Human Nature, Technology, and the Environment - Spring '06

Emily Lowing (

Agricultural Domestication: A Historical Perspective

In 2004, 200 million acres of genetically modified crops were grown worldwide (Economist 29). As public interest in this relatively recent development piqued, uneasy mutterings could be heard from the governments of developing nations, as well as from the environmental left, protesting the unnatural manner of this genetic tinkering.

Yet a closer look at history reveals that extensive human intervention has been necessary throughout time to keep crop yields high enough to support our booming population. Yet the line beyond which we consider ourselves playing God, permanently altering plant pedigrees for our benefit, is vague at best. There has never been one point in time at which we presumed control over our environments and from then on, manipulated our surroundings to adapt to our needs.

Herein lies the fallacy in the idea of the Neolithic Revolution. “Human societies did not set out to invent ‘agriculture’ and produce permanent settlements,” (Ponting 38). Rather, farming arose out of a very gradual approximation towards increasing numbers in individual tribes, as the need to supply food became more pressing, and the efficiency of hunting and gathering dropped with the rise in tribe populations. There is a general perception of early man as a species living in harmony with nature, taking only what he needed. Yet hunting was highly inefficient- man without gunpowder is no match for most game animals. It required many men, whose strength could perhaps have been put to better use, to bag enough food for the tribe from a single hunt.

Conversely, in order to make a hunting trip worthwhile, wasteful methods were frequently employed. “In south-east Colorado, hunters appear to have set off a stampede into a canyon and ended up with about 200 corpses, most of which could not be used because they were squashed at the bottom of a large pile of bodies,” (Ponting 30). The method of hunting as a food-gathering process left no less of a footprint than agriculture, in which an artificial environment is substituted for the natural one. In fact, it may have been just as big. Prey populations are much more vulnerable to selected killing because of their inferior numbers, compared to the biomass-related stability of primary producers. Recovery from over-hunting has a huge time delay the further up the food chain one travels; extinction occurred with some frequency among those predators that early humans were known to have preyed on.

The interactions between human and environment, and the technology we came up with to negotiate this space, is more complicated than originally thought, if only because the hunting and gathering way of life had no less (or more) of an evolutionary plan than did the development of permanent agricultural settlements. The continuing, persistent approximation of humans to their surroundings produced the adaptive traits and behaviors that helped us thrive, but there was no clear, coherent direction taken towards domestication and civilized societies.

This issue has been particularly well-illustrated recently in the debate regarding our ever-evolving relationship with our canine counterparts. The longstanding belief was that humans could take most of the credit for the development of this mutual partnership. Common knowledge dictated something along the lines of, wolf pups were furry and cute; some tribes decided to keep a few pups around, and we’ve been co-evolving ever since.

Recent research has brought some news to light, however, that may swing the impetus for initiating contact to those first wolves. Dogs have proven to be more acutely tuned in to human cues than any other animal in the world, beyond even the capacities of our closest species relatives. Further work has found that this is no longer a learned ability, gained from the intricate feedback systems throughout a dog’s life, but one ingrained in their DNA. Puppies with limited human contact can “take the hint” as well as those that have already been placed with a human family. According to Dr. Richard Klein, an archaeologist at Stanford, “this is a symbiotic relationship with substantial time depth,” (Wade 3).

Even if this holds true, these abilities may still have been taught by early humans. Yet corresponding evidence proves that the modern canine- all species, everywhere in the world- are descended from wolves (specifically, several East Asian species). Raymond Coppinger, a behavioral ecologist at Hampshire College, believes that “wolves, even as pups, don’t have the right temperaments for a role in such a [docile] scenario… wolves became ever less fearful of people as they adapted to scavenging food from their two-legged neighbors. Thanks to this easy source of food, wolves born with greater boldness around humans thrived,” (Pennisi 1540). The question of tameability or trainability, therefore, seems to have been won by our canine friends, at least for now.

This points the finger all the more at homo sapiens’ lack of agency in manipulating our future with any sense of permanence. Retrospectively, it would be nice to look back and believe our ancestors foresaw a bright future, and shaped their behaviors and customs accordingly. Yet it is difficult to prove that early man could have predicted the benefits of any habits or traits he acquired that we have since imbued with cultural significance. We can designate a certain time period as revolutionary and turbulent, we can call the initiation of a particular interspecies relationship innovative, but that alone cannot alter the nature of their progression as they happened at the time.

That we have the capacity today to genetically alter the DNA of many grains is impressive. It has allowed for the cease of famine in many developing countries, and been a boon for the agriculture industry besides. We have been growing in our capacity to make and use tools since recorded history began (probably even before that). This is no different- the tools are just more advanced, and the field which develops them more specialized. We should celebrate the fact that we have been able to attain such levels of concentration within an occupation. Past advances have made present and future development possible. Without further expansion, momentum stops and we fall stagnant. If we as a global society want to be truly self-sustaining, progress through research, in this case, even with all the changing of an old vanguard that comes along, must be allowed to grow.

Works Cited

“Ears of Plenty: The Story of Wheat.” The Economist. 12/24/05.

Pennisi, Elizabeth. “A Shaggy Dog History.” Science. 298: 1540-1542. 11/22/02.

Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1993.

Wade, Nicholas. “From Wolf to Dog, Yes, but When?” The New York Times. 11/22/02.

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last updated 2/27/06