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Evolving Systems Course: PGnotes8

Paul Grobstein's picture

Making sense of ourselves in an evolving universe

Paul's notes - Session 8


Course subject: evolution (physical, biological, cultural, individual)

Course method: co-evolution, co-constructive inquiry, evolving by telling/hearing each other's stories, using them to create new ones, individually and collectively = co-constructive dialogue

Course arrangements:

  • Break by 12:30 to have birthday cake.
  • By Monday evening, post in forum your thoughts from this week's conversations
  • By 6 pm Wednesday, write and email me a 3 page paper in which you identify and describe a cultural change with which you're familiar. 
  • Individual meetings
  • Thursdays Group A Group B
    9 am Elisa Genesis
    9:30   Julie
    2:30 Ilana Christine
    3:00 Angela  
    3:30 Hillary Aijingwen
    4:00 Eva Valentina
    4:30 Mattie Kayla
    5:00 Carolina Jordan

Course transition:

  • Have talked about biological diversity, existing variety of organisms/relationships among them, conceived narrative, history dependent, way to make sense of that: biological evolution.  Move on to thinking about cultures ...
  • are there a diversity of cultures?
  • can we make sense of them/their relationships in terms of history?
  • have cultures changed over time?
  • what causes cultural change?  what is the relation between biological change and cultural change?  do cultures evolve like living organisms or ... ? 

Your own observations

  • diversity of cultures?
  • change over time in cultures?  history dependence?

Diamond's observations - some samples

"At the heart of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel are the stories of apparently commonplace things, such as wheat, cattle, and writing. Diamond believes the uneven distribution of these simple elements shaped the course of global history and played a vital part in the epic story of continental competition.  Diamond also focuses on the physical geography of the world in which we live. For instance, natural impediments such as mountain ranges or bodies of water created isolated civilizations.  He argued that continents which were easily traversible, such as Europe encouraged trade among different people and stimulated development."

Chinese, European, North and South American cultures are different?  Why?


"Cultivated by the earliest Neolithic farmers in the hills and valleys of Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq over 13,000 years ago, wild-growing wheat has since changed beyond recognition. In the wild, as it still grows in those places today, wheat evolved to shatter in the late summer breeze, spreading its tough-coated seeds far and wide ... By subconsciously selecting, favoring, and re-planting these seeds, humans were unwittingly transforming the plant's dominant DNA — and created an entirely new species ... Wheat was a critical element of European success, both at home and abroad. Designed to thrive in temperate climates, it was easily exported to North America, South America, the Cape of South Africa and the south-east corner of Australia. Wherever wheat was successful, colonial farmers could establish a model European society — although this prosperity was often achieved at the expense of indigenous populations ... Modern wheat, the product of ancient genetic engineering, symbolizes the success of the European model — success dictated by a fluke of botanical geography."


Corn's wild ancestor, teosinte, is native to southern Mexico, and formed the staple of the earliest agricultural communities throughout the Americas. From its origins in central America, the crop spread up the western coast to northern America, and penetrated the jungles of Panama and Colombia to reach the fertile terraces of the Inca Empire in the South ... Like other cereal crops, the process of domestication has fundamentally changed the genetic structure and behavior of the plant. Where ripe cobs of teosinte grew no larger than a human thumb, maize plants can now reach over eight feet in height, with cobs growing ten inches long ... The crop was seized upon by European colonists of the New World, and exported back to Europe and to other colonies beyond. Thanks to its preference for steady rains and its long growing season, maize has been particularly successful throughout southern and tropical Africa, where corn seed, or mealies, are pulped and boiled into porridge or mash. Corn also provides the basis for flatbreads around the world, including tortillas, hominy grits, corn flakes and, of course, popcorn.


