Thursday, December 22, 2005

Ears of plenty: The story of man's staple food

IN 10,000 years, the earth's population has doubled ten times, from less than 10m to more than six billion now and ten million soon. Most of the calories that made that increase possible have come from three plants: maize, rice and wheat. The oldest, most widespread and until recently biggest of the three crops is wheat (see chart). To a first approximation wheat is the staple food of mankind, and its history is that of humanity.

Yet today, wheat is losing its crown. The tonnage (though not the acreage) of maize harvested in the world began consistently to exceed that of wheat for the first time in 1998; rice followed suit in 1999. Genetic modification, which has transformed maize, rice and soyabeans, has largely passed wheat by—to such an extent that it is in danger of becoming an “orphan crop”. The Atkins diet and a fashion for gluten allergies have made wheat seem less wholesome. And with population growth rates falling sharply while yields continue to rise, even the acreage devoted to wheat may now begin to decline for the first time since the stone age.

Not a bad review. It takes some liberties -- it's not at all clear that hunter-gatherers from 12,000 years ago behaved the same way hunter-gatherers from modern times -- but more or less gives the Standard Model (to be struck by physics envy) of agricultural origins.

In the same issue: The story of man

It was Spencer, an early contributor to The Economist, who invented that poisoned phrase, “survival of the fittest”. He originally applied it to the winnowing of firms in the harsh winds of high-Victorian capitalism, but when Darwin's masterwork, “On the Origin of Species”, was published, he quickly saw the parallel with natural selection and transferred his bon mot to the process of evolution.

. . .

Sadly, the slur stuck. For 100 years Darwinism was associated with a particularly harsh and unpleasant view of the world and, worse, one that was clearly not true—at least, not the whole truth. People certainly compete, but they collaborate, too.

This article also links to this article on Stanley Ambrose's theory of an exceptionally large volcanic eruption (TOba in Sumatra) forcing early hominids to cooperate in small groups, thus bringing about both higher culture and the various races. Actually, we'd never heard of this eruption or theory before, so read the article.