Thursday, October 27, 2016

Agricultural Turning Point

With respect to major turning points in human history, none is more significant than the Neolithic Revolution. Literally, neolithic means new stone age. The term stone age has a connotation of an exceedingly primitive human culture. In terms of our modern culture, primitive is a generally appropriate description. Neolithic culture, however, was the beginning of a startling change in human living conditions. Perhaps no human revolution has been more significant.

The main characteristic of the Neolithic Revolution has been linked with the switch to agriculture over the former hunter/gatherer means of subsistence. If we could identify a trigger for the switch to farming, it would be the transition of humanity from the Ice Age. Significant climate warming made agriculture feasible. During the cold conditions of the Ice Age, modern agriculture was not feasible. If contemporary society were to become unable to sustain agriculture, especially the agriculture developed in the last few hundred years, famines would wipe out much of humanity. Humanity could not endure a return to the hunter/gatherer culture which sustained humanity for tens of thousands of years prior to the Neolithic Revolution.

Within several thousand years the warming climate enabled humans to transition to an agrarian society. In the transition to agriculture, much of early human society slowly became more centralized, urbanized, and hierarchical. In the years following 10,000 BC, central political structures began to appear. The change was enabled by the move toward agriculture. The population gradually embraced the new knowledge of specialized food crop cultivation. The human population grew. In the harsh days of the Ice Age from which man had emerged, survival was a challenge. Food supply was not their only challenge. 

In the previous several tens of thousands of years while the Wisconsin stage of the Ice Age was still in progress, the catalog of giant animals roaming the earth would read like science fiction literature. These animals are known as Pleistocene megafauna (giant animals). Before the Rise of Civilization, late Paleolithic humans coped with many types of giant animals on our planet. Early man was a hunter—a hunter of megafauna among other prey. In order to be counted as megafauna, animals must be over 44 kg in mass (100 pounds). Worldwide, over 90 genera of megafauna comprising hundreds of species perished from our planet as the dying gasps of the Ice Age caused oscillations of temperature up to 16ÂșC. Climate change joined with human hunters and disease to hasten the extinctions. 

In 2004 my wife and I visited The Mammoth Graveyard museum of Hot Springs, South Dakota, a late Pleistocene excavation site from which remains of 61 mammoths have been excavated along with thousands of other Ice Age creatures. In 24,000 BC the Hot Springs site was located only a few hundred miles south of the greatest extent of the Wisconsin Ice Sheet. Large collections of Ice Age megafauna became entrapped in a warm (hot springs) pool. They were preserved and now testify to the reality of plentiful Ice Age animals in North America a few millennia before humans crossed from Asia. Sea levels were hundreds of feet lower as sea water was locked in ice, creating a land bridge between Siberia and North America for humans to cross. The land bridge disappeared when the ice sheets retreated. 

We return to discussion of the Neolithic Revolution. Following the end of major Ice Age events about 10,000 BC humanity experienced an agricultural revolution. Hunter/gathering was no longer the main characteristic of human society. Domestication of plants and animals became the normative trend. Without the rise of agricultural practices and domestication of plants and animals modern society would not exist as we know it.

When God created modern humanity our planet’s Ice Age persisted in full force. Periodic interglacials—milder climates between two glacial periods—came and went. When the harsh Wisconsin glacial episode came to an end, human civilization began to resemble our modern civilization in a major respect: man’s healthy survival depends on agriculture. In today’s society we assign importance to other revolutions. For instance, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and the Digital Revolution of the 20th century may appear to be more significant for human survival and well being. The Agricultural Revolution birthed other revolutions.

In the third chapter of Genesis God instructs newly created humanity in their choice of food in the Garden of Eden. An outgrowth of Adam and Eve’s errant food choices led to the spiritual fall of man. We cite this passage to highlight the importance of physical food rather than to spiritualize the passage. In the New Testament another passage stresses the importance of food. I Tim. 6:8 instructs: “But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” The provision of physical food is a paramount divine gift to humanity. It overwhelms the potential of many other divine gifts which also are given for humanity’s enrichment.     


