The Advent of Agriculture

This week I read chapters 4, 5, 6, and 8 of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

Diamond J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel. New York (NY): W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 480 p.

I was first introduced to Diamond last week, reading only chapter 7 of the book. This week I was able to read more of the book, however my first impression has only slightly changed. I feel that Diamond’s writing is very technical, as it is densely packed with dry historical and scientific facts. Though this is not a bad thing at all, it was just hard to read as a fourth year biology major at 11 pm at night. I feel as though Diamond is more of a practical person, and that he tends to convey more precise information rather than wrap it up into a personal or emotional narrative. That being said, I did manage to trudge through the chapters and found that he does seem to piece together very big ideas using various fields of research.

From what I’ve gathered so far, Diamond’s main ideas of this book revolve around the advent of agriculture. He asks: how did humans first develop crops, why, and where did it happen?

Throughout chapter 4, Diamond explains how agriculture influenced people to lead more sedentary lifestyles and less hunter-gatherer lifestyles. I think that Figure 4.1 demonstrated Diamond’s big ideas in a simple and effective way (Diamond 87). With the plethora of facts that Diamond lists, the reader comes to understand why a person would opt for the sedentary lifestyle. Reasons such as more food and babies, and food storage leading to increasing population densities really make the reader start to nod their head along. I thought the resulting consequences of sedentary life that Diamond states are particularly interesting. I would have never associated the emergence of political groups, religion, soldiers, scribes, weapons, transportation by domestic animals, and infectious diseases to the sedentary life as Diamond did. I did find that at times, I could notice Diamond’s bias towards plants and agriculture – however, it may have been that he was piecing so many things together in such a simplistic way. For example when he stated that “germs thus acquired ultimately from domestic animals played decisive roles in the European conquests of Native Americans, Australians, South Africans, and Pacific Islanders”, I found this to be a bit bold (Diamond 92). I thought that the ‘germs’ were always around (or mutations happen by chance), but our use of domestic animals helped spread those pathogens more fiercely, or that the migration of people helped to spread around diseases. I don’t see how a certain hunter-gatherer tribe can’t acquire a mutated virus from a particular animal they have been dealing with for ages. It seemed as though Diamond was understating the importance of our co-evolution with bacteria and viruses (organisms that have been evolving far longer than humans, animals, or plants), however I have not yet read chapter 11 of the book where he goes into more detail on this topic.

In chapter 5, I was most interested in Figure 5.1, where Diamond explains that farming first developed in very surprising places, and that these are not the same places we see major crops grown today (Diamond 99). I had never before heard of the fertile crescent, and so I was shocked to know that this place, which I picture as a large war-torn wasteland, was once the most productive place on earth. This chapter and the next few chapters go into depth analyzing particular environments and human decisions that led to the eventual dominance of agricultural practices. I found Diamond to be quite insightful when he stated that “we should not suppose the decision to adopt farming was made in a vacuum” but should instead “consider food production and hunting-gathering as alternative strategies” (Diamond 109). I think this is a revolutionary new way to approach our historical questions about agriculture, as we tend to think of things evolving linearly.

I believe that Diamond’s ideas are quite interesting, though I found the descriptions of his supporting evidences rather boring. At times, I found him a bit repetitive in all the questions he kept posing (but that’s the hallmark of a good scientist, right?). I found it tough to keep interested because it was hard to relate with the people of 10,000 years ago, and how this affected my life today. Nevertheless, I think that knowledge is power, and although Diamond doesn’t deliver it in the most fun way, he still delivers.

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When plants make you realize you’re a narcissistic human…

We all know that, as humans, we tend to separate ourselves from nature. We believe that we were given consciousness not as a gift, but as a right, and that this right allows us to control and manipulate the world around us – especially the world of plants. Through agriculture, we have demonstrated an impressive control over plants. Well, what if someone said, “Hey wait a sec, I think the plants are actually controlling us..” – what!???

This week I read the introduction of The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, and chapter 7 of  Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

Pollan M. 2001. The botany of desire. Toronto (ON): Random House of Canada Limited. 271 p.

Diamond J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel. New York (NY): W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 480 p.

