WEEK 1 – READINGS

ENERGY AND ECOSYSTEMS

This chapter begins by lamenting the human impact on the environment and the constant changes to the environment as a direct consequence of human existence. However, when I read this type of writing (and others like it), I always question why the writer considers human beings as something distinct from the environment. Humans are a part of nature, and alterations to existing environments by organisms prevalent in nature happens ever single day. Species are driven to extinction in areas by a number of factors, and human beings are not the only catalyst for such drastic change.

The author writes that the rippling extinction of megafauna  “probably owe something to human expansion and hunting.” (page 81) To me this seems like correlation implying causation, which is not the case. A major factor in human beings becoming as prolific as we did is the change in global environments and a shift in global climate. Such a shift would have certainly caused rippling extinctions throughout the world, regardless of the proliferation of humans.

I disagree with the authors conclusions that a calorie is a calorie, whether in fuel or in food. Perhaps that would be accurate if we were discussing only calories lost from the environment, but the reading discusses it in terms of calories gained by human beings. In the discussions of humans as K-selected species, the reading completely fails to mention the most obvious reason that human beings were able to grow so rapidly despite our classification as a species that might not ordinarily to so:  space to move. When humans began filling out the carrying capacity of a certain environment, we simply moved somewhere else. Granted, the movement consumed the environment in different ways and altered it drastically, but the text never goes into this detail.

Neanderthals are actually not an evolutionary dead end in the sense that they were wiped out by competing species or gradually died off on their own. There’s a growing body of evidence that shows that Neanderthals interbred quite readily with Homo sapiens, and thus might have naturally bred themselves into extinction (combined with other factors). It wasn’t a case of being outcompeted.

 

WILD LIFE OF OUR BODIES

In the introduction Dunn mentions a host of diseases that are emerging and links them to our changing relationships with the world around us, especially all the animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria that we might not be interacting with on a daily basis. However, many of his diseases do not belong on such a list. Sick cell anemia, for one, is a direct result of a genetic mutation that lends the carrier immune to malaria. Distancing ourselves from mosquitoes doesn’t cause sick cell anemia, simply living long enough to the point where the symptoms would become evident does. Autism rates are increasing, that is certainly true. But there’s much evidence for the conclusion that the reason autism rates are increasing is because we are becoming better at diagnosing it, not because the disease itself is on the rise.

Dunn’s introduction reads almost like he believes that we were healthier in the age before technology, in the age of our ancestors. He says we are headed to a time in which our daily lives are more removed from nature and we are “sicker, less happy, and more anxiety-ridden for it.” (Introduction, I can’t find the page number on the ebook). Frankly I believe his entire attitude is delusional. He briefly touches on the fact that we should avoid reverting to wilderness and the dangers associated with it, but then laments repeatedly about our increasing dissociation with nature. Life was brutal and short before we started altering nature to fit our needs. Probably the single biggest life saving feature ever implemented in human society was the chlorination of water systems. Yet chlorinating water is a great removal from Dunn’s attitude of embracing nature. There’s a reason human beings changed their environment and removed ourselves from nature. Nature isn’t some happy environment in which we all thrive and grow equally. Nature is brutal and leads to very short, hard lives.

He comments on how we as a species used antibiotics to rid ourselves of one bacteria and in the process killed off the entire microfauna in our guts. That is utterly ridiculous. Antibiotics certainly are coming around to bite us, because they’ve been abused and misused. Yet there’s a very good reason they were used in the first place. Preserving the microbiome in someone’s gut is an excellent goal, but it’s a hollow victory when that patient subsequently dies from syphilis (or some other bacterial disease, take your pick).

Here’s Ardi, for those interested in what she might look like.

Animals and Plants, or Geography, Trade, and Politics?

Guns, Germs, and Steel proposes that the people inhabiting the diverse regions of the world were limited in their development by the kinds of animal and plant species available for them to domesticate.  The primary example given is that the people of New Guinea were unable to advance beyond a tribal society because they lacked large animals to provide the labor needed for more intensive agriculture.  Moreover these people lacked plant foods that could be stored for long periods of time, hindering the development of more sophisticated division of labor.