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Glaciers and Humanity

Our post title suggests a relationship between cycles of global climate and their effects on humanity. This proposal is true in a powerful way. Long term earth temperatures cycle between warmer and cooler. On a short time scale, daily and seasonal temperature changes impact what we wear, what activities we enjoy, when we take vacations, and dozens of other choices. On a longer scale some observers may notice that winters are warmer than they were in our youth. Truly long term cycles are more difficult for our contemporary population to identify and appreciate. For example, Earth experienced the Medieval Warm Period from 950-1250 AD and the Little Ice Age from 1300-1850 AD. Even more fascinating are exceedingly long term glacial events and ice ages of earth’s history. People are more immediately impacted by short term changes in temperature, falling short of an in-depth understanding of how changing dynamics of climate—temperature and precipitation—have impacted humanity over thousands of years.    

One example of lack of understanding of climate dynamics relates to the rise of civilization about 10,000 BC. Glacial episodes on Earth in the past 2.5 million years have been ubiquitous. Widespread continental glaciers have covered broad regions that are ice free today. Northern North America and Northern Europe have been overlain by thick ice sheets periodically during the Pleistocence—the last 2.5 million years until 11,000 years ago. Following glacial advances, our planet experiences warmer interglacials during which glacial ice melts and retreats. Presently we live in an interglacial epoch called the Holocene. Essentially, the major effects of the most recent Wisconsin glacial stage are behind us even with the presence of current ice caps at the North and South Poles and in Greenland. Therefore, Earth is still considered to be in the last stages of an Ice Age. Another major glacial advance is possible at some point in the distant future.

The rise of civilization owes more to the demise of the Wisconsin glacial event than any other factor. In terms of the history of humanity, civilization arose following the Wisconsin with surprising rapidity. Our recent blogs describe a more urban, sedentary culture and the rise of farming in association with civilization’s emergence around 10,000 BC. In the many tens of thousands of preceding years, progress of human achievement as we comprehend it, was glacially slow. Some believe true humanity would have progressed beyond the hunter/gatherer stage long before.

We quote from the 10-year update of Who Was Adam, an RTB Press 2015 volume co-written by Reasons to Believe scholars Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross: “The descriptions of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2-3) and of Noah’s flood (Genesis 7-9) imply that both events occurred during an ice age. The last ice age event took place 13,000—112,000 years ago, so it is reasonable to assume both Noah and Adam might have lived within this period, or Noah only during the last ice age but Adam and Eve during the preceding one…” The preceding one refers to the Illinoisan glacial stage within our current ice age. It occurred 140,000—235,000 years ago, the third of four glacial stages during the 2.5 million year Pleistocene geological epoch.

Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana in their Who Was Adam 10-year update cite several trustworthy researchers who place the well-publicized “mitochondrial Eve” (the mother of all living, either one individual or a small group of individuals) at about 150,000 years ago. Likewise, they cite reliable researchers who have proposed dates for Y-chromosomal Adam (the father of all living, either one individual or a small group of individuals) at between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. Thus, dates for both mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam converge at around 150,000 years ago. This resolves the RTB problem in their 2005 volume where projected dates for mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam were very different from each other. Some recent work indicates that “while not conclusive, a number of studies suggest that modern human behavior emerged earlier than 70,000 to 80,000 years ago.” 

Many questions recur as we study the issue of dates for the origin of humanity. We wonder why these fully human men and women did not advance beyond a primitive culture for tens of thousands of years. We may also wonder about the existence of primitive cultures in our modern time. There exist a number of uncontacted indigenous peoples in various countries, mainly in jungles of South America, Africa, and Indonesia. They are fully human but resist contact with the outside world. Their lives have not advanced far beyond Paleolithic cultures of humans long before the human embrace of agriculture about 10,000 BC. Uncivilized and uncontacted does not diminish their full humanity. This phenomenon may help us understand that fully human men and women existed and survived during the harsh and changing conditions of the ice age prevailing during most of the lengthy human habitation on this planet. They survived but did not thrive. 

In our youth we learned from Scripture about the creation of the universe, Earth, and living things including humanity in the Image of God. The Bible contains minimal information about timelines and details of creation and the events leading to Noah’s flood. The human authors of the Old Testament chose mainly to detail the calling and events of the Chosen People about 2,000 BC beginning with the patriarch Abraham in Genesis 11. Accurate interpretation of Scripture is a responsibility we share with trusted scholars. Skilled scientists help us discover historical geological and archeological facts. We are thankful to our Creator for the skills of both theologians and scientists.                        

