Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Our symbiotes, ourselves

A couple months ago Steve sent me this short, enjoyable piece about the history of wheat from The Economist (Motto: "Oooh, Look At Me, I Read The Economist!"). The article gives you a portion of the conventional story of the role of agriculture in history: a happy tale of rising yields, rising standards of living, and increasing sustainable populations. It is also a story of how we worked ourselves into the tiny interstices of our environment, reworking the genomes of plants to turn them into symbiotes. Common wheat is a hexaploidal plant, bearing six copies of each chromosome, an exuberance due to the origin of common wheat as a hybrid of a diploid grass and tetraploid emmer or durum wheat. Emmer wheat apparently received its superabundance in the wild, though, and from emmer comes all domesticated tetraploidal wheat. The result of all of this crossing and recrossing, doubling and redoubling, is a plant that cannot reproduce without us, whose seed pod is shaped by human needs and not the function of dispersal. For our part, we could exist without wheat, but not in our current numbers. Hence, symbiosis. Because the conventional story of wheat is so uplifting—comedic in the older sense of the term—it gives us a happy, optimistic moral: we should embrace new genetic technologies and not worry about population growth. Everything is always getting better.

There is a counter narrative to the conventional happy picture of agriculture. (In the link, the counter narrative is told by Richard Manning, but it has many incarnations.) As we worked ourselves into the small parts of nature, we rolled over the large parts of nature. Manning describes wheat growing as catastrophe agriculture. Wheat is a plant that thrives on land that has cleared and flooded. When we grow wheat we have to remove the existing ecosystem, leaving a blank, nutrient rich slate for our symbiotes to spread. The domestication of wheat meant the clearing of the forest. This transformation of the surface of the earth by agriculture grounds the counter-narrative of agriculture, a story where human kind falls out of balance with nature and with itself, thus bringing about war, government, and inequality. Agriculture, although probably invented by women, was also a big step forward for the patriarchy. While this counter narrative is often told by those who oppose new genetic technologies and worry about population growth, the story itself has little in the way of a moral. Like all stories of humanity’s fall, it really just says humanity is shit outta luck. Everything is always getting worse.

I’m glad I have both these articles now. I have been assigning Manning’s version of the counter narrative for some time now, as if students actually knew the common story, which they do not. I now have two easy-to-read articles to assign together.

What I don’t have, sadly, is the truth. We need to tell a moral story of our tenure as a species here on earth, a story that can orient and vivify us. Darwin has blessed us with a tale of life on earth as a whole. There is a grandeur in this view of life, as well as a large dose of the truth, so I share a picture book version of it with my children. But our species is a minor character in the last act of this story. We need a smaller story to explain ourselves to ourselves.

I don’t like either the common story or the counter narrative I described above. They are starting points though, because they tell the story of our species together with the story of our symbiotes, and we would be fools to ignore how our successes and failures are bound up with the fate of the life forms we have surrounded ourselves with. (I am also convinced that the story of our species must include the story of dogs, and am fascinated by the possibility that the domestication of dogs began before our branch of the genus homo appeared.) Our symbiotes, ourselves.

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