Diamond on domestication

Jared Diamond, in discussing animal domestication, claims that the local availability of species with the right qualities for domestication was key, rather than anything special about the biology or culture of the humans living there. In some cases that may be true: there aren’t many large mammals left in Australia, and they’re all marsupials anyway. Stupid marsupials.  He claims that since Africans and Amerindians were happy to adopt Eurasian domesticated animals when they became available, it must be that that suitable local animals just didn’t exist. But that’s a non sequitur: making use of an already-domesticated species is not at all the same thing as the original act of domestication. That’s like equating using a cell phone with inventing one. He also says that people have had only mixed success in recent domestication attempts – but the big problem there is that a newly domesticated species doesn’t just have to be good, it has to be better than already-existing domestic animals.

Indian elephants, although not truly domesticated, are routinely tamed and used for work in Southern Asia. The locals in Sub-Saharan Africa seem never to have done this with African elephants – but it is possible. The Belgians, in the Congo, hired Indian mahouts to tame African elephants, with success. It’s still done in the Congo, on a very limited scale, and elephants have recently been tamed in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, such as the Okavango delta. Elephants have long generations, which makes true domestication difficult, but people have made domestication attempts with eland, African buffalo, and oryx.  They’re all tameable, and eland have actually been domesticated to some extent.  If a species is tameable, economically useful upon taming, and has a reasonable reproductive schedule, domestication is possible: selection for even a few generations can change their behavior enough to make dealing with them a lot easier.

As for the Americas – have you ever had a deer eating out of your hand?  Bison seem too wild and scary to have ever been domesticated, but then I’m sure you would have said the same thing about the aurochs, the wild ancestor of cattle.

In fact, in my mind the real question is not why various peoples didn’t domesticate animals that we know were domesticable, but rather how anyone ever managed to domesticate the aurochs. At least twice. Imagine a longhorn on roids: they were big and aggressive, favorites in the Roman arena.

Let me throw out an idea originated by an old friend, Ivy Smith. Consider mice, cats, and toxoplasma. Toxoplasma is a protozoan with a two stage life cycle: one in an intermediate host (mice and rats, among others) and a definitive host (some feline).  Toxoplasma only reproduces sexually in the definitive host, and it ‘wants’ to end up there. It manipulates the behavior of the intermediate host in ways that increase the probability of transmission to the definitive host. For one thing, it makes mice like the smell of cat urine, which elicits fear in uninfected mice. In fact, it seems that toxoplasma-infected mice are sexually excited by cat urine. How weird – a parasite rechanneling sexual interest…

The idea is that at least some individual aurochs were not as hostile and fearful of humans as they ought to have been, because they were being manipulated by some parasite. The parasite might have  caused a general reduction of fear or aggression without infecting or aiming at humans – or, maybe, humans really were the definitive host, and the parasite knew exactly what it was doing. The beef tape worm – which we originally acquired from lions or hyenas back in Africa a couple of million years ago – might have gained from making infected bovines quiet, passive, maybe even overly friendly in the presence of humans. This would have made domestication a hell of a lot easier.

Parenthetically, such host manipulation may play a really important ecological role.  For all we know, if canids and felids had to rely purely on their own abilities, they’d starve.

The beef tape worm may not have made it through Beringia.  More generally, there were probably no parasites in the Americas that had some large mammal as intermediate host and Amerindians as the traditional definite host. Amerindians simply hadn’t been there very long. Domesticating bison may have too hard for unaided humans, back in the day.

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47 Responses to Diamond on domestication

  1. dearieme says:

    Diamond’s book had some interesting material in it, but did leave me with the impression that he was rather dim.

    • gcochran says:

      There are surely smarter people, but I figure that he was just lying.

      • dearieme says:

        That’s interesting: about what in particular?

        • gcochran9 says:

          The basic thesis of the book – that environments vary, but people don’t – is false, obviously so. I figure he’s lying. There are plenty of possible motives, but at minimum the book would have flopped if he had told the truth.

          He does allows for one exception to human cognitive sameness: he says that people in PNG are extra smart. Which is not so. On the contrary.

  2. Robert Dole says:

    “How weird – a parasite rechanneling sexual interest”

    Group selection, dude. It doesn’t all have to be either inclusive fitness or a pathogen.