Both the chapters I read from the two books revealed similar content in that they both revolved around a plant’s perspective of the world. I may have been biased since I read The Botany of Desire first, but I found Pollan’s writing to be a bit more interesting and thought provoking than Diamond’s in Guns, Germs, and Steel.

I found that by writing in first person, Pollan came across light-hearted and humorous whilst simultaneously delivering the shock of the plant perspective to the reader. He begins with a rather innocent metaphor which likens humans to bumblebees as he claims, “What existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s?” (Pollan xiii). He then goes on to explain the egocentric attitude of humans towards shaping the earth, that we tend to believe we are the ones controlling plant species so that they may better serve us. Pollan even reveals that this superiority is apparent in our language and grammar as he states that “we divide the world into subjects and objects, and here in the garden, as in nature generally, we humans are the subjects” (Pollan xiv). And there I was thinking, oh yeah we do think that! Pollan thus gently opens the reader’s mind, shifting our view to that of the plant’s. He reminds us that “evolution consists of trivial, unconscious events” (Pollan xv) and that “the fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference” (p. xv) – meaning that although humans are conscious beings, we are still ultimately co-evolving with plants.  Pollan then leads us to the big eye-opener – that by appealing to certain human desires, plants have ingeniously allowed humans to multiply their genes for them. This kind of reminded me of one of Newton’s laws of motion, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – that’s kind of like co-evolution, and I had been completely ignoring the plant’s part. This concept was especially reinforced when Pollan stated that “it makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees” (Pollan xxi).

I also really loved how Pollan stated the goal of his book was for the reader to realign his/her point of view amongst nature instead of apart from it, as we tend to think of nature as “something that only happens outside” (Pollan xxiv). I can honestly say that I am definitely guilty of these thoughts, as I have just realized that I am near my mom’s jade plant, sitting on a mahogany chair, staring at a book of paper and munching on pistachios.

Pollan even ends the introduction exceptionally by stating that “seeing these plants instead as willing partners in an intimate and reciprocal relationship with us means looking at ourselves a little differently too: as the objects of other species’ designs and desires, as one of the newer bees in Darwin’s garden – ingenious, sometimes reckless, and remarkably unself-conscious” (Pollan xxv).

In chapter 7 of Guns, Germs, and Steel, I noticed that Diamond’s writing came across interesting, yet written in a more practical sense than the heartfelt writing of Pollan. Diamond brings up several compelling concepts, such as exploring the true meaning of ‘domestication’ and reversing natural selection through examples of larger berry sizes and oak trees. Of Diamond’s wittiest (and almost shocking) remarks, my favorite was that “human latrines, like those of aardvarks, may have been a testing ground of the first unconscious crop breeders” (Diamond 117). The provocative sentence left me thinking, that’s pretty gross but makes so much sense. I found this chapter to be quite informative, as it analyzed the true origin of agriculture through human history, and probed the fundamental questions that many of us have always overlooked.

I also noted how both authors wrote about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species near the end of the chapters. Diamond and Pollan both bring up the artificial selection that Darwin begins his book with, as Darwin wrote of plants before writing of animals because he reckoned that it would be more accepting to the masses. Pollan connected the world of Darwin to that of ours today when he stated that “the crisp conceptual line that divided artificial from natural selection has blurred” (Pollan xxii). I think that both authors will delve into this notion further throughout subsequent chapters, which leaves me excited to read more.

 

The Triumph of Seeds

Hanson T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. New York (NY): Basic Books. 277 p.

VB thor hanson seeds

Image: http://www.villagebooks.com/event/thor-hanson-4/11/15

The next book my Plants and People course looked at was The Triumph of Seeds by Thor Hanson. Although only a few chapters were assigned, I was able to discover a whole lot about seeds through the remarkable eyes of Thor himself.

Writing in first person, Thor unravels his primary thoughts about seeds in the introduction as he explains how vitally important they are to humans, and yet how we have overlooked their significance throughout history.  Thor uses a quote by George Bernard Shaw to perfectly capture the marvelous power of the seed:

“Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You bury it in the ground, and it explodes into a giant oak! Bury a sheep, and nothing happens but decay.” (Hanson xix).

