Diamond, J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. p. 85-113, 131-156.

 

My mother always told me that if I don’t have anything nice to say, then to say nothing at all. That won’t make for a very good blog, so I’ve decided to take you on some tangents instead.

First let me do in three sentences what Diamond did over four chapters; tell you why food production took off in some parts of the world and not others. Some parts of the world were more rich in wild plants that were easily domesticated, and if those areas also had large mammals to aid in plowing, food production was very likely to naturally occur. Food production was a competitive force opposing the hunter/gatherer lifestyle that allowed for larger populations. If you can more easily feed a large number of people, you can more easily rule those who can’t.

If you want a more detailed description of the processes involved, then you’ll have a hard time finding a better source than Diamond’s book. Personally, I find few things in life as tedious as history lessons. Now that food production is the dominant lifestyle on the planet, the only time knowing how it started would be helpful is if I were part of a team first inhabiting a new planet. I would know specific conditions to look for. Outside of that, I just spent the last hour and a half brushing up on useless facts to astound my fellow patrons at the local pub.

Perhaps as you’re reading this, you find me offensive. Maybe you’re a fan of history and how learning from past mistakes can help to avoid making them again. Unfortunately I don’t see eye to eye with you, and a closer look around will show you why. No history lesson has prevented the same atrocities from recurring, there is still genocide happening in the world as we speak, we still brazenly knock entire species off the planet, and we continue to farm in ways that produce monocultures and embrace toxic chemicals on the same soil our food extracts nutrients from. Since I see no real value in history, my mind tends to wander when I hear these ancient stories. Most often I find myself asking what the people of that time thought like. Were their mental capacities on par with mine, only hindered by the lack of collective knowledge at the time? Or were their brains less developed, essentially populations of children in adult bodies. I find that a lot of the decisions they seemed to make would be the same choices I would, indicating the former as closer to the truth. Depending on your opinion of me.

But I digress. While reading these chapters I found myself wondering if they would make the same mistakes they did if they had the hindsight we do today. Perhaps that is the great meaning of history, to wait until science finds a way to travel back in time and show those naive folk the errors of their ways. Paradoxically, it already would have happened if it ever did. But still, I find myself asking that if they saw what we’d made the world into by abandoning the hunter gatherer lifestyle and adopting food production, if they still would have made that leap. Imagine how different our world would be had the fertile crescent been slightly less fertile. I imagine trade would still have developed, but populations would be smaller since delegation of farmers and bureaucrats would likely not have developed. I think it would be eerily close to how John Lennon imagined it.

Another direction my mind wandered to while reading these chapters was how important it was that food production led to surplus, which led to power, which led to kingdoms and empires. What’s more intriguing is that this area of land is also arguably the birthplace of religion. Had food production not developed there, would we all be “pagans”? I don’t recall ever hearing about crusades in the name of the god of the trees, or wars over who the spirit of the water adores more. Perhaps that is the reason I disliked this particular history lesson as much as I did. I wasn’t learning about one megalomaniac who did terrible things and spurred the world to react, or about a true noble soul who gave great sacrifices in their life to show us how to better live, I was learning about the inception of everything I see as wrong in the world. It started as such an innocent ideal, they could feed more people with less work than the hunter/gatherer could. Little did they realize that they were creating orchards for the forbidden fruit.

