Response to Bill


I think you are asking good questions and making good points.  I too pondered what certain species would be like if they were subject to the changes that domestication would undoubtedly cause.   Domestication would certainly preserve a species but the effects are completely unknown.  Like your silk worm example, we have no way of knowing how species will react.  Perhaps some species are not meant to be domesticated or maybe we just have to perfect our techniques of domestication.  Improper domestication may have caused silkworm moths to lose the ability to fly, not just domestication.  Your proposition with the tigers does seem to be a form of domestication.  Willingly or not, those in captivity will evolve in a different way than those who are not in captivity.  They may become smaller like fish have over time simply for the reason that they don’t have to be large skilled predator when humans are feeding them.   I agree that simply domesticating tigers provides little to no benefit to humans.   Saving tigers, to me, could provide some benefits.  Extinction in an area can cause imbalance.  Whatever the tigers where hunting may have a population explosion and send the ecosystem to unbalance.

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Response to Connor


You are right about the huge amount of information provided by these assignments.  I was very surprised by the number of animals that are domesticated as well.  Is this value so low because we are unable to domesticate other animals, or do they not provide enough benefit for the effort?  I understand why it is difficult to domesticate zebras in recent history due to their flighty attitude as a response to predators.  I wonder if there was an ideal time in which Zebras could have been domesticated, before they became flighty in response to predators.  I’m sure if cows had never been domesticated, attempting it now would be more difficult.

The importance and effects of evolution really impressed me as well.  I could not believe that evolution played a part in the Cold War with wheat production.  As you said it seems that all subjects are becoming intertwined, with evolution serving as one of the common denominators.  The struggle between the evolution of humans and the evolution of other species like pathogens surprised me as well.  It is strange to think that we still struggle and spend so much money and resources on something so small because of evolution.  I wonder if this will go on indefinably or if one can truly out evolve the other?  I see no end to evolution or the complete dominance of a species that can evolve such as pathogens.

In my post I wondered why less developed countries are still that way.  Part of the reason may be that under developed countries make it easier for developed countries to thrive (outsourcing and things like that).  I hope this is not the case and that resources can eventually be shared equally once we solve the problem of depleting pools of resources.

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Domesticating Endangered Species

When I read and watch things like this I tend to try and find one word that I think sums up a good portion of the phenomena. In this case, I think “mutualism” is the best word for domestication in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. Humans domesticate goats, and even wheat. The humans weed out the less desirable varietals of wheat and the goats eat the remainder, thus increasing the dependency of the goats on humans, engendering a stronger generation of wheat (which means stronger people) and supporting an alternative source of nourishment at the same time. Thus the cycle repeats and benefits all species involved.

I have to wonder how the worldwide populations of certain species (Elephants, for instance) would be different if they were capable of being domesticated. I imagine there are quite a few endangered species that, if domesticated in the past, would not be so scarce today because their lives would be more stable, more controlled. I also find it interesting that some species do very well in captivity while others, such as pandas, rarely deliver healthy cubs when behind bars. Is it just stress?

It’s also worth noting that domestication changes these animals as well. Silkworms, for instance, have been domesticated for thousands of years. Over time, the moth form of the silkworm actually lost its ability to fly because it simply did not need it in captivity. Today, silkworm moths that can fly are considered very rare. The trained dependence on humans has made it so that this species would not be able to survive in the wild. I would also guess, however, that the silkworm’s being an insect and therefore reproducing much faster than mammals will also cause it to adapt to changes in its “Norm” environment much faster than say, a goat, which may not be all that different today than it was in the time of hunter gatherers.

What really captured my interests in the readings for this week were their implications on the present day. I mentioned this briefly already, but in the last hundred years or so, we’ve begun to do something that we either didn’t try to do before or didn’t have the tools to do: namely preserving endangered species. This interference with natural selection is, in my eyes, something new for us. If we’re successful in saving, for instance, the tiger, how will that species change? Does saving an endangered species necessitate domestication or dependence as in the case of the silkworm? If its wild habitat is gone (Which, along with being hunted for their pelts, seems to be the main reasons their population is dwindling), the only alternatives for this animal will be to adapt to other environments or die out. If people intervene in this natural process, the tigers that can adapt to life in some form of captivity will survive and reproduce, and those that cannot, ie the wilder tigers, will die out. Isn’t that a form of domestication? A change in the demographic of a species brought on by human intervention?