    • gcochran says:

      Group selection is weak. It can work with a pathogen, because those involved in an infection are often descended from a single organism and are thus closely related. In some cases, like cholera, a phage can _make_ them closely related. If you’re suggesting that homosexuality in humans is the product of group selection, I have to disagree. What is your model for how it might aid in group success or survival? Let me guess: in the days of old, when a tribe faced some existential crisis, a young lad would suddenly point out that they had a barn. They could put on a show and dance their troubles away!

      • Robert Dole says:

        “What is your model for how it might aid in group success or survival?”

        If a subpopulation of stable nonreproductives were culturally integrated, and if their divergent pattern of fetal androgen exposure also “feminized” certain capacities (fashion sense is a bit specific, but perhaps enhanced social cognition?), then their existence (presumably mediated by a heritable process) would be selected for at the group level.

        Stan Gooch (bit of a nut) thought it was inherited via neanderthal admixture: http://www.pdf-archive.com/2012/01/20/gooch-the-neanderthal-legacy-opt2/gooch-the-neanderthal-legacy-opt2.pdf

        The 2d:4d digit ratio is different for autistics (potentially atavistic phenotypes) and for homosexuals (I wonder if it differs between bear gays and more feminine gays?). Morton’s toe (“Pied de Neandertal”) is also potentially linked: http://www.reddit.com/r/Anthropology/comments/nyytf/mortons_toe_2nd_toe_longer_than_big_toe_and/

        Turing was gay. Eddington was gay. Wilde was gay. Freddie was gay (also a cognitively gifted Parsi. Hmmm…). Greeks and Romans seemed pretty gay (before it was cool, or even defined). Utilizing the social talents of certain divergent phenotypes that don’t necessarily fit into a binary gender model (e.g. Hijra, Fa’afafine, etc.) would seem easier in a large, stratified civilization.

        The fact that gays tend towards transient jobs that deal with lots of people might indicate their role in earlier human groups. The mildly schitzo guy emphatically narrating a coming-of-age myth in front of the firepit might be more helpful (for the group) if he can be sexually satisfied without having to take care of a family.

        PS: I’m a fan of your work. Keep doing it.

        • gcochran9 says:

          Nope. Come on, think about it. Suppose there was a version of gene that made people for-sure straight. It’s going to increase in frequency until it reaches 100%.

          By the way, homosexuality is considerably more common than average in some fields, but not in the exact sciences.

      • Robert Dole says:

        “Suppose there was a version of gene that made people for-sure straight. It’s going to increase in frequency until it reaches 100%.”

        Eusocials manage to maintain a constant population of nonreproductives, why not humans? Some ants change phenotypes according to “juvenile hormone” exposure during development:

        “We understand a lot about how these different castes are produced during development of the ant larvae,” said Dr Abouheif. […] When a queen lays eggs, he explained, each egg can develop into a different caste depending on the environment it is in – the temperature it develops at and the nutrition it receives. But the key to “switching” into a specific cast is controlled to a large extent by one chemical inside the eggs, which is called juvenile hormone. […] “So if you treat any species at the right time in development, just with a hormone, you can induce the development of the supersoldier,” explained Dr Abouheif.
        “The fact that you can induce it in all these different species [that don't naturally have that caste], means that one common ancestor of all these species had [supersoldiers].”

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/16424096

        Human eusociality might originate with ancestral introgression:

        “…the puzzle of human altruism and cooperation can only be solved by proposing a theoretical model that is based precisely on both genetic determinism and group selection. This model, which was never advanced in published papers, is presented here. This article also proposes to regard ancestral environments as determinants of human eusociality.”

        http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306987707002526

        • gcochran9 says:

          Look, this is just silly. Workers bees or ants are frantically busy working for the hive. Homosexuals aren’t – and, by the way, there isn’t even any hive.

          Nobody who actually understands anything about eusocial insects would think that homosexual men are in any way analogous. Bill Hamilton certainly didn’t.

      • Robert Dole says:

        “Bill Hamilton certainly didn’t.”
        Razib responded similarly.

        Autistics have probably been maintained by cultural integration, despite historically low reproduction rates:
        “In another age, [high functioning autistics] would have been monks, developing new ink for printing presses. Suddenly, they’re reproducing at a much higher rate.”

        http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aspergers_pr.html

        EO Wilson seems to think humans are eusocial and his model also involves group selection for improbable heterosistic traits from ancestral introgression: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v466/n7310/full/nature09205.html

        Autistics are sometimes more androgynous. Perhaps there’s some mixing and matching of cognitive phenotypes (including stuff that’s usually gender-specific), linked to fetal androgen exposure.
        “By definition, most heterozygous animals, including humans, are hybrids that carry different alleles from female and male parents.”