Pollan, M. 2001 The Botany of Desire. Random House p.183-238

Never has the phrase “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t” held more weight than when considering the options of conventional farming and the use of GMO’s. In Pollan’s chapter on potato farming I was taken on a journey through the history of mankind bastardizing a tuber that has given us so much. Before I begin lambasting these alternative farming methods I’d like to point out that it is all simply feeding a food chain with corporations like McDonald’s at the top of it. Fast food establishments can be judged by the fries they serve, the winner then creates the platonic ideal of a fry. McDonald’s has done very well in this competition over the years, and they have dictated to potato farmers that they require long, purely white potatoes. This can only be accomplished by growing one specific potato, and so the culture of mono began. When trying to grow only one species of potato, it is essential to give it every advantage you can to aid in its development. A single virus can knock out entire crops, and even multiple crops all before a single harvest. Conventional farmers have combated this with chemicals, they spray their field with chemical after chemical to ensure that not even microbes can survive in the soil prior to sowing the crop. If you’re thinking that life as a potato wouldn’t be so great if you’re being planted into sterile soil, just wait because it gets worse. After planting and tending to the potatolings, the farmers still apply more chemicals to combat pests and weeds. The results of this are deposits of chemicals not only on the soil, but on the leaves of the “food” plant as well, not to mention the fattening of the pockets of chemical producers. Most farmers wouldn’t eat their own produce straight from the ground, and after some chemical applications they will quarantine the field of human life for a period for fear of the toxic results. One chemical producer has taken these profits and come up with a brilliant monopolizing solution. Monsanto has been spearheading the GMO market for over a decade now, and has accomplished their goal of establishing a monopoly. The problem is, they never should have been allowed to pass Go in the first place. They now control who can plant their seeds, and even who can grow plants with their gene in them, regardless of intent. When you look into how hit and miss the process of inserting this desired gene into the plant is, it really makes you question how safe this thing can be to consume. Yes, you are able to avoid layers of chemicals sitting on the soil and the plants, but only because the plant is now producing similarly effective proteins in its biochemistry.

What makes GMO’s more frightening than the use of chemicals is that chemicals are predictable. We can study how they break down, toxicity at each constituent level, and how long they will last as such. GMO’s can not only not live up to any of these, but they can cross pollinate with wild type plants through a number of vectors. The exact same factor that is responsible for the amazing adaptive radiation we see in the plant kingdom is what is ensuring these new genes are being introduced to all members of these species and possibly others. How certain are you that the potato you last ate didn’t have an altered genome? But you aren’t too worried, because the FDA checks food to ensure that it isn’t dangerous to our health. The only problem is that since these genes being inserted into our food crops encodes for herbicide, pesticide, or antibiotic resistance, the FDA sees the product as such and no longer as a food. That right there is enough to keep me from buying fries, but then I ask myself when the last time I ordered McDonald’s was at all. I only found two types of occasion when I considered this a viable option; when I was less than sober, and if I was in a foreign country. Knowing what I know now, I’ll trust anything put on a plate in a foreign country more than the chemical saturated product McDonald’s serves, but I can’t make the same promise if I’m intoxicated. I become weak. I lose will power, and I can get so much for so little. This is not a dilemma exclusive to my life. Even if McDonald’s and other fast food establishments only served people when they are high or drunk, they would still make enough to continue dictating the type of potato they need to create their “perfect” fries, and the farmers would be forced to resort to one of these two options in order to meet the incredibly high demands placed on them.

This provides the biggest dilemma I’ve faced with regards to food; I know that eating this garbage will likely shorten my life, but even if I stop supporting them these juggernauts will continue to march on and ruin our world. Do I really want to live long enough to see it all come crashing down? Or do I want to supersize it?

Pollan, M. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye view of the world. p.xiii-xxv.

In the introduction to his book, Michael Pollan explains why he has chosen to focus on the four plants he writes about. Apples, tulips, cannabis, and tulips are all very recognizable forms of what he considers to be the four groups of plants most influenced by our artificial selection over the years. These are of course, fruits, flowers, psychoactive, and staple crops. The reason for choosing these four specifically goes deeper than being recognizable to the masses however; he chose them because he is personally very familiar with them and has experience with each of them in his own garden. After introducing us to his subjects he begins to shift our perspective slightly by suggesting that these plants have used us to increase their own fitness rather than us using them.

I really enjoyed this shift in perspective, and it reminded me of the experience I had reading Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene for the first time. It is not unlike that feeling you have after being stumped by a riddle only to find that the solution was obvious the entire time. Just as Dawkins had changed the way I looked at organisms and evolution, Pollan was forever changing the way I would view plants. It actually felt like a continuation of the same thought Dawkins had left off on, only focused on plants specifically. The important part to remember is that very little selective evolution is ever a conscious decision by both parties, artificial or natural. With this in mind, it became so obvious that he was right in saying that the grasses had used us to find a way to compete with the trees. By capitalizing on our needs, plants had not actually done anything new. They had been making sweet fruit and bitter seeds for aeons in order to be fruitful and multiply, with us they simply found a host that was willing to do more than eat the fruit and provide fertilizer. They found a species who was willing to cultivate them at the expense of other plants’ fitness. As Dawkins pointed out, all any organism wants in life is to have as many descendents as possible, and humans have ensured that for those plants that please us in some way. It is no difference than the flower that pleases the bee having more fertilizations than those which do not. What is especially interesting about this is how some plants have been taken under our wing more than others, and why this might be so. This was discussed in detail in the second reading.

