Saturday, 23 January 2016

Leaving Behind the Nomadic Lifestyle

Diamond, J. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel The Fates of Human Societies. W.W Norton & Company,    Toronto.

    Armed with a steaming cup of hot chocolate and my room heater on high I started to read the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th chapters of Guns, Germs and Steele by Jared Diamond. This section of the book discusses a possible chain of events that led the hunter-gathers around the world to settle into permeant locations and the emergence of food production. With the increasing loss of a nomadic lifestyle came increasing frequency of plant and animal domestication. Throughout these few chapters Diamond asks important questions and gives a few likely possibilities as to the answers. Some of the questions he asks and attempts to answer include, where was the first domestication and why? Through this reading we learn that domestication was most likely to have first emerged in the fertile crescent due to a perfect climate, range of topographies and low rates of competition from other hunter-gathers. Furthermore, we also learn that switching to farming occurred over hundreds of years and was brought on by a series of unconscious decisions regarding the efficiency of food collection. There were many things I liked about Diamonds writing some of which included the amount of information present on each page and the exposure of common misconceptions surrounding the topic of food production.

  Reading these few chapters makes you feel like you've learned something about the emergence of food production. The four chapters assigned are a string of facts put together in such as way as to make and interesting story out of a relatively dull topic. For example, early in chapter five he lists five locations where food production was thought to have originated and spends the rest of the chapter explaining why it makes sense that food production would have emerged in these places at these times in history. Furthermore, he addresses many common misconceptions about the origins of food production in his writing. For example, in chapter six he explains that food production wasn't a discovery, but a number of unconscious decisions that resulted in the emergence of farming. Information like this sticks with you because it challenges what you previously thought. The wealth of information present in this book was refreshing and I also thought using the third person for this style of writing was ideal.

  Diamonds writing contrasts the previous pieces by other authors that we have read in class because it's written in the third person. For example, he doesn't use I, instead he frequently uses they or people. It's as if Diamond is holding a camera and retelling events as they happen. He takes an objective point of view throughout the book. He focuses on the information he's trying to relay to the reader instead of focusing on his personal thoughts or ideas about the origins of food production. I liked that his writing made you feel like you were learning something and I also agreed with his use of the third person, but I wish that he would have added more humor to his writing.

  Although I thought the information presented was interesting Diamond absolutely boycotted the use of humor of any kind. For example, in the previous three books humor was laced throughout the writing to make light of heavy subjects or to help readers stay engaged. Diamond relayed information about touchy subjects of inequality and dispossession of native land by colonizers without trying to lighten the subject.  This made his writing a bit depressing and dry at times. He may have lacked humor though out his writing, but his titles for each of the chapters did a good job summarizing the purpose of each chapter.

 Each chapter had a clever title of only a few words, but managed to capture the essence of that particular section of the book. For example, chapter sixes title was, "To Farm Or Not To Farm", and the chapter then proceeds to explain the factors that led hunter gathers to unconsciously start the process of domesticating plants and eventually farming. Although the title was only six words long it accurately and completely described the purpose of the chapter. Diamond did this for all of the chapters in his book and also divided the book into four parts each with a title that completely describes the content of that particular part. For example, part twos title was, "The Rise And Spread Of Food", which fits because it covers how domestication and farming emerged and how it has spread globally.

To conclude, the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th chapters of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond were a description of the most likely chain of events that converted nomadic hunters and gathers into fixed location farmers. There were many things I liked about this book some of which include the vast amount of information present, his use of the third person and the titles he gave to the chapters and parts of his book. There were also things I didn't like about his book some of which included his lack of humor. Overall, Guns, Germs, and Steel was a good read and I would read other books written by Jared Diamond.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Coevolution of Seeds and Humans

Diamond, J. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel The Fates of Human Societies. W.W Norton & Company,    Toronto.

Pollan, M. 1997. The Botany of Desire a Plants-eye View of the World. Random House of Canada         Limited, Toronto.