I realize as well that a key aspect of domestication is this idea that the relationship between humans and the animal is mutually beneficial. I can’t see any tangible benefit for humans saving tigers; they won’t be plowing fields or doing heavy lifting. But what about the satisfaction for the groups trying to save them? Does that sort of intangible benefit even count?

I could be completely off the mark in my theorizing on this subject. I may well be over thinking this to an extreme degree, so please tell me if you think I’m treading into a different area of discussion.

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Domestication and Evolution

As I delved into the assigned readings and video, I found that many questions I had formed while attaining to one would later be answered by another.  Relationships between assignments started becoming apparent so I tried to hone in on a central theme besides the obvious common topic of domestication.  I became increasingly interested in the relationship between domestication and evolution.  The two went hand in hand in more ways than I had thought previously.  Evolution, as mainly discussed in the Evolutionary History article, is the root of most that is and most that was.  It would seem that such a powerful force would be beyond harnessing but through domestication, humans have wielded the all powerful tool of evolution.  Each assignment demonstrates individually and as a collective group that humans have taken it upon themselves to play the part of Mother Nature.   With all of her complexities it is no surprise that problems have arose as a result of humans trying their hand at taking charge of the natural balance of all things.


Guns, Germs and Steel is based upon a seemingly easy question: why are some parts of the world more developed than other.  Through his investigations and research, Jarred Diamond comes up with a seemingly easy answer: geography.  It is almost frustrating to think that so much can depend simply on location.  Are humans simply not able to thrive in certain locations?  The journey to this conclusion is interesting and yet again displays the powers of domestication.  I enjoyed experiencing the progression of domestication in civilization and how it led to better crops and animals and thus larger population densities.  As domestication becomes more efficient, less effort is spent upon survival.  With more free time humans become innovative and thus evolve as a species.  I found this all interesting but I still could not get over my frustration and in this state I tried to force the possibility of domestication in New Guinea.  Are some regions meant to domesticate and reap its benefits while others are striped of even having this chance?  I agree that domestication is essential to evolution as demonstrated by the Middle Paleolithic population which became stagnant without it, but is it possible everywhere?  The video dismissed the possibility of effectively domesticating insects, a technique that would appear to benefit a place deprived of large game like New Guinea.  I thought this was an unfair assumption, just because it has not been attempted does not mean no benefit can be found in the practice.  This practice could be perfected across thousands of years just as the domestication of large animals has been in prosperous regions of the world.  The video also reflects on the advantages of having temperate animals available for domestication and uses the example of the flighty personality of a zebra to explain the lack of domestication of animals in Africa.  Both articles, however, admit that early domestication can be the cause of temperate animals.  The domestication of the wolf lead to modern day dogs, so it is possible that the temperament of zebras could mirror that of horses if they had been domesticated.


Despite these facts, if I were to submit to the notion that domestication is in fact impossible to achieve at a productive enough level  to cause prosperous civilizations anywhere in the world, then I would make the argument that there is an imbalance regarding domestication.  Furthermore inequality of civilizations as well as the negative effects of domestication proves that the relationship between evolution and domestication is not balanced.  I could make the argument that too much domestication occurs in parts of the world just as much as I can argue that not enough domestication occurs in other parts.  The article titled “Energy and Ecosystems” addresses the wasting of food and thus reveals the inefficiency of domestication.  Why does food go to waste in some parts of the world while it is barely available in others?  To this I propose that domestication is growing too fast for evolution.  Namely our population as a result of domestication is growing faster than we can evolve to be as efficient as possible.  Animals are becoming extinct, resource pools are shrinking and pathogens are becoming stronger.  There is an imbalance in nature, we are became kings with our reign over other species and thus began our battle with nature.  I believe the key to achieving efficiency and equality is to finding the true balance between domestication and evolution.