Diamond, J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. p. 114-130.

This chapter starts off full of intrigue, posing the question mentioned above regarding the first baby steps of agriculture. Jared goes on to answer the question, outlining how some features are more important than others when it comes to domesticating a plant. A big key is having control of the desired trait being carried on a single allele, so that the desired mutants can be easily selected for without fear of recombination and the like reverting to the wild type. Another is how long it takes to reach maturity, for this he uses the Oak tree as an example. Farmers would have had to be patient on the level of sainthood in order to attempt cultivating certain traits in acorns, due to the time taken to grow to maturity, multiple loci for the bitter taste, and the fact that squirrels are more efficient than we are at selecting for other traits. This leads us to why fruit such ans strawberries and raspberries have only been successfully bred relatively recently. Without nets and greenhouses we were competing with the selective forces that had done a great job for thousands of years, and we are no match for birds unless we can contain them. He went on to describe how wheat was one of the first crops due to its ease of domesticating, and then described how our artificial selection can act directly opposing to natural selection. This is the case with peas, corn, bananas and other seedless fruit we’ve cultivated. The most interesting aspect of this chapter in my opinion is how we initialized domestication of plants like almond plants, which in their wild state are poisonous to us.

Diamond is undeniably a very brilliant man, and capable author but I felt like he was writing to a page quota rather than being concerned with keeping the reader focused on the message. In the meat of the chapter he was still detailing very interesting facts about plants the likes of which I’d never heard, but it started to feel like I was reading a text book and I lost interest a bit. It really made me appreciate Pollan for only choosing four plants. Diamond’s chapter was definitely more informative, but the greatest task for a science author is taking facts and making them entertaining. Diamond just got caught trying to tell too many stories at once in my opinion, but each of the stories alone is worth telling. Since it is essentially a history lesson, it is hard to have a strong opinion on it either way. He did a good job of telling these stories in a slightly more entertaining way than if I was simply reading a text book though, which is a step up at least. Perhaps my opinion of Diamond’s work was spoiled by reading it right after Pollan’s, but if artificial selection is simply people choosing with variation they find more pleasing then in a few years we’ll see more Pollan books on the shelf than Diamonds.

Halle, F. In praise of Plants: A Visit to the Landscape of Form pg 41-124 & Evolution pg 173-184

In this excerpt, Halle manages to accomplish what few before him had even considered attempting; writing about plants outside of the human perspective. By peeling away prejudices most people have when looking at the foreign, he forces readers to question their perspective and look at plants in what is most likely a novel way. Producing an onslaught of quotable lines that most likely litter my peers’ blogs, he manages to do all of this using language that not only includes the lay reader, but engages academics and lay people alike. That isn’t to say that everyone who reads it will enjoy it, but that even those who didn’t enjoy it likely were quite passionate as to their reasons for not enjoying it. He writes as any good science writer should when addressing a wide audience, from the perspective of a visitor new to this planet. By doing this he manages to shed those aforementioned prejudices, and as a result he dares the reader to question their preconceived notions. These questions are what enable the reader to widen their horizons and look at plants in a new light, or what will bore others into blissful ignorance. Either way, Halle has done his part as an author; he has given plants their due. People are less likely to pick up a book on plants than they are one on their favourite vertebrate, even though in terms of biomass plants exceed all animals 1,000 fold. Plants were also the first out of the sea, and they’ve done a pretty good job of inhabiting the planet since then. It is most likely because it is so difficult for us to relate to plants that we fail to see their grandeur, but show a baby mammal and the masses will be hooked. This is why Halle’s challenge was so large, to make something so hard for us to relate to not only seem interesting, but to show that it doesn’t need to be anthropomorphized in order for it to be amazing. For me at least, he succeeded in his challenge and from now on I’ll look past the flower to see the plant.

 

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