Thor goes on to explain that this ‘fierce energy’ encapsulated in a seed is not yet thoroughly understood (Hanson 2015). He explains the value of seeds through impressive scientific notions, such as that humans may not have evolved without seeds, or how seed plants now dominate our current flora. For those that do not have a background in botany, Thor lists the many attributes of seeds (such as nourishment, defense mechanisms, and endurance) plain and clear. The sheer importance of seeds thus begins to dawn on the reader.

Throughout the book, Thor attempts to answer the questions surrounding the success of seeds on earth and their influence on humanity, and does so in a charming and witty way through his own personal experiences and reflections (Hanson 2015). For example, he describes his first major seed encounter with that of the almendro (almond) tree while on a graduate study in Central America. Although he studied the seed for quite a while, he noted that he still did not understand seeds in a meaningful way, and therefore consults leading seed biologists, Carol and Jerry Baskin. These two experts are the first of many whom Thor confers with, which adds faces to the scientists shaping this story of seeds. For those of us new to the world of seeds, Carol cutely states that “a seed is a baby plant, in a box, with its lunch” (Hanson 9), and that “some of those babies have eaten all their lunch, some have eaten part of it, and some haven’t even taken a bite” (Hanson 10). The reader goes on to learn much about the beginning stages of seed germination, with the example of the avocado seed. The way Thor explains the cotyledons or the way roots grow during germination by imbibing water, and even his descriptions of his own germinating seeds in the Raccoon Shack, help the reader to follow this magical process in a more informal and effortless way.

Personally, I found the fourth chapter (‘What the Spike Moss Knows’), the most intriguing of the three chapters I read (Hanson 2015). Thor attempts to discern when exactly seed plants began to dominate, or “the moment of triumph for the seeds” (Hanson 56), by visiting an archaeological dig in New Mexico with Bill DiMichele, a Smithsonian paleontologist. When I glanced at Thor’s picture of someone holding up a big fossil, I was amazed at what the paleontologists could infer from the vague imprint. It was also kind of shocking that Thor was with this group of people who believed in an entirely different hypothesis as to how the seed plants exploded in dominance over the spore plants. These people were looking for evidence to support a major theory, one that might also relate to our understanding of animals, bacteria, and other environmental changes in that time period. This part of the book also illustrated how much we do not yet know of the evolution of plants by highlighting the problems associated with the fossil record, such as preservation bias. Or another realization of how little is known of seed fossils occurs when Thor asks Bill what plant is on a fossil and Bill replies, “you’re best off just calling them winged seeds” (Hanson 60). But with the new knowledge he gathers from the paleontologists, Thor begins to better formulate the prevalence of seed plants and some of their major evolutionary adaptations – like how being in a dry area upland makes sense for spore plants to evolve seeds. I think that this chapter was really important in piecing some of the seed puzzle together.

The next chapter focused on Mendel and the history of genetics (Hanson 2015). Since I am familiar with Mendel’s story, the chapter was not as informative as the others. However, Thor still writes in his story-like manner, entrancing the reader with a tale and not a history speech.

So far, I thought The Triumph of Seeds was an interesting read because it was filled with Thor’s creative writing, personal experiences, illustrations and pictures, and occasional humorous thoughts. I especially liked when Thor began the book by introducing us to his young son and his fascination with seeds – I too now ‘heed’ the seeds!

 

 

My first step into the world of local eating..

 

 The 100-Mile Diet (well the first half of it)

The first assignment I was given in this class was to write a bit about The 100-Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon.

http://www.amazon.ca/The-100-Mile-Diet-Local-Eating/dp/0679314830

Smith A, MacKinnon JB. 2007. The 100-Mile Diet. Toronto (ON): Vintage Canada. 266 p.