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Glacial Wisdom

Before we launch into continuing discussion of the startling sudden shift of society toward agriculture about 10,000 BC, accelerating human society toward what is termed the rise of civilization, I digress with a few personal observations of the remnants of glaciation in the area where I grew up and later lived and worked. These memories not only demonstrate the reality of past Pleistocene glaciation but also provide awareness of past glacial events as they clarify geologic phenomena still evident today. Past and present observations are tantamount to an educational “field trip.” Nothing reinforces book learning and class discussion better than in-person visits to sites where historic events occurred.

My childhood in central New York State provided many remnants of earth’s last continental glaciation. At the time I was unaware of glacial history in my home town region. In nearby Syracuse, there was a ski area and country club called Drumlins. As a child I did not understand its geological significance, or any details of my home town area’s glacial heritage even though the last continental glacier had retreated from the region only yesterday in geological terms. Years later I discovered how the country club acquired its name.

My brother became interested in model airplane building in his teen years. Some of his large glider models were capable of moderately long flight. As a young observer three years his junior, I “helped out” several times as he launched his gliders from the highest hills in our neighborhood. What were these glider-launching venues? Later I discovered the launch hills were drumlins, deposits of sediment formed in elongated north to south teardrop shapes under the slowly south-flowing ice sheet perhaps 15,000 years ago. The ice sheet flowed over glacial till, unsorted deposits of sediment, molding them into long, tapered hills blunt on their northern end and tapered at their southern terminus. These childhood glider launching venues seldom exceeded 50m in elevation.

The Seneca River flowing through our village was the main drainage of the famous Finger Lakes of New York State and became my personal favorite site for carp fishing. These elongated lakes were also generally north/south oriented, formed by the glacial ice sheet slowly following and deepening previously existing stream valleys. The largest finger lake is Seneca Lake, 618 feet deep. At 427 feet elevation, the bottom of Seneca Lake is actually below sea level. Giant lake trout and brown trout inhabit the deep lake. My parents knew personal friends with a home on Seneca Lake during my childhood. Watkins Glen State Park was the nearby site of a beautiful hanging valley waterfall, the stream bed having been “left hanging” by the passage of forceful glacial ice. When we visited our family friends I was unaware we were treading on ancient glacial topography.

Some of our family’s favorite summer visits were stops at Fair Haven Beach State Park on the shores of Lake Ontario, less than an hour away from our home. Lake Ontario is one of five Great Lakes. These are the largest glacial lakes in the world. The Great Lakes did not exist when the Rise of Civilization commenced in Mesopotamia and other places in the Old World. In 12,000 BC most of the drainage and meltwater from the continental ice sheet in northern North America flowed south and west toward the Mississippi River. But by 4,000 BC the present Great Lakes drainage patterns became established as the ice sheet melted. The water then began to flow northeast following the present St. Lawrence River. This exceedingly brief narrative does not begin to relate the complexity of events in North America after the Wisconsin glacier began its demise.

Since I moved away from Central New York state in the early 1950s, I have become aware of additional phenomena in the US Northeast and Midwest as a result of the former presence of the Wisconsin ice sheet. Not ten miles from the school district where I formerly taught, I recently visited a surreal glacial “leftover” in a place called Pyramid Mountain County Park in Morris County NJ. Tripod rock has a mass of 160 tons. It rests on three much smaller rocks as though suspended several feet above ground. It is a glacial erratic carried and dropped by the mighty ice sheet perhaps 18,000 BC, transported from an unknown location farther north. I enjoyed telling my former students that our school building rested on land almost exactly at the Wisconsin glacier’s southern-most edge. We wondered whether the ice began at one definite spot, or if a few snowbanks began to appear here and there as one hiked from south to north.

What was life on Earth like during the Wisconsin ice age? The Genesis account of man’s experience details mainly events of the past several thousand years. But prior to the few thousand years recorded primarily from around time of Abraham, we have a sparse record of human life. We count many contemporary benefits of the Wisconsin glacier event, including (1) melting ice bringing nutrient-rich alluvial soil to the plains (2) melting glaciers, especially in the Himalayas, bringing water to the Earth (3) human migration, facilitated with the creation of land bridges during long periods of low sea level (4) melting glaciers forming an abundance of fresh water lakes (5) glacial retreat forming deep, safe harbors (6) retreating ice sheets leaving behind spectacular scenery.