   Procrastination will be the death of my grades. Well before sunrise this morning I sat at my desk to enjoy the introduction of The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan and the seventh chapter of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. To summarize, both assigned reading focused on the artificial selection and domestication of plants and how this affected humans. Pollan's writing focused more on how humans and plants coevolved together, just like bees and flowers we shape each other. Where as, Diamonds writing focused on the various mechanisms that turn wild barely edible plants into crops.

  There were many things I liked about Pollan's writing.  The first of which includes his description of  artificial selection and domestication as a reciprocal relationship between humans and plants. He explained that when we save the best seeds from this years crop to plant as next years crop we slowly amplify the desirable traits and genetically alter that plant in the ways more suitable for our needs. Likewise plants play on our emotions and values we are driven to replant and take care of the plants that become desirable to us year after year. I really enjoyed how Pollan explained artificial selection as a coevolutionary process, but I also liked how he explained the complexity of plants.

 Pollan puts the complexity of plants into perspective by drawing attention to the things plants do better than humans. For example, photosynthesis is an efficient process that uses sunlight, water and nutrients from the soil to create food. This is a process humans only dream of mastering. Furthermore, he explains that plants have traveled the globe and are found virtually everywhere. They have also developed excellent defense techniques some of which include, poisons and bitterness. I thought Pollan emphasized the complex nature of plants well, but I also liked how Diamond explained the actual changes that occur during the domestication of a wild plant.

  Diamond gives a list of common cultivated plants and then compares their current size to their wild ancestors. For example, corn started out at about 6 inches and with domestication currently grows to 1 1/2 feet. Similarly, apples used to be 1 inch in diameter and after years of cultivation they are 3 inches in diameter. The examples regarding wild and domestication plants sizes augment his explanations of the changes that occurred during domestication of wild plants.

  Although I liked both readings I like Pollan's better because it was funnier. Pollan frequently joked about the desirable qualities of potatoes, comparing their knobby features to images in popular magazines. He also gave human-like qualities to plants describing them as desirable, innocent and passive. Diamonds writing was really informative, but a bit dry compared to Pollan's.

All in all, both readings focused on the artificial selection and domestication, but looked at different issues regarding this topic. Pollan focused on how artificial selection is really a coevolutionary relationship where humans are the greatest selective factor to the fitness of a plant. Where as, Diamond chose to focus more on the facts and mechanisms of artificial selection to give a more informative summary.


Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Triumph of the Seeds by Thor Hanson

Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of the Seeds. Basic Books, New York.

  The introduction, first and fourth chapters of "The Triumph of Seeds" by Thor Hanson is the story of the seed and Hanson's quest to find the mechanism of its germination and growth. The introduction starts by explaining that seeds are the ultimate insurance plan on the next plant generation, the seed thus far has been the best at protecting, dispersing and helping the plant progeny to find the best possible place and time to grow. He then gets into explaining how important seeds really are in our lives and how we interact with them many times each day from eating them for breakfast to decoration for our homes. In the first chapter he explains some of the research he did on the future of the almendros tree in the fragmented conditions of Central American forests, despite increasing fragmentation of forests the outlook for the almendros tree is good. From this research Hansen realized he knew nothing of the germination and growth of a seed, he, like most others has blindly trusted that the seed would just simply grow if the right conditions were met. Its at this point in his life that he decides to try and figure out the missing mechanisms of seed growth. To do so he starts researching all the known mechanisms of seed growth and reproduces them using an avocado seed. Finally, in chapter four Hanson travels to New Mexico to take a look at seed plant fossils and attend a conference where they debated the a new theory of an earlier timeline for the triumph of the seeds and why it was likely that they were already well established in the carboniferous time.

