Thursday, November 22, 2012

Who You Should Thank on Thanksgiving

Behold the Thanksgiving feast. Not the one in the history books - the one on your table. The star of the show is almost surely a turkey, with a support cast of a variety of vegetables: potatoes, corn, and maybe some varieties of beans and squash. Where did those biological entities, in their present forms, come from? Were they created by an "intelligent designer" or did they arise by natural selection, along the course of Darwinian evolution? The correct answer is "neither of the above".

Oh, a great deal of intelligence went into their creation all right, but it would be a stretch to claim that they were designed, in the sense that their creators had an idea of what the finished products would look like. And as for the notion that those plants and animals you're about to eat were the outcome of natural selection: no way! That plump ear of corn you're eyeing hungrily is hardly more natural than an iPod.

An ear of corn is an artifact. Corn can't survive beyond a single generation unless somebody takes the kernels off the cobs and plants them. It can't propagate itself, so Mother Nature needed a lot of help for corn to become what it is today. Intelligent help. But the intelligence that created corn "and turkeys and potatoes and all the rest" was not supernatural and unitary; it was human and collective.

Corn as we know it was genetically engineered, but the scientists who accomplished the feat weren't modern plant geneticists in laboratory coats. They didn't understand the structure of DNA, nor know what a gene was. They didn't even know how to read or write. Nonetheless, the value of their contributions to scientific knowledge was of the highest magnitude. It was experimentally manipulation the genetic material of wild grasses that Native Americans of prehistoric Mesoamerica conjured corn out of the most improbable natural species.

How conscious a process was it? Were crops like corn and potatoes created by prehistoric peoples on purpose, or were they the outcome of a series of fortuitous discoveries? The first steps, no doubt, were taken by the plants themselves, evolving in symbiosis with humans according to the principles of Darwinian natural selection. But plants could never have naturally forfeited their ability to survive in the wild; that required artificial selection.

Turkeys, like corn and potatoes, were also genetically engineered in the America, but in contrast with plant domestication, animal domestication was a conscious process right from the start. Early humans were surrounded by wild plants, so their initial interactions were unintentional, but wild animals have a natural tendency to avoid humans. To overcome that required purposeful action on the part of the humans: raising young animal in captivity and breeding new generation of people-friendly offspring. Whereas humans had previously concentrated on killing animals, domesticating them required the opposite: keeping them alive.

Hunter-gatherers paved the way for cultivation by intentionally experimenting with all of the species that were available to them. The profound knowledge of nature they accumulated, with woman the gatherer in the vanguard, was the direct antecedent of the modern agricultural sciences. Their greatest accomplishment was identifying, from among the hundreds of thousands of wild species of flowering plants, the very few that could be altered to better serve human purposes. And they did an admirably thorough job of it. It has been more than four centuries since 
Columbus's original voyage, and in all that time no new domesticable plants native to the America have been discovered that Native Americans had overlooked.

So when you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner and gave upon the turkey, the corn, the potatoes, the beans, the cranberry sauce, and the pumpkin pie, to whom should you direct your thanks for the foods you are about to eat? Why, to the Native Americans who created them, of course.

> The article above was written by Clifford D. Conner.  Cliff is the author of published "A People's History of Science", as well as the Socialist Action pamphlets "The History of Imperialism", "The Philosophy of Marxism: Dialectical Materialism" and :Deconstructing Karl: Modern Science, Postmodern Science and Marxism".

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