Rice is believed to have been domesticated nearly ten thousand years ago in China. Related to wheat and other wild-growing cereal grasses, the plant grows to around four feet and thrives in submerged land in the coastal plains, tidal deltas and river basins of tropical, semitropical, and temperate parts of the world ... Some academics have argued that the need for organized, reliable irrigation in the cultivation of rice may have influenced the political destiny of Asian cultures — significantly the rapid historical development of a centralized Chinese state ... So-called wild rice, which can reach 10 feet in height, grows in shallow marshes and along the shores of streams and lakes throughout North America. Natural stands of wild rice were a staple for Midwestern Native Americans, but the species was never domesticated by them, and never provided the basis of a complex, agricultural economy.  By geographic chance, America inherited a subtly different native grass species to the Asian ancestor of modern commercial rice — and on such coincidences the destinies of millions of people throughout history have turned.


Sorghum, also known as millet, is a robust, tall cereal grass which grows wild throughout Tropical Africa and was the staple cereal for the earliest African agricultural communities.  Sometimes growing as high as 15 feet, sorghum is especially valued in hot and arid regions of the world, for its natural resistance to drought and heat. Its grains are usually mashed into a pulp, boiled and eaten, while its tough stalks can be used to make brooms and brushes.  High in carbohydrates, sorghum offers less protein than maize, rice or wheat, and those communities who rely on this staple sometimes suffer nutritionally as a result. Tolerant to both drought and flood, it has become adapted to poor soils and can produce grain where many other crops would fail.  This one crop is probably largely responsible for the success of the African agricultural revolution ...


The most emblematic livestock animal of the all-conquering Eurasian agricultural package, the modern cow is descended from an ancient wild ancestor that was native throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa at the end of the Ice Age, and domesticated by the earliest Neolithic farmers around 8000 years ago ... a source of wonder to which European civilization may owe its very existence.


The only large mammals ever domesticated within the Ancient Americas ... The llama’s high tolerance for thirst, and appetite for a broad range of plants, made it key to Native American transport and communication throughout the Andes. Although llamas can average between fifteen and twenty miles a day, llamas lack the strength of oxen, camels and horses,so they’re unable to carry adult humans or pull any kind of machinery ... geography had ensured that the continent's only load-bearing mammal remained isolated, known only to the indigenous peoples of the Andes. The inhospitable jungles of the Panamanian isthmus and the deserts of South America ensured that no llamas – and no Inca – had ever reached the Aztecs, or beyond.


Spanish horses were instrumental in the conquest of the New World. Neither the Aztec nor the Inca had ever seen humans riding animals before; the psychological impact of mounted troops was tremendous ... the great irony of the conquistadors' victory was that, until about 10,000 years ago, the horse's wild ancestor had flourished throughout the Americas. The plains of North America had in fact been the natural homeland of the Equus species, some of which migrated across a narrow land passage to the plains of central Asia.  Then, between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, the species vanished from the Americas – it is believed, through a combination of over-hunting and climatic change. The submersion of the Bering Strait meant no subsequent, reverse migration could occur from central Asia, and the horse remained absent from the Americas until its reintroduction by Europeans.

Zebra and ...

Why were no large mammals ever domesticated in tropical Africa? ... Zebras are also notoriously difficult to catch. They have evolved superb early-warning mechanisms , such as peripheral vision far superior to other horses. Often bad tempered, they grow increasingly antisocial with age and once they bite, they tend not to let go. A kick from a zebra can kill — and these creatures are responsible for more injuries to American zookeepers each year than any other animal ... African herbivores were simply too aggressive for human control. Elsewhere in the world, mammals evolved in isolation from human interference — after all, man only lived outside of Africa for a fraction of his existence on earth-- around 50,000 years. When man arrived in Eurasia and in the Americas, native herbivores were by nature less cautious and more receptive to human control.  But in Africa, man and beast have evolved alongside one another for millions of years. Large mammals have learned to avoid — or if necessary, attack — human beings, resisting capture with some of the most sophisticated physiological characteristics on earth.