We close with one more personal memory of the lingering benefit of the last Ice Age. Northern New Jersey is the home of The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in southern Morris County. The melting ice sheet left a moraine (sediment deposited at the edge of a glacier) to plug normal drainage from the watershed. Glacial Lake Passaic formed. The remaining swamp is now but a 12 square mile remnant of the Wisconsin glacier which covered the area with a thick ice sheet only 15,000 years ago. It now functions as a habitat for 244 species of birds and other diverse wildlife. The swamp acts as a natural water filter and provides a hiking site. I organized several after-school bus trips to the swamp for our hiking club.

God exclaimed in the first chapter of the Bible that each event of creation “was good.” On the sixth day he created man in his own image and instructed him to rule “over every living creature.” He “saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Our Creator is also aware of glaciation events which come, go, advance, and recede. He is aware of all natural cycles. God creates and sustains hundreds of beneficial cycles for the benefit of his children. As we examine these events we discover they are all “very good.”    






Thursday, October 6, 2016

Antiquity"s Agricultural Revolution

Our enthusiasm for our contemporary agricultural bounty is well merited. We offer thanks to God for record breaking 21st century crop production and its fascinating diversity. The quality and abundance of fresh and frozen fruits, vegetables, and meats in our modern food stores have inspired my personal tongue in cheek characterizations of supermarket visits as “worship experiences.” Compared with food shopping in the mid-20th century or earlier, we are startled by progress in agriculture and agricultural technology.

We recently posted about the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, credited with saving humanity from widespread hunger and famine. The Agricultural revolutions of the 16th-19th centuries helped trigger the Industrial Revolution and resulted in enhanced human population growth. Much farther back in human history we call attention to the Neolithic Revolution of approximately 10,000 BC. It is also known as the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. Humanity transitioned from a hunter-gatherer society to an agriculture based society. The move toward agriculture resulted in a human population explosion. Humanity’s population may have expanded by a factor of ten.

The Neolithic Agricultural Revolution overlapped with the melting of the last great ice sheet about 12,000 to 10,000 BC. The last advance of glacial ice is called the Wisconsin glaciation event, the last of four major glaciation events of the Pleistocene, or Quaternary geologic era which began about 2.58 mya. Earth is still in a late stage of the Ice Age. We are currently in an interglacial stage with another glacial advance possible for our planet in the far distant future.

In our last post we referenced humanoid creatures, defined as having an appearance resembling that of a human. They appeared 2.3 mya. These include many species of creatures that evolutionists wish to include on the human evolutionary tree. Even evolutionists make a distinction between ancient hominids falling far short of full humanity and fully modern humans. Ancient hominids used simple, undifferentiated tools. For many eons, however, there was little advance in their tool making technology.

From 500-200,000 BC evolutionary scientists have described archaic homo sapiens as our immediate predecessors. From 150-120,000 BC the more advanced and well publicized homo sapiens neanderthalensis appeared and roamed the earth. Finally, anatomically modern humans appeared at roughly 140,000 BC as contemporaries of Neanderthals. Some scientists call modern humanity homo sapiens sapiens to distinguish them from Neanderthal homo sapiens and other homo sapiens species now extinct.

The last Pleistocene glaciation event was termed the “Wisconsin.” It occurred from 110,000 to 10,000 BC. Thick ice covered northern sections of the US Midwest and much of northern Europe. The Earth’s climate was variable, often cold and dry in areas of human habitation in Asia, Africa, and Europe. We posit that the first humans described in Genesis scripture were responsible for a Cultural Explosion with its appearance of art, musical instruments and significantly more complex technologies in the manufacture and use of advanced stone tools such as microliths. These people were “fully human.”

Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe has just published a new volume—Improbable Planet. He discusses the benefits of the disappearance of glacial ice from the Wisconsin event. That glacial event roughly coincided with the presence of several representatives of the genus homo including Neanderthals and modern humans. We quote two significant passages from Improbable Planet:

“The melting away of the great ice sheets—except those over Antarctica, Greenland, and the North Pole—helped to stabilize global mean temperatures. Until then, climate variability prevented widespread enduring agricultural and manufacturing specialization, trade, and construction of towns, roads, and ships. The climate from 120,000 to 12,000 years ago varied so radically as to render the launch of extensive cultivation and global civilization impossible.

“Then, for reasons still unknown, the climate suddenly entered a stable phase shortly after the beginning of the last warm interglacial period. Within a brief period, large-scale agriculture emerged, as did sophisticated expressions of human ingenuity and cooperation, for example towns, specialization of industry, and organized trade. These factors, in turn, made possible the exponential expansion of civilization, technology, and human population.” 