  There were many things I liked about this book, the first of which includes how he explained all the botany concepts in everyday language with examples from his life while still remaining accurate to the scientific information. For example, he explained the space saving mechanisms that allows an embryonic root to compactly fit inside a seed coat among other parts with an analogy of a clown with a bag of balloons that he will later inflate. I also liked how he described the transition from naked seeds, like those of gymnosperms, to covered up seeds, like those of angiosperms, with an analogy using his son Noah being wrapped in a towel for protection after a bath. The analogies he uses throughout this novel makes his writing personal and information rich at the same time.

  I also liked how Hanson tells the story of the seeds through a timeline of events in his life. He's not only retelling other peoples discoveries in the area of seed research, but also how he himself came upon this research and agreed with their notions. For example, in chapter four he explains a new theory by Bill Dimichele explaining that seed plants were dominant in the carboniferous, but didn't fossilize as extensively because their primary habitat wasn't present in swamps, so the materials for fossilization were harder to come by. Through his journey to New Mexico, witness to early plant cave fossils, attendance of conference and eventual agreement in this plausible theory, he presents new concepts and his writing takes you on a journey of his realization of new information instead of just relaying new concepts back to the reader.

  Although the chapters I read were really well written and interesting their was also things I didn't like about this book. I didn't like how Hansen skimmed over his own findings as a scientist, I thought that first chapter where he's recreating the process of germination in an avocado seed would lead to the story of his own findings in seed biology in chapter four, but that wasn't the case. He briefly mentioned some of this work on the almendros tree, but I would have liked more on that topic, I haven't read the entire book yet so information on his findings might come later.

To conclude, "The Triumph of the Seeds" was a great blend of scientific and personal information. Hansen explained the story of the seed in such a way that emphasizes its importance in plant evolutionary history and to humans as a species. I'm looking forward to finishing this book and I'm hoping that I understand the evolution of the seed better when I'm finished.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

100 Mile Diet

MacKinnon. JB., Smith. A., 2007. The 100-Mile Diet. Vintage Canada Edition, Toronto, Canada.

  The 100-Mile Diet by JB MacKinnon and Alisa Smith is a novel about a Vancouver based couple who decide to restrict their diet to food grown within 100 miles of where they live for an entire year. The novel is divided into 12 chapters with each chapter representing one month of the year. In the first 6 chapters from March through to October the couple struggles to find local produce and farmers that source their animal feed locally, but as time goes on they go from eating potatoes for most of their daily meals to eating a greater variety as they find more small local farms. Towards the middle of the novel they become comfortable with sourcing the food in their area and they test themselves by living almost completely off the land in a remote semi-abandoned shack in northern British Columbia.

  This book is a great read. I liked how imaginative Smith's chapters were, her use of descriptive words made a sort of mental movie and she also added a lot of history that gives reason as to why they would want to eat strictly local in the first place. While she moves to different locations she describes what she sees, feels and hears around her. The way she describes the temperature works really well with the chapter breakdown, it helps you imagine what each month is like and what could or could not be growing at the time. She strategically places bits of history throughout the chapter in order to explain why certain problems or events that arise are significant. For example, in June she visits a fish market in her neighbourhood hoping for a good selection of local seafood, the clerk informs her that almost everything is local, but when she presses for information on the actual location of specific fish he replies with places like California and Alaska. She then adds a page or two explaining the distance of places like California from Vancouver and the regulations of the fish trade in North America. California or Alaska may sound relatively local, but North America has thousands and thousands of miles of land, its information like this that helps to put things in perspective.

  I also enjoyed how dedicated Smith and MacKinnon were to sticking with the lifestyle and making meals work with whatever was available at the time. In the beginning they went from eating potatoes with every meal and wishing for something green to put into a salad, to a land of abundance as soon as mid to late summer came. As they progressed MacKinnons cooking started to become more and more imaginative, he started with relatively simple meals to more interesting and inventive dinners. They went as far as driving to a remote village to live completely off the land for a month, that's real dedication.

All in all, The 100-Mile Diet was a great read it has very descriptive chapters and fed information in a way that wasn't pushy, but still managed to get all the facts across. I'm looking forward to reading the last half of this book to see where they end up and if they keep up the local eating after the year is up.