Thursday, 6 August 2015


I have a new book beside my bed these days: Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book on "the Fates of Human Societies" – or to boil it down to his chosen microcosm, why Pizarro captured Atahuallpa and not the other way around. I'm only nine chapters in, but it's impressive stuff, one of those changes-everything kind of books that are a must for any historian. But never mind the massive changes across millennia; on a teeny, tiny level, it's also made me how far one person can come in a decade.

Let me show you what I mean: what do you think of this weed right here? (Not the Snoop Dogg, far-out-just-something-for-my-asthma-man, don't-you-ever-knock? kind of weed, I mean an actual weed like you'd pull out of your garden.)

Meh, so what right? Just a grass pod. Reef it out of the azaleas, throw it in the bin, job done yeah? Ah, not so much grasshopper. You're not likely to find this growing in your flower bed unless you live in Mesoamerica, but no matter where you live in the modern world, given you're wealthy enough to be reading this on the internet, you've probably eaten actual, literal tons of this stuff (or tonnes, doesn't really matter – first one, then the other as they say) over your lifespan. It's called teosinte, "the grain of the gods," but like Alois Hitler it's better known for its famous offspring: maize. It's wild corn.

It's debated how many centuries or millennia it took to get from teosinte to primitive maize; god only knows how many more to arrive at today.

Amazing or what? It's so different from the stuff they grow in Iowa that until recently we didn't even know they were the same plant. 19th Century botanists went mad trying to find corn's lost ancestor. It wasn't until we discovered DNA and genetic analysis that we were able to track down the culprit. And man, the ancients were either bored, patient or just really hard up, because nothing about teosinte screams "major food source." What you're looking at with the modern crop is 10,000 years of selective breeding, exactly the same process that turns wolves into dogs, but applied to a plant.
Understandably, the primary goal of teosinte domestication was to improve the ear and its kernals. A teosinte ear is only [50 to 75mm] long with five to 12 kernals — compare that to corn's [300mm] ear that boasts 500 or more kernals! Teosinte kernals are also encased in a hard coating, allowing them to survive the digestive tracks of birds and grazing mammals for better dispersal in the wild. But, for humans, the tooth-cracking coating was undesirable so it was selectively reduced... and reduced... and reduced... until all that remains is the annoying bit of paper-thin, translucent tissue that sometimes sticks between the teeth when one munches on the cob.
That article also says corn went through a severe population bottleneck, the signature of rapid domestication – to the point that all the corn in the world today might be descended from just 3,500 teosinte plants. Along the way it lost a lot of its genetic diversity, even the ability to breed without human interference – but at the same time, we're harvesting a billion tonnes of it a year, so like Dakota Johnson submission is doing it good. In the last 13,000 years, no survival strategy has won harder than "be useful to humans."

And yes, the same applies to bananas.
So next time some wild-eyed stepford smiler gets in your face with talk about "miracles of nature" and "how perfectly the Earth was made for us"... laugh. Laugh at them the way I wish I had. And you tell them you absolutely believe in Intelligent Design.

Just not by any sort of god.

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