steel has governed the destiny of ambitious Europeans ... Those parts of the world that were too wet to keep an open furnace ablaze for several days could never make the leap to even the simplest pyrotechnology ... Steel's complex manufacture requires large quantities of iron ore and plentiful, carbon-rich forests, plus access to fast-flowing water for power and transport. All of which were readily available in Europe ...  the physical environment of Europe allowed a significant interplay of political independence, economic competition and technological collaboration. In other words, the geography of the European continent destined it to host thousands of communities, all jostling for power and prestige ... ron and bronze technologies were also common in the Far East; but without the competitive incentive of Europe, the applications of these materials remained fairly limited ... The Industrial Revolution catapulted Europe into a position of unprecedented global domination over the course of the nineteenth century.


For thousands of years, the people of Eurasia lived in close proximity to the largest
variety of domesticated mammals in the world – eating, drinking, and breathing in the germs these animals bore. Over time, animal infections crossed species, evolving into new strains which became deadly to man. Diseases like smallpox, influenza and measles were in fact the deadly inheritance of the Eurasian farming tradition – the product of thousands of years spent farming livestock ... These epidemic Eurasian diseases flourished in dense communities and tended to explode in sudden, overwhelming spates of infection and death. Transmitted via coughing, sneezing and tactile infection, they wreaked devastation throughout Eurasian history – and in the era before antibiotics, thousands died ...With each epidemic eruption, some people survived, acquiring antibodies and immunities which they passed on to the next generation. Over time, the population of Europe gained increased immunity, and the devastating impact of traditional infections decreased.  Yet the people of the New World had no history of prior exposure to these germs. They farmed only one large mammal – the llama – and even this was geographically isolated. The llama was never kept indoors, it wasn't milked and only occasionally eaten – so the people of the New World were not troubled by cross-species viral infection ... When the Europeans arrived, carrying germs which thrived in dense, semi-urban populations, the indigenous people of the Americas were effectively doomed. They had never experienced smallpox, measles or flu before, and the viruses tore through the continent, killing an estimated 90% of Native Americans.


Continents that are spread out in an east-west direction, such as Eurasia, had a developmental advantage because of the ease with which crops, animals, ideas and technologies could spread between areas of similar latitude.  Continents that spread out in a north-south direction, such as the Americas, had an inherent climatic disadvantage. Any crops, animals, ideas and technologies had to travel through dramatically changing climatic conditions to spread from one extreme to the other ... China is essentially a fertile basin, enclosed by a ring of insurmountable geographic obstacles – ocean to the east, desert to the north, mountains to the south and an enormous, man-made wall to the west. This centrally-organized culture, which could expand rapidly for thousands of miles right up to its natural borders, could exist quite happily in isolation providing irrigation agriculture was maintained. It had no need to compete with neighboring states. In fact, the basin of China was so vast, there were few neighboring states, and for thousands of years the Chinese empire progressed along its own isolated path ... Europe, on the other hand, with it four mountain ranges, five peninsulas, dozens of rivers, islands, and proximity to the coast of north Africa, was geographically destined to become a cultural melting pot. Independent, organically grown states emerged cheek by jowl, and were separated by distinct, but not insurmountable, geographical barriers ... In 1492, rejected by the King of Portugal for lack of funds, Christopher Columbus simply travelled to Portugal's neighbor and rival, Castile, and instead pitched for exploration funds there. Fuelled by the desire to compete, patrons and princes throughout Europe were prepared to invest in outlandish ventures, and provided Columbus with the necessary capital to explore new lands ... In China, the greatest treasure ships that the world had ever seen, were disbanded one day, on the whim of an Emperor. Unlike Columbus, the Admiral of the Imperial fleet, had no rival princes on whom he could call. There was little incentive for China to seek its fortune outside of its heartland – the Empire had everything it needed, right in its own backyard.

Human cultures differ in part because of their historical relations to differing physical and biological resources on which they in turn impact

Other reasons for differing human cultures? 

Continued discussion in forum

  • Paper due Wednesday 6 pm
  • Reading for Thursday to start thinking about cultural evolution