We mention two brief preludes to large-scale agriculture mentioned in the paragraph above. First there was Kebaran culture from 18000 to 12500 BC. Several thousand years before there was a small scale attempt to cultivate wild cereals along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Kebarans were highly nomadic. Then there appeared the Natufian Culture, characterized by descendants of the earliest farmers on our planet from 12,500 to 10,800 BC. Natufians were protoagrarian hunter/gatherers. They appeared during the Mesolithic, a short period between the Paleolithic and Neolithic. These two groups existed prior to the Neolithic—The New Stone Age. In the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution which followed, man learned to selectively alter plants to benefit humanity. Artificial selection has been a way of life in human agriculture since the Neolithic Revolution. 



Sunday, October 2, 2016

Domestication Revolution

Wondrous progress occurred in human culture approximately 10,000 BC. These changes are associated with what has been termed “The Rise of Civilization” especially in the area of Mesopotamia. A significant segment of the human population began to assume an increasingly urban, agriculture-based, sedentary society. This marked the transition from the Old Stone Age to the New Stone Age. The term Neolithic is another term for the New Stone Age. Before discussing the changes of The Rise of Civilization, we briefly survey the human experience in the several tens of thousands of years prior to 10,000 BC.

In the time interval from approximately 50,000 BC to 10,000 BC humanity experienced a substantially superior technological advance compared with the primitive stone tool technology in the many previous eons of humanoid life going back over two million years. A Wikipedia article entitled “Paleolithic” states, “About 50,000 years ago there was a marked increase in the diversity of artifacts. For the first time in Africa bone artifacts and the first art appear in the archeological record. The first evidence of human fishing is also noted, from artifacts in places such as Blombos Cave in South Africa. Firstly among artifacts of Africa, archaeologists found they could differentiate and classify those of less than 50,000 years into many different categories, such as projectile points, engraving tools, knife blades, and drilling and piercing tools. The new technology generated a population explosion of modern humans…..” Many additional sources tell us of increasingly sophisticated art production and the appearance of musical instruments. Sometimes this dramatic advance is termed The Cultural Explosion. This explosion is likely the result of an act of a supernatural intervention. The “Image of God” became evident in many ways.

Upper Paleolithic societies before 10,000 BC were primarily hunter/gatherer societies. Domestication of plants and animals was not generally part of their life styles but one exception may have been the domestication of wolves. Assuming that Adam and Eve were created and lived during this time, we are aware that preliminary agriculture, proto-farming, existed with Cain and Abel according to the Genesis scripture account. Widespread proliferation of agriculture would wait until the Neolithic period.   

The Rise of Civilization corresponded with the onset of domestication of plants and animals. Domestication signifies a substantial degree of human influence over the care of the plants and animals surrounding us. Were we to observe plant and animal life twenty or thirty thousand years ago, we would be startled. Without the startling changes brought about by plant and animal domestication, our contemporary culture would be very different. Humanity’s nutritional welfare would be severely limited by lack of food resources owing to significant reductions in human-managed agricultural diversity and productivity. 

Modern manifestations of hunter/gatherer societies are currently restricted to primitive or indigenous tribes, some of which have resisted contact with the outside world. It is interesting to note that people of modern uncivilized primitive cultures possess full humanity. Likewise, the people of the Upper Paleolithic were fully human. Evolutionary theory posits a slow acquisition of human traits. The so-called “Cultural Explosion”  manifests rapid advances counter to the evolutionary paradigm.

In future posts we will offer additional commentary on the phenomenon of domestication. The changes in living things as a result of domestication are a result of permanent genetic modification short of transition to a novel species. Agricultural scientists are unable to produce a new species. However, they have discovered ways to modify current species of both plants and animals to make them serve humanity in diverse ways, primarily with increased and diverse food production. We propose that the Creator of All Things has provided living things with the ability to modify their genetic traits without producing a new species. The Creator has also gifted humanity with the ability to accomplish this modification.   







Friday, September 23, 2016

Hybrid Vigor

World food security has generally kept pace with the world population explosion of the last 200 years. Regional famines have occurred since man appeared on Planet Earth. A widespread famine involving billions of Earth residents, however, has been averted as the planet population inexorably headed from one billion to over seven billion in the past two centuries. Gifted and inspired agriculturalists have avoided disastrous worldwide food shortages with food crop initiatives—among them vigorous application of hybridization.