I had never heard of the book before, but I had heard of the 100-mile diet as a TV show. After reading the book, I realized that the 100-mile diet was thought up by two Canadians living in Vancouver wanting to eat in a more sustainable way. The book is written in first person by the two Canadians themselves, Alisa and James. The couple are writers living in modern-day Vancouver who have some inspiration to help decrease climate change. James, for instance is an avid bicycler as “he rides even in the North Pacific monsoons of December that obscure vision, that freeze your bones” (Smith and MacKinnon 21), and also shops sparingly in defiance of materialism. Alisa is less extreme, but still shares the same earthly views as James. The two stumble across the idea of eating locally when they spend a particularly delightful dinner at their remote cabin in northern BC. The couple and their friends ran out of food for dinner, and thus caught, picked, and foraged for a meal. The experience of eating food and knowing the exact whereabouts of it, and the tastiness of the meal led the couple in attempting to recreate it in Vancouver. They then decide to try and eat food produced only within a 100 miles of where they live for one year. Thus, the first half of the book alternates chapter by chapter from James’ to Alisa’s perspectives and journeys through each day on the diet.

My thoughts..

My first thought of this whole book and the 100-mile diet concept was,  why? Why does it make a difference to eat locally? How does one or two people eating locally make a difference in the long run? How is this sort of diet going to work for someone like me – someone who has 8 university courses, 2 part-time jobs and volunteers twice a week? Or for someone who has low socioeconomic status, or is busy with a full time job and 3 small children? What I’m trying to get across is practicality in today’s North American world. I admire the courage and the bravery these two people had to try this diet, but while they are eating locally, the trucks and planes bringing in food from across the globe are still coming – the fossil fuel emissions are still happening. The prices of this imported food are out-competing the local organic food – although this couple can afford to buy it, what about the average starving student, or the single mom or single dad? And what about the time it takes to go and hunt for this food, and then to cook it? James and Alisa are writers who seem to work from home most of time, and are able to spend time preparing and cooking. I know that this would never work for me because I need easily accessible instant food (food that I can chow down on after 4 lectures, and a lab, then be good to go for work).

With these thoughts running through my head, I then kept reading and soon discovered a list of reasons to eat locally at the back of the book. Okay, so its not just the fossil fuel emissions, its getting into contact with your food again, and about developing relationships with my food, family and friends. So then I thought, maybe this could be possible for a lot more people, maybe we could all benefit from a government who supports global produce trade a bit less and local farmers a bit more. And I read on with a more open  mind.

For a book about plants and eating (not my usual Stephen King thriller), this is one is pretty good. For one, adding recipes to the beginning of each chapter is very ingenious, and adds more realism to the book (as in, yes these meals are real and James isn’t just a magician in the kitchen). I haven’t tried any recipes out so far, but poached salmon with wine cream sauce sounds exquisite.

Secondly, the description in this book is simply astounding. When I read about “the freshness of the fish, the earthy goodness of the spuds that had sopped up the juices of mushrooms and garlic” (Smith and MacKinnon 3), or about the sandwich James had made for Alisa as “layers of bright red greenhouse peppers and fried mushrooms peeked out beneath delectably oozing goat cheese” (Smith and MacKinnon 37), it seriously made me reconsider my Mr.Noodles with toast.

The last thing I really liked about the book, that I’ll say for now, is the way that both of these people write about scientific facts on food distribution and global warming, it doesn’t exactly make you feel outright guilty or shameful. I think that their slow realization to what the food industry has become is what most of us would rather go through, rather than watch one 1-hour documentary horrifying you about chicken nuggets for the rest of your life. I believe they are trying to inspire a deeper understanding, one that will continue on with the reader throughout his/her lifetime. Heck, its already gotten to me. The other day, I started explaining the book to my mom, who was shocked. My mom is originally from India, and loves plants; we have jade on our kitchen table, bamboo in all the washrooms, and a small garden with tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, thyme, and oregano in the backyard, as well as a plum tree and two apple trees. She told me she had never even given this topic a second thought before, and that she was glad that I had told her so she was more informed.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that the book is very informative, and in a bit of sneaky way since it is decorated with recipes, and descriptions of savory foods and scenic lands. So far, I’m learning quite a bit, and I’m thinking about how my ‘practicality’ questions can be answered more and more.

Image references:

Feature Image –  saw/iStockPhoto

Book cover – http://www.amazon.ca/The-100-Mile-Diet-Local-Eating/dp/0679314830

Author picture – Random House Canada