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Inequality, Domestication, Evolution, and Studying Outside of Your Discipline

Following is a discussion of some main themes from our readings, for discussion. Erica discussed some others in her post.


Scientists are usually just scientists and historians are usually just historians. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel is an interesting exception. His training was as a physiologist (my own area of interest), but he embarked on an intellectual journey to find the roots of inequality in deep human history, with the idea that once there was no inequality–once we were all in small hunter-gatherer tribes. Where did inequality come from? Why do some people “have so much cargo while others have so little”?

Diamond argues that it mainly stems from geographic luck. Those who ended up in regions with climates conducive to agriculture, and domesticate-able plants and animals ended up with the more advantages. They had a constant source of protein, energy, and fiber. In addition, eventually, they had animal to use for draft purposes. What makes a plant or an animal domesticate-able?

Diamond notes that medium-sized or large, herbivorous animals generally make better domesticates. Further, out of about 150 potential domesticates from this category, only 14 have been domesticated, with the big four being cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs. Why these?

In their article Energy and Ecosystems, Mary C. Stiner and Gillian Feeley-Harnik have an interesting answer. They argue that it was inevitable, based upon all other circumstances. As a result of our traits and the traits of those species that we have domesticated, our association with them was as inevitable as the association of algae and fungus in lichen. It wasn’t a result of our intelligence or of some great mastery we have had over other species, but rather a result of our characteristics and those of the animals we domesticated. As far as I could tell, reading their article, they define domestication as a close mutualism between two species. They don’t even limit the definition to a mutualism between humans and another species, citing the relationship between ants and aphids. What, then, is domestication? This seems to indicate that it is a close mutualism in which one species protects and exploits the other, but ultimately both benefit.

Edmund Russell, in his article Evolutionary History: Prospectus for a New Field, tackles similar issues and questions in a very different way. His article focuses on the idea that we need to study evolutionary history, a field between history and biology. The field of evolutionary history looks at evolution, but takes into account the effect of human history on that evolution. It would also look at how evolution may have shaped human history.

To me, the main theme of Russell’s article was the great importance of interdisciplinarity when studying domestication, evolution, and history. This brings us back to Jared Diamond, who, as a physiologist, he attacked one of the largest questions of our time with great success.

Geographic and Anthropogenic Influence on Ecosystems

“Why does the white man have so much more cargo?” This was the question Jared Diamond set out to try and explain, all whilst giving analysis of the world’s inequality. His studying led him to believe that they first types of human groups that were traceable were considered “hunter/gatherer” combos (which ironically were the same type of people who inhabit New Guinea, where he was studying this inequality). This led to the gathering, and ultimately domesticating of certain crops, and thus the world’s first farmers were born.

By natural selection, the humans involved in farming subconsciously domesticated crops, by choosing the healthiest of the fruit, the best looking seeds, etc. But it was where these farmers were located that ultimately decided the area’s economic and population growth. According to Diamond, it was just plain “geographic luck” as to where the prosperous nations were located, due to fertile soil. For example, rice in Asia became and is still the most grown crop, and along with the rice came cities like Hong Kong, Seoul, etc.

But how about domesticated animals? The first domesticated animals were sheep and goats, around 9000 years ago. Again, due to the antropogenic influence, humans chose the strongest and highest yield animals to keep, thus possibly altering the animals we have domesticated today. And again, due to the geographic influence, certain areas with high fertility, such as the Fertile Cresent (which had fertile lands for crops AND animals) was inhabited and civilizations were born.

But how did the idea of domestication become? Was it pure luck, that someone found a neatly planted field of “wild” crops? No, we evolved. We took the idea of planting seeds in a plowed field, and growing enough food to fend for the winters. Humans realized plowing fields all day hurt their backs, so they domesticated animals large enough to pull plows. In Russell’s article, he states, “By changing the environments in which organisms live, we have changed the selective regimes in which they evolve.” Isn’t this completely true in this sense? By planting seeds in plowed fields, by feeding and containing animals, haven’t we as humans been changing the environment for these organisms, either plant or animal, thus having them evolve differently? You wouldn’t find a square mile field of crops like you do now, or a barn full of thoroughbred horses all dressed up for the next event at a horse show. Crops wouldn’t be able to survive like that without human help, nor would half ton animals be so susceptible to humans braiding their manes and tails if none of this domestication happened.

