Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Seeds, Sex and Civilization by Peter Thompson ****

In a volume reminiscent of the groundbreaking and bestselling Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, Seeds, Sex and Civilization by PeterThompson chronicles the history of civilization from the perspective of botany and agriculture starting with the suggestion that western civilization’s current hegemony can be traced back to the different attributes of wheat vs maize and rice, with the former leading to large-scale social structures and creativity.

Later he points out how the origins of agriculture and thus civilization can to traced to a limited number of locations. Different plants have different germination strategies. Some plants find it advantageous to sprout at asynchronous times to avoid predators. These plants make poor targets for domestication. Agriculture prefers crops with sprout and mature in synchrony.

As with many other fields in science, much of academia has spent millennia thinking about Aristotle and the Bible, instead of getting their hands dirty. 
“The role of pollen in plant reproduction appears to have been better understood by gardeners, few of whom committed their ideas to paper, then by academics, who were all to eager to promulgate their opinions.”
 Ultimately the book is a hagiography of botanists. One of the people who is not beatified is Lysenko, a favorite whipping boy, who with the discovery of epigenetics, might ultimately be raised to the level prescient prophet, proving once again that smug arrogance rarely works in science.

If you are interested in a history of agricultural and seed science, this is the book for you. If you have a friend who doubts the value of seed banks, recommend this book to them.

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