Arguing with Corn

In our first book,  when talking about the power of natural selection, I pointed out that selection is ubiquitous in domesticated species. I said that selection has let us grow more corn [maize], lots more corn. “You can’t argue with corn”, said I.

But I was wrong!  You can argue with corn, if you’re Richard Lewontin.  His thesis, which he used to write about occasionally before his recent turn to developing new ideas about mitochondria and ribosomes, is that hybrid corn is a bad thing, a product of capitalist seed companies intent upon making farmers a captive market for hybrid seed.  If someone would only develop a just-as-good true-breeding variety of corn, farmers wouldn’t have to pay through the nose for seed.   And that’s right – except that no one has ever managed to do so.

Oddly enough, even though we have had whole nations, big ones like the Soviet Union and Red China, that were almost as far left as Lewontin, and would have stood to gain by such a project, it never happened.   Perhaps capitalist roaders nipped it in the bud, those bastards.

Of the points Lewontin made, my favorite was that hybrid corn is somehow illegitimate because we don’t really understand that’s going on with hybrid vigor.  And we don’t, not entirely – people are still arguing about dominance vs overdominance. Of course, the same kind of nut that considers practical success worthless without a theoretical explanation could well favor practical failures that really ought to work in theory.

But that would be wrong.

Maybe the funniest bit here is that the main exponent of hybrid corn, back in the day, was Henry A. Wallace,  Vice President from 1940-1944, and the fuzziest-headed pinko to ever hold high office in the United States. Even more than FDR, Wallace just knew that good intentions would produce good relations with Uncle Joe.  And those zeks at Magadan and Kolyma – they were volunteers!

Even though there was a lot of distrust in the Democratic Party, with even FDR turning against him, Wallace was pretty sure he’d be President, considering FDR’s health.  He was already considering Cabinet nominations: as far as I know, only two of those he planned to pick were actual Soviet agents (Laurence Duggan for State and Harry Dexter White for Treasury).  Nobody’s perfect!

We can thank the Southern racists and crooked machine politicians who chucked him in 1944 for saving our collective ass – and we can thank Wallace for an 8-billion bushel corn crop.

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58 Responses to Arguing with Corn

  1. Pingback: Benefits of Hybrid Vigor Overstated | Occam's Razor

  2. I had a course in Mesoamerican Anthropology that was pretty much a history of corn, with some pot decorations thrown in because so many had been found that we had to do something with the info. I wrote an A+ paper (that would have been a C+ in history) about the decorations, but what can you say about corn? It improved hugely, but very slowly.

    That’s the key in understanding the current nervousness. These days it all happens so fast, and people in labs can do things that even clever people don’t understand, so maybe these new hybrids could, I don’t know, learn to speak Algonquin, or change our DNA when we eat them, or harbor secret poisons that even colonics can’t detoxify, and then where would we be? In the Good Old Days, changes happened slowly, so the people that starved or were poisoned died unnoticed, and so don’t count.

    In all seriousness, yes, bad things could happen. But…compared to what?

  3. j3morecharacters says:

    Hybrid corn won seventy years ago. You are flogging a dead horse. But G corn, genetically engineered corn (and soya, etc.) is still taboo in Europe. Is that another commie conspiracy or are people’s fears reasonable?

  4. James Graham says:

    Yes we dodged a bullet when FDR dumped him but I recently learned that Wallace eventually recanted. Per Wikipedia:
    * * * *
    Previously, after hearing from Gulag survivor and friend Vladimir Petrov about the true nature of the 1944 Vice Presidential visit to Magadan, Wallace had publicly apologized for having allowed himself to be fooled by the Soviets.[33] In 1952 Wallace published Where I Was Wrong, in which he explained that his seemingly-trusting stance toward the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin stemmed from inadequate information about Stalin’s crimes, and that he now considered himself an anti-Communist.

    He wrote various letters to “people who he thought had traduced [maligned] him” and advocated the re-election of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956.[13] In 1961, President-elect John F. Kennedy invited Wallace to his inauguration ceremony, even though he had supported Kennedy’s opponent Richard Nixon. A touched Wallace wrote to Kennedy: “At no time in our history have so many tens of millions of people been so completely enthusiastic about an Inaugural Address as about yours.”[13]

    • gcochran9 says:

      Knew about that. I never had the impression that Wallace was really a bad guy, just really foolish.

      Although, one might think that due diligence would mean checking up fairly carefully on important public issues, like Stalin’s little peccadillos.. Maybe not required for every barbershop blowhard, but surely by the time you were Vice-President.

      I’m just saying.

  5. Portlander says:

    It’s not corn, of course, but there does seem to be something to the latest GMO variety of wheat causing IBS in people that are otherwise fine with an heirloom strain.
    “A double-blinded randomised cross-over trial was performed using twenty participants … During the intervention period with ancient wheat products, patients experienced a significant decrease in the severity of IBS symptom…”

    • gcochran9 says:

      Wouldn’t an N of of 10 worked even better?