The history of hybridization is a food production success story. We are reminded of God’s Genesis mandate to “subdue the earth.” The Creator provided Earth’s raw materials and its living things. He also provided the intellectual ability to discover and apply the potential of living things—how to develop and manage methodology to engage plant and animal life in the service of human needs. Nutritional requirements have been at the forefront.

Gregor Mendel in 1865 published “Experiments in Plant Hybridization.” His ideas did not receive much attention until the early 20th century. George Harrison Shull first described the term “hybrid vigor” in 1908. He described the phenomenon that plant crosses (hybrids) outperform their parents. An Italian scientist, Nazareno Strampelli, performed early work on wheat hybrids from 1904 to World War II. He laid the groundwork for the Green Revolution of the 1960s. Our previous posts on Norman Borlaug describe his work on intense development of artificially selected and hybridized wheat and rice during the heyday of the Green Revolution, said by some analysts to have saved one billion people from starvation.

Hybridization is the cross-breeding of two true-breeding varieties. A true breeding plant produces vegetation of the same variety when they self-pollinate. Many old varieties raised in our grandparents’ day were true-breeding varieties. Their plants were able to produce seed for planting on their farms the following year, but yields were static year after year. The purchase and use of hybrid seeds removed the difficult problem of saving and planting self-raised seed, provided new vigor, and increased production dramatically. 

Widespread hybridization is a relatively new agricultural practice. Corn hybrids were responsible for increasing productivity from 30 bushels/acre in the 1940s to 150 bushels/acre in the 2010s. This year, 2016, US farmers will harvest an all-time record of 175.1 bushels/acre. That is a productivity increase five times greater than 1940 and a yield increase six or seven times greater than 1940. US production of corn (maize) is almost double the next largest world producer, China. 

The other main US grain crop is soybeans. The US narrowly outproduces Brazil in annual world production of soybeans. Since 1940 US soybean production per acre has increased almost two and one half times. Worldwide production of soybeans has increased enormously since 1940; it is now a far more important crop than in former years. From the SOYINFO website comes this quote: “The dramatic and sustained exponential growth in world soybean production is unequalled by any other crop in the world.” By weight, soybeans supply 36% protein. Animal feed is produced by the majority of soybean and corn crops worldwide. In wheat production, the US ranks fourth worldwide. Hybridization has also dramatically increased worldwide wheat production.

One wonders about past world population growth if artificial selection and hybridization had not impressively increased plant productivity, the foundation of human food supply. Beyond population growth we conjecture on the current health of our teeming millions had hybridization practices not been applied in the past century.

Along with the blessings wrought by hybridization of crops, valid concerns also exist. The potential for environmental harm exists in the resulting widespread monoculture of agricultural crops. Monoculture is the “cultivation of a single crop in a given area.”  In the Midwestern “breadbasket” states vast stretches of farmland produce but a single crop. No longer is there a natural reseeding pattern of native plants in the present era of widespread hybrid seed purchases, heavy application of fertilizers, and novel technologies. Runoff of dissolved chemical fertilizers into our waterways is a serious problem. Much natural plant diversity no longer exists. Soil erosion and adequate water supply is a constant challenge. Scientists are laboring to solve these problems.  

Along with our ability to produce food at record levels we must prudently address related problems with the help of divine wisdom. Plant scientists must continue to apply their creative gifts to balance the benefits of artificial selection and hybridization with diligent efforts to maintain the health of Earth’s agricultural legacy. We are thankful that scientists are working to achieve this balance.     



Monday, September 19, 2016

Designer Plants

Our post title, Designer Plants, suggests a commonly used meaning: plants of interest to landscape designers and plant retailers—beautiful, utilitarian, exotic, unusual, or even bizarre. In contrast, we use our post title as it applies to the improvement of food quantity and quality for earth dwellers. As such, we focus on how humans have improved plants to increase production of food. Food security is of vital importance for long term healthy survival of humanity. How have biological scientists handled the subject of improvement of the world’s food resources? Our web searches have revealed much information which inspires further investigation. In particular, in this post, we focus on maize (corn) as a designer plant.