And yet, how far is too far? Humans have a hard time at stopping something they love. For example, there will always be a demand for oil, until of course the world is dry. The exploitation of the world’s resources has become the largest flaw of the human population. Stiner says in her Energy and Ecosystems chapter that  hoarding behaviors occur within the entire animal kingdom. Well aren’t humans just the prime example of this? Yes they are, as proved by the essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” by Garret Hardin. We all know we don’t want to deplete the oil of the world, but we all need to look out for ourselves don’t we?

So syncing that up with the domestication of animals, how does this stat sound to you? The US alone euthanize more than 4 million cats and dogs every year! If that’s not hoarding, I don’t know what is. Having so many animals that we just kill off the ones we don’t want? The demise of so many animals has come at the hand of the human. Examples are large cats, whose body parts are literally flaunted as wealth and power in our society. Stiner says, “domestication has become one of the main vehicles of the expansion of the human footprint.” Maybe if we didn’t domesticate these dogs and cats in the first place, we wouldn’t deal with having to kill 20+ million of them back in the 70′s like we did. Then again, this is all hypothetical, and maybe the domestication of these animals was inevitable? Ultimately, the human impact, as well as the geographic location, were the 2 largest factors in developing ecosystems and the economies that followed.

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Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?

This question seems like such a simplistic question at first glance but upon further analysis, it proves to be the door to major discoveries. The youtube video based on Diamonds Guns, Germs and Steel presented an extremely interesting perspective on the disparity of wealth, in all its forms, throughout the different areas of the world. It is truly baffling that something as simple as the types of crops and animals that thrive in a particular location can explain why we are scouring the internet for a new dinner recipe while the people of New Guinea are scouring the forest just to have any dinner at all.

Being a biochemist, I was able to connect with the information of the nutritional values of the various plants that were discussed from barley and wheat to bananas and tarrow root. The video touched on some important points about higher protein content as well as a solid nutrient content but on a whim I decided to look up some of the nutritional facts of wheat and barley just to see how much better it actually was compared to other crops. I came across an article ( and was surprised to find that not only are wheat and barley rich in a variety of essential nutrients and vitamins, but they have also been shown to reduce the risk of a variety of diseases from breast cancer to diabetes to high blood pressure. This information could be an explanation for the higher life expectancy in the more developed nations with access to these cereal crops which would mean that something as simple as an areas ability to support cereal crops will determine everything from the overall weatlh, or cargo, to the populations overall health! I am still having difficulty wrapping my head around this concept even after watching Diamond’s video and reading the two articles.

In addition, I thought there was some very interesting information on animals and their domestication in the Diamond video. I was very surprised that in all of history as we know it, only 14 animal species have been successfully domesticated. This seems like such a small number in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of animals that we have discovered. Even more interesting than there being only 14 domesticated species was the fact that they all thrived in the same regions where the most efficient crops were thriving. This truly is “geographic luck,” to quote Diamond.

The two articles; Evolutionary History: Prospectus for a New Field by Russell and Energy and Ecosystems by Shryock and Smail also presented some very interesting ideas. The whole idea of evolutionary history was extremely appealing to me. I have always been interested in science and history, but always felt that they were relatively separate subjects. These articles changed my mind completely. It was amazing to me how much evolution and ecology were overlapping with historical studies, and even fields like politics and finance. I think that it is going to become a very important field in the very near future as we run into major issues such as overpopulation, the energy crisis, and even the national debt! Biotechnology is going to explode into nearly every field that exists and I hope to be at the center of that revolution!