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20080432

        You pointed out that pathogenic homosexuality could be under selection, so why not a “selfish element” that’s still part of the human genome? The boundary between symbiote and parasite is similarly fuzzy.

    • Ian says:

      ““How weird – a parasite rechanneling sexual interest”

      I wonder whether HIV in the early stages of infection might inflict subtle patterns of brain damage contributing to disinhibition and hyper-promiscuity.

      • gwern says:

        The recent Atlantic article on toxoplasmii mentioned some results in other diseases – IIRC, that influenza encouraged socializing.

      • Ian says:

        Thanks gwern, I’ll look that article up.

      • erica says:

        I’ve wondered about that as well. I’ve also wondered about the number of openly gay men who, in today’s urban setting can hook up easily with other men via gay bars, gay classifieds, etc., yet prefer seedy public restrooms for such activities. Years ago, one could have argued that the closet forced those anonymous, quick encounters in filthy places your momma told you not to go, but today a gay man can access the same stranger in a bar. In fact, he can have a choice of strangers in a bar. I call it the George Michael syndrome and wonder if the pathogen load of some gay men isn’t harboring a critter that drive him to such places.

  3. jb says:

    Hey! You want tame African elephants? Step right up, I got yer tame African elephants right here!

    Especially starting at 2:20! :-)

    (Warning: somewhat NSFW, depending on where you W).

    • sideways says:

      Fashiontv manages to break the boob-taboo in Muslim countries and on Youtube? I’m impressed.

      • jb says:

        Huh? Oh hey, you’re right! I was too focused on the elephants to notice!

        Actually, YouTube’s boob-taboo seems to have quietly slipped away about two years ago. I won’t clutter up the comments with more embedded player views (I hadn’t realized you could do that just by inserting a YouTube URL in your comment — I thought I’d just get a link!), but if anyone is interested: v=MXOXoJ1dsJM, v=4D3-sBccpJc, v=HAHiq-Lxs30, v=PCdbzWEwQmE, v=Gn5_m5HnOvg, & v=4yyasNY7Iuo. Note that these are all flagged as age-restricted, so YouTube isn’t letting them slip through by accident.

        (Yeah, I’m a perv).

  4. Leonard says:

    The “germ theory” man conquers new terrain. If all you have is a hammer… but I kid. I have no idea. I do think that Occam’s razor suggests that domestication requires IQ or some associated mental trait like future orientedness. The smarter populations did it more, and the dumber populations did it less or not at all. Germs, or Diamond’s ‘lack of suitable candidates’ seem like second order effects to me.

  5. Rachelle says:

    Just an added note on the taming of African elephants: I think that the Carthaginians used now extinct Atlas Mountain African elephants in the first Punic War and then, again, in the Second War when, among other things, Hannibal tried to lead them over the Alps. However, they may also have rarely used the larger variety from the south.

    In any event, the problem with lack of training of African elephants probably does not lie with the elephants.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      War elephants were awesome weapons. The best ones came from India as they were larger and less likely to frighten and then run amok. They were big enough to carry four archers in a platform on top. Before battle they were made more fearless by getting them drunk on red wine. The charging elephants were fearful enough but the added effect of a red mouth made it look like they had been feasting on blood before the battle. They didn’t play a larger role in military history because there was one counter weapon that worked splendidly. Elephants are very afraid of fire so all you had to do to reverse an oncoming elephant charge was to release animals set on fire against them. Camels with straw piled on their back and set on fire worked just fine for Timur to send the oncoming elephant charge straight back over it’s own army. Another time an elephant charge was repulsed by oil soaked piglets set on fire and let lose under their feet. Even the drunkest meanest elephant can’t stand to have squealing flaming piglets running under their feet. I know I’m adding something of absolutely no scientific or historical merit but hey, what a story.

  6. As regards deer eating out of one’s hand, see this video :

  7. jb says:

    (I didn’t even go looking for this! I just happened to run into it on cnn.com).