Let’s make a backward leap to memories from my childhood. Hybridization became more dominant in plant science in the 1920s and 1930s. The process heightened the potential of artificial selection by which Mesoamerican Indians had developed hundreds of useful varieties of maize since 10000 BC. My father was an agent for a hybrid seed corn company which marketed their seeds as Funk’s G Hybrids until 1990.  The current Syngenta agribusiness company claims Funks G as one of their original seed firms. When my father was an agent for a Landisville PA company, Hoffman Farm Seeds, in the 1940s, he approached farmers in his agency area, New York State, with appeals to purchase the new higher yielding corn hybrid seeds. As with many new technologies, some farmers were dubious. They did not take kindly to hybrid seeds. A modern parallel is the intense current resistance to genetically modified seeds (GMOs). We refrain from discussing this complex issue in anticipation of future posts.

As an elementary/middle schooler in the immediate years following World War II, I was not especially interested in genetics of farm seeds. By default, however, I was exposed to the early days of promotion of hybrid corn seeds to farmers. Many terms were discussed by my farm seed-agent father with his friends and with me. For example, I recall discussion of “double-cross hybrids.” Many farmers did not understand what that meant. My father attempted to explain the term to them and to a 10-year old, probably without much success.

One element of success, however, was achieved by my observation of Dad’s “test plots.” These were little parcels of land devoted to planting samples of heirloom and hybrid seeds for their demonstration value. But he also skillfully piqued the imagination of farmers with some highly unusual seeds. The results were interesting rows of highly unusual corn plants. I recall the “Indian corn,” “pod corn,” popcorn, and sweet corn Dad planted on our own family lot. One variety of corn plant was over 15 feet in height. (I have pictures to prove this.) “Dent corn,” was the focus of Dad’s professional promotion: Raise the dent-corn Funk’s G hybrids G-6, and G-10, he advised, and reap better crops!

My father understood the varieties of corn which originated in an ancestral “corn” called teosinte. 9000 to 10000 years ago only teosinte existed in the key area of Mesoamerica (Central Mexico). Teosinte was domesticated and spread by indigenous groups. By 2500 BC, the Mesoamerican Indian population had deliberately selected the best plants for their future plantings thousands of times. They developed many useful varieties of maize as a result. Their “selective” breeding, centuries of selecting plants with bigger kernels, larger size cobs, and other different and more desirable forms, had contributed to the development of a trade network based on a surplus of varieties of New World corn long before explorers from the Old World arrived. By 2500 BC, precursors of today’s six main types of corn existed. The six types are flint corn, also known as Indian corn, flour corn from which corn meal is made, dent corn, the staple grain raised by farmers, pop corn, pod corn in which each kernel is enclosed in a cover, and sweet corn, a summertime table favorite.

All of these varieties originate from teosinte as we detailed in our preceding post. The remarkable origin and development of maize is inappropriately cited as an example of organic evolution as now taught in our educational institutions. They have taught that millions of modern species of plants and animals have evolved from “natural” selection and accidental mutation. Currently many more novel hypotheses are entering the evolutionary theorists’ explanatory lexicon. 

Organic evolution implies changes in genetic composition as new life forms appear.        Logically, evolutionists must explain speciation of many millions of existing species. Different species of earth life are generally unable to interbreed. On rare occasions where they interbreed, the progeny usually manifests genetic problems. Modern maize varieties easily form additional varieties by additional man-controlled selective breeding and hybridization processes because they are all of the same species.

We quote UC Berkely’s website Understanding Evolution: “Natural selection is the simple result of variation, differential reproduction, and heredity—it is mindless and mechanistic; it’s not striving to produce “progress” or a balanced ecosystem…..Natural selection just selects (my emphasis) among whatever variations exist in the population. The result is evolution.” 

This quote from the Berkeley site leaves many tenets of evolutionary theory unanswered. It also triggers new sets of questions about the broadly accepted paradigm of molecules to man evolution. Among the questions is the marvel that maize diversity is explained by subtle genetic changes in a minuscule set of only five genes in the nucleus of every maize variety currently in existence. How were these subtle changes accomplished? How is selection involved? 

The term “select” in the Berkeley quote suggests a deliberate, intelligent process directed by an intelligent mind. This explains why we titled our post “Designer Plants.” Humans have “intelligently designed” maize plants over the rather brief human time span of 10000 years. Evolution’s “mindless” and “mechanistic” selection process does not explain the wondrous development of the world’s maize by human artificial selection. Rather, we intuitively recognize our maize varieties as a biological bequest to humanity from God, the Creator of All Things.