will be personal opinion. Alice Roberts’s presentation of the many different ways of investigating the past of domesticated species shows that some opinions are worth more consideration than others.