Domesticating the Aurochs

It might be May now, but Brian Thomas is still posting about things from late March. Today’s science ‘news’ comes from a press release from the UCL, DNA traces cattle back to a small herd domesticated around 10,500 years ago. Brian’s article – apparently written when the news was fresh, but not published until now – is Study Finds DNA Clues to Cattle Origins.

To kill the suspense before the fold, yes he completely ignores the 10,500 years part. Given that, then, this makes a very good example of creationist selective reading, reporting, and belief when it comes to science.

Illustration of an aurochs (pre-domesticated cattle) bull, a human, and an aurochs cow, from DFoidl of WMCommons

Judging from the abstract of the paper – Modern Taurine Cattle Descended from Small Number of Near-Eastern Founders in Molecular Biology and Evolution – the fact that Taurine (European) cattle were domesticated around 10,500 years ago in the ‘Near East’ was already known from “Archaeozoological and genetic data.” What this paper did was take a look at ancient DNA from the bones of cattle much nearer the time of domestication:

The team examined how small differences in the DNA sequences of those ancient cattle, as well as cattle living today, could have arisen given different population histories. Using computer simulations they found that the DNA differences could only have arisen if a small number of animals, approximately 80, were domesticated from wild ox (aurochs).

Now this is interesting. A pullquote from Professor Mark Thomas says:

We know from archaeological remains that the wild ancestors of modern-day cattle, known as aurochs, were common throughout Asia and Europe, so there would have been plenty of opportunities to capture and domesticate them.

The fact that it seems to only have happened a few times successfully, with only 80 cows having their genes passed on to our present cattle, tells them that domestication was in fact quite difficult.

Brian Thomas tries to spin this like so:

Archaeologists concur that modern domestic cattle descended from wild aurochs in the Middle East. But recent DNA analysis showed that many aurochs were actually included in the first domesticated herd. And like other studies of plant and animal origins, these results show that cattle history matches best with biblical history.

The second sentence makes no sense to me at all. The first is accurate, though I don’t know if it’s primarily an Archaeology matter, and the third is what B.T. is trying to prove.

Ruth Bollongino and her team at Germany’s University of Mainz, whose study appears in Molecular Biology and Evolution, examined mitochondrial DNA from 15 ancient cattle bones found in Iran. The researchers compared ancient DNA sequences with those of modern domestic cattle. Their results indicated that “around 80 female aurochs were initially domesticated.”

Such a low number suggests that domestication was not random, nor was it spread across a wide region. Instead, it was “a more complex and challenging process,” according to the study authors.

Can you have ‘random’ domestication? When I first read this article I thought he was confusing natural and artificial selection – if something is ‘not random’ to Brian it can’t be the result of evolution, can it? While this doesn’t seem to be what he was going for, the wording is unfortunate when it comes to misleading an audience seemingly primed to dismiss the scientific conclusion whenever the magic word is invoked.

A separate study of Russian foxes showed that when breeding pairs were artificially selected for docile temperament, complete domestication occurred in six generations. But this involved capturing wild foxes, retaining them in cages, and breeding them with organized intent.

This, by the way, didn’t help my suspicion about a mixup – that’s artificial selection in a nutshell, folks. He cites an Acts & Facts article from January – which naturally I haven’t done yet – which seems to be an adaptation of the DpSU discussed here (at least when it comes to the foxes).

Researchers found that very few members in the founding population of domestic cattle existed, indicating that ancient humans caught wild aurochs and bred them to be domesticated, similar or identical to recent domestication of wild foxes.

“Very few members in the founding population of domestic cattle existed”? That makes no sense, and only comes close if he’s talking about the fact that aurochs are presently extinct. Moving right along…

And these results support biblical history, rather than evolutionary history, in at least two ways.

Ok, here we go:

First, domestication should have occurred soon after the Flood in the Middle East, since that is where Noah’s ark landed and post-Flood populations took root. Likewise, domesticated pear and apple trees, wheat, small dogs, and—according to a University College London press release reporting Bollongino’s research results—”goats, sheep and pigs” also originated in the Middle East.

What about Llamas? Or Water Buffalo? And Horses too, if it comes down to it. Why were those animals domesticated outside of the Middle East, if what Brian describes is true? As for plants, if a worksheet stuck into my biology book is to be believed, many more crops were first farmed outside of the fertile crescent (in the Middle East) than inside.