While it is true that people are limited by the resources at their disposal, and these resources include the animal and plant species available for molding, this explanation is unsatisfying and doesn’t take into account the depth of human ingenuity.  Diamond’s theory also fails to explain some of the sophisticated civilizations that developed in South America without laboring animals equivalent to the horse or ox.  The Mesoamericans and Inca managed empires with advanced agriculture, albeit with a more ideal crop than the New Guinean’s sago, corn.  While the Inca had the Llama and Alpaca as beasts of burden, neither is fit for pulling a plow or powering a mill, and the Mesoamerican civilizations lacked even this domesticate.  These empires instead relied on human power.

These South American empires were still less developed than the Europeans, Chinese, and some African Empires though.  Was it because they lacked the sources of animal power to develop the higher technology of the East?  While it may have contributed, there are a number of other possible factors.  .  The politics of the Old World vs the New World are in stark contrast. In the Old World there were many competing nation-states trading, warring, and exchanging ideas.  This communication, be it by the coin or the sword, doesn’t seem to have produced the same effect in the Americas.  While trade routes across America have been discovered, it was more an exchange of goods, and less of ideas.  Possibly, the speed of trade was slower in the Americas, and this made the exchange of ideas sluggish.  Europe has an abundance of waterways for not only easy trade, but water power as well.  These waterways, combined with the Mediterranean create the geographical basis for a cultural and ideological powerhouse.

The lagging behind in development compared to Europe cannot be solely caused by a lack of laboring animals and easily stored foodstuffs, but it was likely a contributing factor.  Larger culprits for this inequality may have been a lesser degree of competition and trade of ideas between civilizations and geographic obstacles to fast trade and alternative energy sources.

WEEK 1 – GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL

To preface, I have a bit of experience with this series and the book that it was based upon. A few of the history classes (and a biology course) I’ve taken have gone into it, both from a positive and a negative standpoint. On the one hand, the points Diamond make seem very plausible and easy to understand. His explanations for how the world power balance arose and shifted appear to work, on the surface it’s very easy to agree with him. However, as critics have pointed out, Diamond’s thesis is often overly simplistic.  A familiar critique of his work states that he essentially cherry picks his examples in order to support his conclusions, rather than forming his conclusions after examining all the evidence.

Watching the bit on sago in New Guinea, I wish they had shown if there was any way at all to convert the tree pulp into a format that could be stored for a long time. Diamond says they (the people of New Guinea) can’t save sago for long periods, but is that because it’s impossible to do so or because they simply haven’t happened on a plausible method?  He goes on later to talk about farming, and say that hunter gatherers couldn’t produce as much food as farmers “and also couldn’t produce as much food that could be stored.” However, I think that’s a bit of a fallacy. The storage of food does not depend on farming, farming just makes it much easier to have enough food to merit storage. Hunter gatherers could still store food, why didn’t they develop the technology (such as granaries like the one mentioned in Jordan) necessary to do so?

Regarding the lack of protein found in New Guinea, meat is an excellent source of protein. Diamond focuses on agriculture but doesn’t mention the lack of domestication of animal sources of nutrition. I would assume that perhaps the animals native to that part of the world might not lend themselves easily to domestication, but a quick look into that subject would have been helpful. If the farmers of New Guinea could have domesticated animals as a source of protein and kept up with their regular farming for other sources of nutrition, perhaps their civilization would have arisen the same way others did. The do mention a lack of beasts of burden, and mention that pigs were kept, but it seems a bit glossed over to me.

Candidates of animals for domestication “need to get along with humans.” What about wolves? Today we have dogs, and dogs came from wolves. Wolves do not get along with humans, so are they a sole exception or is that rule broken?