  8. vrobin says:

    My recent entry to the New Yorker cartoon caption contest seems strangely relevant to your post. The drawing shows a cowboy riding a giant grasshopper, and I have him saying to another cowboy riding a horse, “Ya cain’t never break one till a parasitic wasp larvae eats out half its brain”

  9. Greying Wanderer says:

    “He does allows for one exception to human cognitive sameness: he says that people in PNG are extra smart.”

    That was the big giveaway.

    .
    “Bison seem too wild and scary to have ever been domesticated, but then I’m sure you would have said the same thing about the aurochs, the wild ancestor of cattle.”

    Large, dangerous animals like bison or aurochs could have been tamed like elephants using kraals however if it’s settled farmers who do the domesticating (apart from dogs) and the Bison’s range doesn’t coincide with viable farmland that might be the reason Bison were ignored.

  10. David says:

    I think a reputable study did find higher than normal levels of fertility in the female relatives of male homosexuals–leaving open the possibility that a gay gene could be kept around in the gene pool by balancing selection between males.and females. What if the gene enhanced female fertility by increasing the sex drive? Male homosexuals seem to be very hyper-sexual. What if the meme is nympho women produce more gay sons? If this were the case, it would not be remarkable if they were attracted to the same sexual objects as their mothers. They could be more sensitive to male sexual pheromones for example. Also, if the gene were widespread in the population but only occasionally resulted in a male who was an obligate homosexual, the reproductive penalty for the gene might be less than commonly supposed. I don’t know anything about this, and don’t have a dog in the genes vs. germs fight. I am just speculating.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I know of that study. I think it’s wrong. It illustrates a point, though. Back in the day, what limited the number of offspring, in most cases? Realize that populations were more-or-less malthusian. On average, couples only managed to replace themselves. This was not because their fertility was too low (for the most part), it was a matter of resources. Would greater fertility have created extra resources? Would it have let you to feed three kids instead of two? Not likely. Given effectively unlimited resources, as in pioneer America, typical couples averaged 9 surviving kids. Average potential fertility is already very high.

      Higher fertility wouldn’t be absolutely useless, but the selective advantage of higher potential fertility in a resource-limited situation is small.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      (wrong thread i know but)

      “What if the meme is nympho women produce more gay sons?…but only occasionally resulted in a male who was an obligate homosexual”

      A gene (or pathogen) that promotes indiscriminate promiscuity which has occasional side-effects?

      .
      “Higher fertility wouldn’t be absolutely useless, but the selective advantage of higher potential fertility in a resource-limited situation is small.”

      What if the resources weren’t so limited though i.e. among the upper classes of past civilizations or the upper middle class and underclass of the modern west – something residual that [increases frequency / flares up] when the conditions are right?

  11. David says:

    posted the above comment on the wrong thread. Sorry.

  12. Sean says:

    In the Russian fox taming experiment the foxes selected for tame behaviour began to get odd coloured coats. But if you were a reverse weather vane and you selected for unusual coat colours you might get domestication as a side effect. NG article</a< [W]hite spots on a dark coat, flourished, in part because, well, people liked them. "It wasn't that the animals behaved differently," as Andersson says, "it's just that they were cute."

    hereThe researchers also studied other chicken breeds where fibromelanosis occurs, including the Bohuslän-Dals svarthöna breed (Image 2) from Sweden, and they found that all fibromelanotic breeds carried the exact same very unusual mutation. [...] – It is obvious that humans have had a strong affection for biological diversity in their domestic animals, says Leif Andersson.”

    I wonder if personality could be altered by selecting for odd hair colours in humans?

    • Nanonymous says:

      “There are numerous reports of the black squirrels being more aggressive which could be due to the presence of higher levels of testosterone.”

      Hmmm. This also sounds like Belyaev’s rats that, when bred for hyperaggressiveness, tended to turn black over time.

      • Sean says:

        Coat colour is for camouflage, countershading makes this clear. The native red squirrel is shy, it likely had to keep a low profile for fear of pine martens ect. Greys’ coat colour is probably too easy to see in Britain but there are virtaully no predators in England any more. So the more active and aggressive grey mutant has taken off because the black colour doesn’t matter any more.

        Red hair in a forest animals (foxes ect) is for camouflage, I think Neanderthals were red for camo.