One final topic that I would like to draw attention to is the idea that humans are not the only species causing environmental changes. At first I was in disagreement with this statement as I was of the opinion that all changes by one species were constantly being counteracted by other species like a sort of natural balance. I thought humans were just far more evolved and thus were able to outsmart nature and succeed in ways no other species was able too. But after reading these articles I can see how humans are really just acting like any other species, but due to our exceptionally large population, our effects are much more noticeable. If there were 7 billion elephants in the world, everything would be flattened and we would live in a giant Savannah, but nature limited their growth to counteract their effects. We haven’t outsmarted nature. We have just made our effects so quickly that nature hasn’t had enough time to counteract our disproportionate ability to change our environment. Energy is a fundamental aspect of life and the day is quickly approaching where we are going to exceed our allotted share.

There is far too much information in these pieces to cover in a single blog and I look forward to discussing it further on Tuesday. In conclusion, I have a few questions that hit me as I went through all this information that I would like to pose for you all. It seems like we have developed a fairly good understanding of genetic engineering, so why haven’t we created genetic mutants of the plants and animals discussed in Diamonds video that would be able to thrive in the less developed countries to allow them to “catch up”? Why do we still have such specific major titles when all fields seem to be converging into one another?And are we in the midst of the next major world revolution; the biotechnological revolution?


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Anthropogenic Evolution as a Two Way Process

As the Russell article, “Evolutionary History” points out, our understanding of human history is enhanced by looking at how humans have interacted with the environment to shape the evolution of many species of plants and animals and their own evolution.  Russell put forth the idea that domesticating plant and animal species was not a one way process of humans simply selectively breeding plants and animals for their own gain, but a two way process in which the domesticated species also affected the ways humans behaved and evolved.

In the article, Russell described how humans breeding plants for agriculture allowed for agricultural surpluses that led to larger and larger human settlements and more complex human social networks.  The domestication of plants and animals for agriculture laid the groundwork for modern human society by making it possible for early humans to change the way they spent their time.  Since not every member of a group had to engage in hunting or gathering for food, some early humans were free to paint cave walls and other similar endeavors.  The human influence on plant evolution allowed humans to evolve as well.  The chapter on “Energy and Ecosystems” described how one group of early humans survived and thrived because their food source was more secure because they engaged in agriculture.  Agriculture allowed early humans to grow and store their own food and be less susceptible to scarcity in wild resources.  Upper Paleolithic populations thrived and evolved because agriculture allowed their environments to consistently yield a higher amount of energy.

The adoption of agriculture was a process that affected both the plants and animals that humans domesticated and early humans themselves. In a book called An Edible History of Humanity author Tom Standage described how the domestication of corn led to a species of corn that could not survive in the wild and was dependent on humans to plant it and make it grow.  It also led to humans who were less able to hunt for their food.  According to Standage, agriculture led to less diversified diets that made individual early humans less healthy and less successful at hunting for food.  This description is consistent with the idea presented by the previous two articles that agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals was a process that affected the evolution of those being domesticates and those doing the domesticating.

This idea of anthropogenic evolution as a two way process is interesting because it challenges a common theme of the narrative of early history, that human history is a story of humans conquering their environment.  This idea is brought up in the “Energy and Ecosystems” chapter, in which the historian Jules Michelet’s views on nature are summarized.  For Michelet, history started when humans began using the environment for their own benefit.  This idea of humans conquering nature and making the environment productive is an important part of many historical works, if not always explicitly.  In my experience, many historical processes are deemed significant in the context of expanding the productivity of land and resources.  The Industrial Revolution, for example, is significant because humans made their resources more productive with new technology.  It was a process of humans gaining more mastery of nature.

If anthropogenic evolution, the adoption of agriculture, and domestication in general are not cases of humans simply imposing their will on their environment, but are instead processes of change on the parts of all involved, then this narrative falls apart.  Humans become not victorious conquerors subjugating nature to their will, but parts of a system that is always evolving.  Humans are simply a part of ever-changing nature instead of using nature like a tool.  Revising the common narrative of history could allow for a deeper understanding of human history.  As Russell’s article pointed out, using a deeper pool of knowledge allows for an enhanced understanding of history.

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