Diamond’s “line of latitude” rule seems pretty weak to me. According to him the climate and vegetation of Southern France and Northern India should be relatively similar, because they lie on the same lines of latitude. I suppose depending on how wide a net he casts that rule holds true, but as it stands right now there are countless other factors that influence an area’s climate (and therefore its vegetation).

On a side note, as a biologist by training (and a scholar of any sort), Diamond should know that anecdotal evidence is not statistically significant and it irks me that he even brings it up.

This post might seem like I really dislike Diamond and his work, but I thoroughly enjoy it. His show (and book) are written for broad audience, and it accomplishes that goal that marvelously. However, I’d very much like to see a more detailed and comprehensive version of his work that goes into depth with all his theories.

Here’s a great resource for more information on this episode and the show in general…

 

From breakfast to best friend

Funny picture demonstrating how farm animals have become household pets, much like the lap dogs we love to tote around. This adorable marketing scam “teacup pig” will be the topic of my upcoming research.

teacup pig

Deep History and Domestication — New for Spring 2014

Welcome to Deep History and Domestication 2.0!  This semester’s colloquium brings back some of the greatest hits of last year’s course, along with some new offerings that promise to keep us thinking, debating and writing throughout the term.  Among the latter are some readings that suggest how our relationships with other creatures shape our humanity, in the present as well as the remote past.  We’ll be reading portions of Rob Dunn’s provocative The Wild Life of Our Bodies, and Ceiridwen Terrill’s haunting tale of life with a wolf-dog hybrid named Inyo.  Reindeer People, Goat Song, and Hunters, Herders and Hamburgers are all back by popular demand.  The syllabus is posted on Scholar and on the left side of the mother blog.  I am eager to meet you all and look forward to working with you this semester!

Final Food and Course Awards

To celebrate the completion of some pretty terrific research on domestication we planned an end-of-term food fest to honor the animals we have studied over the course of the semester. The crew assembled here is ready to dive into a smorgasbord of food for, derived from, or inspired by the domesticates they researched and wrote about this semester.  The projects – which focus on the Honeybee, Goldfish,  Pigeon, Chicken, Cat, Donkey, Horse and Reindeer,are available from the research project menu on the main blog page.Feast for the Final Class

The Menu: Earl Grey tea with honey represented Bill’s fine study of the honeybee. Horses would have had stiff competition from us for the apples and caramel dipping sauce Camilla brought.  Alex paid homage to the donkey with ginger snaps (because watermelon is not in season), while Connor prepared a bowl of delicious fresh berries and gummy worms as pigeon food. Chris also played with the symbolic, bringing goldfish crackers and milk to represent the house cat. My own approach to this assignment was synthetic. I tried to include something for everybody in the “Domesticate Cookies” I made.IMG_1164

Ben and Casey took the creative route, crafting reindeer cookies and goldfish marshmallows that would be the envy of any domestic god or goddess.goldfishreindeer

 And then it was time for awards! (I’m very sorry I didn’t get photos of the winners modeling their prizes).  The finalists for “Best Video Featured on a Research Project Blog” were: 1) “Which Came First, the chicken or the Egg?” 2) George Carlin on Cats and 3) The Amazing Trick Goldfish.  Scroll all the way down on the goldfish page to find the winner, also pictured here with his culinary handiwork.CaseysFishWeb

The finalists for “Best Poem Featured in a Research Project Blog” were: 1) An ancient Egyptian Ode to embryos (and eggs?) 2) A honey-themed excerpt from the Illiad and 3) “Cher Ami,” a poem written to commemorate the feats of a pigeon hero of the First World War.  Following enthusiastic dramatic readings of all three entries, Cher Ami emerged as the winner of this coveted award.

A discussion ensued over the Best Overall Research Project Design, and while there were many good candidates, the group quickly settled on a winner.

The prize goes to….drum roll, please…….THE CHICKEN!!!! With deep appreciation of your contribution to the class this whole semester, your insistence that we always keep an eye on our moral compass, and your uncanny ability to raise the bar for all of us, Erica, we want you to come claim your prize, please.

Best Overall Design Award

Best Overall Design Award