Tag Archives: Germs

Food and science: Our international food

The food we eat today may have been grown on the farm next door or in Chile or in Ethiopia. But thousands of years ago, their ancestors grew wild somewhere. The plants we eat originate from around the world.

Before recently reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, I never appreciated the difficulty of the domestication of plants. Only a handful of plants comprise the majority of our crop production and calorie consumption. Even in thousands of years, many plants have never been domesticated. A domestic plant is a precious thing; without domestic plants, civilization would probably not have arisen.

Scientists can determine the likely wild origins of crop foods by the location of genetically similar wild plants. Tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chocolate, and chile peppers all come from the Americas. Sugar cane comes from India and New Guinea. Rice and soybeans are from China. Onions are from present-day Iran. Cashews are from Brazil.

Pecans are from the Mississippi valley, but they were not grown commercially until the 1880s! Macadamia nuts were the sole domesticated food from Australia, and they were not grown commercially until the 1880s either.

Although these plants come from around the world, you wouldn’t know it from our cuisines and cultures today. Italian food and tomato sauce, the Irish Potato famine, cashews and pineapples and chiles in Thai fried-rice, Belgian chocolate… Although humans have trouble domesticating plants, we are good at adopting them. In antiquity, similar adoptions happened with wheat and rice and millet. For discussion of how various plants influenced history, I recommend the book Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws.

It piques my curiosity– 200 years ago, pecans and macadamia nuts were wild. 500 years ago, most of the world didn’t know chocolate or potatoes or tomatoes. With modern science, what will be a dietary staple in 100 years?


Guns, Germs and Steel: An Excellent Science Fiction Resource

For the last few weeks, I have been reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. I would recommend it; there are over 1600 reviews on amazon that can tell you as much. Significantly for me, I found Guns, Germs, and Steel to be an excellent science fiction resource.

I am often skeptical of social sciences. Unlike math or physics, the simplest, most beautiful solution is often not the correct one in sciences describing human behavior. Guns, Germs, and Steel does an excellent job arguing a difficult central thesis. It does this by approaching the question from a bevy of angles, and asks what we would expect to be true in alternate scenarios. I am not an expert in this field, so I wouldn’t know if the book is overlooking any key angles, but I found the arguments convincing and honestly laid-out.

“Guns, Germs, and Steel” is the author’s shorthand for why Eurasian societies ended up defeating Australian and American societies. The majority of the book discusses prehistory such as the acquisition of crops, domestic animals, societal structure, the means by which Eurasian societies obtained guns, germs and steel so disproportionately to other societies.

This book is a must read for any science fiction author. Especially during the first half, I was mesmerized at the possibilities posed by this book.

Take one simple argument: Eurasian societies had a built-in advantage over American societies because Eurasia is oriented in an east-west direction, while the Americas are north-south. Crops domesticated in one part of Eurasia, such as the Fertile Crescent, could easily spread to other areas with similar climates, such as Italy. In the Americas, corn domesticated in central America took millennia to reach north America, because the central American corn was not ideal for northern climates. Only when a hardier corn came about did the corn spread north.

In another example, the author suggests that most plants are not suited to domestication; by chance, some of the plants most suited to domestication were in the Fertile Crescent. Regions with less suitable plants took longer to convert to farming, which delayed other advances. Present-day hunter-gatherers are experts on the properties of local plants, so along with other evidence, we can infer the lack of plant domestication in some areas was due to the lack of suitable candidates. Even in modern times, the only Australian plant domesticated is the macadamia nut, suggesting that the lack of crop-ready plants kept aboriginals as hunter-gatherers, rather than any biological differences amongst peoples.

So why does this suggest sci-fi? Much of the book is concerned with how environment shapes peoples. How would a society marooned far from Earth either thrive or degenerate back to more primitive ways? Much of it would have to do with the available resources, which would be shaped by the planet. In an alien society, which sub-group would tend to have which advances? If the land-bridge to the Americas was at a lower latitude, how would history have proceeded? If American societies had large domesticated animals, would they have resisted western invasion more, with diseases and beasts of war of their own? If the Cape of Good Hope had had suitable crops for domestication and thus supported a more advanced society, would the Dutch have gained a base of operations with which to fight the Xhosa?

Many possibilities suggest themselves for alternate histories, alien histories, or arcs of human colonization. The best books are ones that inspire and stimulate the imagination– this one did for me, and thus I strongly recommend it.