Defining “Domestication”

Diamond, Jared. “Guns Germs and Steel: the fates of human societies.” 1997. W.W. Norton and Co., New York, London. Pg 114-130.

After my last blog post on Pollans’ Botany of Desire, I read a chapter 7 of Jared Diamonds’ Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond expands on the same ideas and concepts as Pollan, but he tends to use simpler language that would make it easy for a reader at any level to follow. There are less “exclamation mark – worthy” sentences and more straight to the point discussion. One of my professors said yesterday, that it is great skill as a biologist to be able to relay very complex ideas in a way that uneducated people can understand. Diamond has mastered this skill when it comes to discussing the evolution of domesticated plants.

The focus is trying to answer the question of how agriculture came to be; “what cavewoman or caveman ever got the idea of “domesticating” a plant, and how was it accomplished” (pg. 114). Diamond describes symbiotic relationships between plants and animals, where “fruits have adapted to being eaten and dispersed” (pg. 116) and specific animals force genetic modification of plants to make them more useful to themselves, the consumer. The struggle I experienced in this chapter, right from the beginning, was with Diamond’s definition of the word “domestication.” On page 114, plant domestication “may be defined as growing a plant and thereby, consciously or unconsciously, causing it to change genetically from its wild ancestor in ways making it more useful to human consumers.” Take out the “growing a plant” part, would this definition not fit the definition of Artificial Selection?  Other animals besides humans also unconsciously cause changes in genetic selection in plants, but we do not call this artificial selection, we call it “natural selection” or “coevolution.” Diamond describes our garbage and “latrines” as “laboratories” for agricultural research (pg. 117). Before we consciously grew plants, plants had us already growing them, like other animals, in our waste, unconsciously. Is it fair to define domestication as something that only humans are capable of? Did plants domesticate us before we domesticated them?

As a side note: this is one of those moments when I think my brain might explode and I wish I had decided to study math. Math may seem difficult, but at least in math there is always one solution to a problem, one definite answer as long as you know how to solve it. I was good at math. The study of “life” is not as simple, The answer to any question in biology is the same… “it depends.” I hate that. There will never be definite answers and we will never understand everything. Instead we are blessed with these crazy thoughts and concepts to roll and around in our heads until we are so “mind-blown” we have to stop and catch our breath. I may have to blame my botany professor Lynn for that. I used to get super annoyed growing up if I was too quiet; my mom would ask me what I was doing, and if I said “just thinking” she would respond with  “does it hurt?”  Well you know what…IT DOES HURT! Sorry about the side note, just needed to get that out.

Diamond calls this chapter “How to make an almond” since an almond is just one example of a wild plant who’s mutational defect, accidentally founded upon by our ancestors, became useful to humans and we helped it evolve where otherwise it would have been lethal in natural conditions. Size, bitterness, fiber length, oiliness… all traits humans find useful in plants, combined with the perfect reproductive mechanisms are what Diamond says, separates the domesticated plants from the ones we still to this day have not succeeded in domesticating. He also clearly exemplifies which traits humans selected for in plants that we noticed and consciously picked and those traits in which we were unconsciously selecting but could not see. Overall the result was farming and crops, a resource of energy that every human on the planet relies on. The line, “[evolution of plants into crops]…followed inevitably from our selecting among wild plant individuals, and from competition among plant individuals in gardens favouring individuals different from those favoured in the wild” (pg. 130) reminds me of how we regard evolution in animal biology. Competition is a HUGE driving force of natural selection. With animals in an environment with much competition, selction favours those individuals who possess traits more likely to lead to reproduction. Selection has tended to also favour those individuals who are capable of finding a niche or environment in which they can thrive, with less competition. Certain animal  species have evolved various body forms, such as vermiform shapes, or mechanisms, such as the dragonflies aquatic larvae, that allow them to gain access to resources that other species cannot. Speciation can be a result of this separation. However, animals can move, plants not so much. By selecting wild plants different from those favored in “the wild” agriculture IS that new niche in which those particular individuals can now grow and reproduce and pass on genes.

“Domestication” has a definite negative connotation associated with it. It makes one think of control and power that one species possesses over another. I would like to think about  domestication, instead, as a business contract; a deal between individuals to co-evolve. In the case of plants, sometimes we are selecting for traits to evolve in a way similar to their wild relatives. Say strawberries, we select for larger fruit size. Wild strawberries most likely are evolving larger fruit size as well to encourage foragers, humans are just speeding up the process with domesticated strawberries. Yet, with some plants we are selecting for traits that are most likely the complete opposite of what would have otherwise evolved. For these individuals, like peas in closed pods, without humans they may not be able to survive. This is where the business deal breaks down a little and becomes slightly one sided. That is coevoltion for you…one side has to have the upper hand right? It could be said that plants are killing us slowly with obesity…perhaps they have the upper hand?

Isn’t that how business works? There is always someone who plays dirty.

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