And ‘evolutionary history’ does explain this. If we evolved in Africa we evolved along side the animals that we could have potentially domesticated. The aforementioned worksheet claims 51 mammal candidates. But by the time we were capable of such a feat they would all be weary of us, making the task more-or-less impossible. Hence, little or no domestication taking place in Africa.

But if you now leave the continent you find yourself in a world that is (almost) entirely unfamiliar with upright apes, and the animals you encounter will be relatively docile towards you – this makes domestication much easier. You can set about doing so immediately, and where are you once you leave Africa? The Middle East. A few more animals will be available once you push onwards, but most animals were domesticated around there.

Or something close to that, at least. Domestication actually had to wait a while after humans arrived in these places – until farming developed. But where did farming develop first? The fertile crescent.

Second, in order to domesticate cattle from a few select wild aurochs, ancient people must have been just as smart and strong, if not more so, as the people of today. No good evidence backs evolutionary claims of brutish, ape-ish human ancestry.

No, and nobody believes that to be so – the joke being that to call a reactionary politician a ‘Neanderthal’ does a great disservice to the species. A mere 10,000 years back people were as smart as you are, at least.

And Brian has this all backwards. From finding that only a few aurochs were domesticated, they then determined that it must have been difficult. If they had found that a lot of animals were domesticated then they would have concluded that it was rather easy. But you then take from this that they were really strong or anything – we know that they had difficulty, and not that it was difficult.

He gives a ‘reference’ for his last sentence, as it happens – a 2010 news article by him called Discoveries Show Early Mankind Was Advanced. To quote from a recent Naturalis Historia post where it came up, “advanced apparently means only capable of making stone tools?!”

This science indicates that fully capable people intentionally domesticated cattle in the Middle East thousands of years ago—right in line with the words of Genesis.

Amusingly, Brian can’t actually give a Genesis quote here, so there the article ends.

Again, this makes a great example of creationist biases an intellectual dishonesty when it comes to science. Brian has here reported the part of the story that agrees with his presuppositions, but ignored the part that does not. He simply cannot claim ignorance of the 10,500 years – they’re mentioned in the very title of the article that he read and quoted from – and so this is for once a clear, unambiguous case of deception on Brian Thomas’ part. And cognitive dissonance, most likely – he would have a hard time separating the 10,500 years from those parts of the story he thinks support his world view.

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9 thoughts on “Domesticating the Aurochs

  1. Awesome. Have you read Dawkins’ “The Greatest Show on Earth”? He gives a fantastic description of the population distributions we would expect to see on Earth if all animals were descended from a small population that started at Mount Ararat. Very amusing, and your post reminded me of it.

    • I haven’t actually read that, no – I’ve only read Selfish Gene and another one which I forget (Phenotype possibly). I’ll add it to my list, thank you.

  2. “And like other studies of plant and animal origins, these results show that cattle history matches best with biblical history”.

    Except that this domestication began 10,500 years’ ago, Brian – a time you consider to be fictional and not part of Biblical history.

    But a (real) time that preceded Noah’s local flood that you consider was a ‘worldwide’ judgment by God, rather than followed it.

    I’m also reminded of another recent discussion I participated in – but I FORGET where* – about the link between domestication of cattle in both Europe and Africa and the evolution of lactose tolerance in adult (as well as toddler) humans.

    * Just remembered. The discussion mainly concerned a David Catchpoole May 2009 article on the CMI website: ‘Can’t drink milk? You’re “normal”! How mutations cause lactose tolerance in adults’.

  3. The early parts of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” also deals with this. It is particularly good about ‘why’ the Fertile Crescent and China as opposed to Africa or America. Or, frankly, New Zealand.

  4. The paper is behind a paywall but I assume Brian has just read the abstract. I do not know what “…serial coalescent simulation and approximate Bayesian computation…” is but I am sure that one of the inputs is the 10,500 years. Without this, I doubt that the figure of 80 female aurochs would be obtained. If, say, 3,500 years was plugged into the same calculation, what would be the outcome?

    • Almost certainly a different age for the domestication would ruin the results – I’d guess that it would give a greater number of original animals given a younger age, but I don’t know what they did either.

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