Looking back to go forward

Aurochs on tractor

Before humans domesticated wild animals, meaning before we managed to control the reproductive cycle of animals with the goal of using their abilities for our gain, there was a wealth of beasts that might have become servants of the human project. Only a fraction of them were amenable to domestication (as Jared Diamond has argued persuasively), but the ones that did manage to enter the human world became so successful at being domestic that their wild brethren became, for us, relatively useless. Such was the fate of the aurochs (Bos primigenius), the ancestor of all modern cattle, an impressive animal that lives on in symbols and mythology alone. In 1627, after having spread its domestic offspring throughout the world, the last aurochs was killed.

It should perhaps no longer come as a surprise that people are trying their best to revive the species. One such effort (not the only, nor the first, one) is that of the Taurus foundation (see here and here). We are not speaking of cloning, and the popular word ‘de-extinction’ is also not used. Instead, it is back-breeding that the foundation proposes. The aurochs lives on, as it were, in its domestic descendants. In the process of domestication, humans selected the animals best suited to human use, and killed off the rest. However, certain ‘aurochs traits’ live on in primitive breeds, namely cattle that were domesticated toward the beginning of domestication. These survive in Southern Europe, because of the history of domestication: the aurochs was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, after which it travelled north through the Danubian and Mediterranean corridors, leaving its descendants in nowadays Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Balkan peninsula. These breeds have retained the most aurochs like traits – size, horn shape, color, temperament – and are therefore the prime candidates for back-breeding. In effect, back-breeding is reverse domestication, functioning on the same principle but with the opposite goal. Through breeding and selection, the Taurus foundation is hoping to get genetic combinations that, through generations, will recreate the aurochs.

This process of recreation has been started with a herd, in the Netherlands, that combines primitive european breeds and selects the offspring that most resemble the aurochs. What it means to resemble an aurochs is complicated. In 2015 the first full genome of an aurochs was sequenced. This represents the genome of one animal, and of course does not give an idea of the range of specimens that might have been called aurochs in the past. So, in addition to genetic data, the Taurus foundation is using historical data. The problem is that there is no historical agreement on the temperament, or even looks, of the aurochs. Different authors claim widely different things. Guintard (1999) documents the conflicting claims as to the height of the animal, and concludes that “[…] speaking in a general way of the size of the aurochs means covering more than 300.000 years of history in a territory as big as Europe, including the variability due to the sexual dimorphism” (Guintard 1999, 11). In other words, there is nothing precise we have in mind when we speak of ‘the size of the aurochs’. Furthermore, domestication is not a process with a definite before and after: aurochs were bred with their domestic brethren long after the initial control of the reproductive cycle of a particular aurochs pair. This leads Guintard to propose that “the question of differences between aurochs and bovines cannot be answered conclusively. As a matter of fact, […] a certain variation used to exist within the aurochs themselves and, as Bökönyi (1969) stated, that cross-breeds were frequent between the aurochs and the domestic cattle from the ancient Neolithic up to the Roman period” (p.14). Because of these complications, the ideal target for back-breeding would be a pre-domestication aurochs, which simply compounds the problems of knowing exactly what is to be bred back.

Discussing the historical uncertainties regarding the physical appearance of the aurochs makes it seem as if there could be such a thing as identifying exactly what aurochs looked like, only if the data were available. Instead, and on the strength of the historical evidence, it might be that the aurochs we are after is a category with no definite look. This might also be true as far as the temperament of the animal goes: we cannot know, with any amount of certainty, what the aurochs behaved like. We can, however, be fairly sure that there was variety within that behavior. As Jared Diamond (2002) has argued, species amenable for domestication are not uniformly domesticable, precisely because of individual fluctuations in behavior. In other words, seeing how humans did domesticate the aurochs, it is likely that they did so with those individuals displaying the greatest docility. It is also likely that we did so with the smaller animals. So the ‘general’ disposition of the aurochs cannot be decided with any amount of certainty. The question for a program of bringing them back then becomes: what aurochs do we want today? In a human world, the historical record becomes a mechanism for justifying what we want to do, but cannot possibly be a guide: if we can prove beyond reasonable doubt that the aurochs was ferocious, as Caesar claimed, would we then have to build a ferocious animal? What would its chances of survival be? I think that whatever animals we want to bring back, we have to keep in mind that in the human world they will also be citizens.

This way of looking at the problem raises some interesting issues, including that of the meaning of the concept of species. We know, from genetic analysis, that domestic cattle were bred with wild aurochs, which would mean that, by the most accepted criterion of a species (I.e animals that cannot breed to give birth to fertile offspring), the aurochs and its early domesticates were not really different species. The fact that we consider them to be so brings to mind another interesting case, namely that of the European bison. Threatened with extinction at the end of the first world war, it was saved by a group of scientists that have, since, run a pedigree book to ensure the purity of the species. However, the ‘species’ that the pedigree book promotes is in deep trouble seeing that it is based on only 12 founding animals. But ‘hybridization’ with, for example, American bison, is highly discouraged, precisely because the offspring would have no trouble themselves reproducing. So what exactly is being protected in the European bison, and why? It seems to me that an unfortunately resilient myth of genetic purity lives on in some of the ways in which we carve out different species.

This is all to say that the aurochs, as a distinct species, is a slippery category despite the semblance of solidity. Another interesting issues in this regard is that of the meaning of breeding. The other day I was discussing the idea of back-breeding with a colleague, and she insightfully pointed out that the idea of breeding seems to be tied to an undetermined future. In other words, to breed is to put in motion a sequence of events, which means both that you are committed to a future state of affairs, and that you cannot predict it exactly. So breeding is always a future-oriented experiment in bringing about more or less what one wants. If this is indeed a crucial part of the meaning of breeding, how can it be combined with looking back? She therefore considered back-breeding an oxymoron: you cannot possibly induce breeding to go backwards, or predict with any amount of certainty what its results will be. I take her point to be quite valid, but I still don’t know what it means for the effort of reviving extinct species. I think that part of the point is that, whatever aurochs will be revived, will of necessity be new (the insistence on bison purity mentioned earlier can also be seen as a doomed attempt to freeze a dynamic process). In fact, we will probably have, in the next decades, competing aurochs, as multiple projects of reviving the species will inevitably achieve different results. So there will be different citizen aurochs, all competing for some notion of originality, though their very existence will testify to their novelty. This raises the question of the point of reviving species, but I’ll touch upon that in a different post.

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