        That link for the National Neographic domestication article HERE Interesting bit :”That region of the genome, they suggested, could be a potential target for “genes that are important in the early domestication of dogs.” In humans, the researchers went on to note, WBSCR17 is at least partly responsible for a rare genetic disorder called Williams-Beuren syndrome. Williams-Beuren is characterized by elfin features, a shortened nose bridge, and “exceptional gregariousness”—its sufferers are often overly friendly and trusting of strangers.”

      • Sean says:

        I’m stupid but I’m_not_that_ stoopid, if I’m right about what you seem to think I believe.

        Where pine martens are still around (North Scotland) they put a stop to the virus toting grey tree rats spreading. Right, so the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris, a proper squirrel to my mind), survives with pine martens cos it evolved to keep a low profile, and it’s difficult to see. (Many forest animals have red tinted coats.) The black (melanistic subgroup of the US Eastern Grey) Squirrel does well in England but its coat and behaviour would get it noticed and killed off right quick by pine martens, but there are no martens or other predators left down south where it is.

      • Sean says:

        In fairness, I was rushed and thought the wording was unclear when I finished writing the offending comment. I should not have said ‘grey mutant’ when I meant ‘the black mutant of the grey species’

  13. george says:

    I thought Diamond’s idea was that east west communication between europe and asia meant tecnnology like domesticated animals and gun powder not to mention diseases traveled more quickly than north south communication in Africa and the Americas. This led to the eurasian advantage.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      That’s one of the ideas. I don’t think anyone argues that crop farming doesn’t spread easier along the same latitudes.

  14. Julian O'Dea says:

    Google Rothschild and zebras on Google Images. He used to keep a team to pull his carriage.

  15. anon666 says:

    The immediate thought that I had in response to Diamond’s argument that the Americas didn’t have any large domesticatable species other than the alpaca (which aren’t that large) and the llama was: What about caribou/reindeer? Granted, they’re kind of small, but my understanding is that horses were initially quite small, and at the time they pulled chariots, they werent large enough or strong enough to support the weight of a fully-armored knight.

    Also, the Swedes established a moose cavalry in the 18th century. It was disbanded because moose couldn’t tolerate the sound of gun fire. If an attempt were made pre-gun powder, the results may have been different.

  16. Gcochran, you don’t cease to amuse me. I rarely read your writings and am not familiar with your “theories” but every time you say something about Amerindians, the only thing you seem to “know” is that they settled America recently. First, as they entered, they killed off all the megafauna, with the exception of the bison, then they failed to domesticate the leftover bison because they didn’t have enough time. With your level of sophistication you should be writing juvenile fiction.

    • gcochran9 says:

      There is certainly no evidence of humans earlier than, say, 16,000 years ago in the Americas. We can date skeletons, using C14, back 40,000 years or so, but no skeletons that old have ever been found in the Americas. Nor have we found any comparably old, solidly dated artifacts.

      Have you ever been right about anything?

  17. ALS says:

    I am pretty sure North American bison have been domesticated; there are apparently over a millon on farms across North America. Apparently they were domesticated with quite a bit of ease in the late 19th/early twentieth century….doesn’t this poke a hole in Diamond’s theory about there not being any animals in the New World that could be easily domesticated? I mean if you had a bison farm, that be a pretty good animal from which to start building a civilization. And what about white-tail deer? They also have been domesticated, there are white-tail deer farmers in Canada, and also elk farms. Moreover, the European reindeer has been domesticated and is traditionally hereded in Lapland, but the natives here in North America never learned to domesticate the caribou, which is just a North American reindeer. Turkeys have been domesticated, which I believe Diamond did acknowledge as a North American speices that was domesticated. But then again, unless I am mistaken, North American ducks have been domesticated, and Canada geese have been too, and they would make an excellent food source. Dogs were obviously domesticated in the New World too, the Aztecs or Mayans even had a hairless variety that they raised for food. Of course, the potato is indigenous to the Americas, and was domesticated here, as was corn, squash, pumpkins, beans, tobacco, and various other plants. Toss into that blueberries, huckleberries, black berries, etc. etc. (dozens of different types) and it seems to me like you actually have an excellent range of plant and animal species here in the Americas that can or have been domesticated. The soil, freshwater, timber, and other resources in the Americas are at least as good/better than anything you would find in the Old World. So based on this, I have hard time understanding Diamond’s whole there was no natural advantages/any animals that could be domesticated in the Americas line of thought. I realize I must be missing something crucial in his book? Can anyone explain it to me? Thanks.

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