      • JayMan says:

        I’m just saying….

        The few times health researchers do have a RCT to support whatever claims they’re making, the sample size smaller than the number of flamingos in my local pond. Have people not heard of publication bias, or even bothered to look at the mixed results that tend to come up in meta-analyses of these things?


        • Sisyphean says:

          Short answer is NO. I get the feeling that many people are very comfortable with a proliferation of health viewpoints. The manufacturers like it because they can make a paleo bar, an atkins bar, a vegan bar, and a hundred other variations on ‘healthy’ and the consumers love to pick their tribe and hate on the outsiders. Everybody wins! Trying to find out the actual truth is very uncool and boring too, don’t get me started on how boring it is when stuff won’t fit into a twitter update or pithy anecdote.


      • Portlander says:

        Well, it’s a start.

        I’ve seen quite a few people with various chronic health issues have them go away once they gave up wheat. The obvious question is whether it’s the wheat or all the junk that goes into the ingredients along side the wheat.

      • Sandgroper says:

        My cousin’s gluten allergy went away when she gave up whiskey – she says she feels much better.

    • keithforest says:

      There is no GMO wheat on the market anyway

    • It is possible that we will run ahead of what the body can handle from time to time if we change foods rapidly. Digestive issues, not cancers, are the most likely negative outcome. They can be fixed pretty quickly, or particular strains abandoned as causing more problems than they fix. Regarding wheat, we may have gone too quickly, or taken a wrong turning that affects a few, resulting in the increase in wheat sensitivity. But even if that is true – and we don’t know that – it would be easily fixable. And not improving wheat strains has other, less visible costs that are nonetheless unhealthy.

    • Boris Bartlog says:

      This isn’t evidence against ‘the latest GMO variety’, it’s evidence against the strains that were part of the green revolution, like the short stalk or dwarf strains that Borlaug helped develop. Unfortunately the premoderns strains of wheat have really shitty yields. Just saw an article about a guy who grew some heirloom 19th century wheat and got 17 bushels per acre for his trouble. You can get 100 bushels per acre with modern wheat and methods, and even in Afghanistan they average 40 bushels per acre.
      All that said, we live in a wealthy country where we can afford to grow boutique kamut, and if people want to try it as a treatment for their IBS or whatever, that’s cool. Even with low N the results here are at least worth following up on.

    • Portlander says:

      I don’t expect many people will see this 2 weeks after the original post, but for completeness sake, here’s a person arguing it’s not modern wheat, it’s the Round-Up in modern wheat.

      Also clarifies why modern wheat isn’t GMO’d. Indeed farmers don’t want it to be GMO’d, because the fact that Round-Up acts upon wheat is an important part of the harvest process. In any case, all good to know for the next time I’m blow-harding down at the barbershop.

      Here’s to hoping someone can round-up another 10 or 20 celiacs to test the Round-Up hypothesis — an organically grown modern wheat variety vs. an “ancient” wheat variety harvested using the modern Round-Up method.

  6. BRW says:

    Yeah, and making meat in a petri dish is totally great too. What’s all the fuss about? Just trying to drizzle some gm corn syrup on my petri steak.

    Food is getting pretty funky these days, Greg. Which, I’m sure has nothing to do with the rise of cancer rates and incidence of metabolic disorders.

    But, yes, you’re right. More corn! The people demand more!

  7. Jim says:

    BRW – Stomach cancer was much more common in the US in the 19th century than today.

    • Andrew Ryan says:

      Stomach cancer is often due to the chronic inflammation caused by ulcers, which are in turn caused by Helicobacter pylori infections. In the pre-antibiotic era prevalence would have been much higher than after their introduction, as frequent antibiotic use would knock down infections even if they weren’t take specifically for the disorder (which didn’t happen until the 1980’s).

  8. dave chamberlin says:

    The two soviet agents mentioned Laurence Dugan and Harry Dexter White lived a combination of thirteen days after being exposed as agents of the Soviet Union. Dugan supposedly committed suicide ten days after being questioned by the FBI and White supposedly had a heart attack three days after similar questioning. Although it can’t be proven it seems extremely likely that rather than embarrass the democratic party through any more show trials of highly placed soviet agents both men were executed when they were discovered to be slipping secrets to the soviets. Dugan got the heave ho from his high office window and White conveniently OD’d on his heart medicine. The conservative wing of the democratic party hated Wallace with a passion and knowing that FDR was dying (he only lived 87 days after his reelection) they pulled out all stops to get him replaced on the ticket. With comments like “Aside from our common language and common literary tradition, we have no more in common with imperialistic England than we do with communist Russia.” you can see why Wallace was replaced first as Vice President and then again at this next position, Secretary of Commerce.

    • gcochran9 says:

      There was a saying in the KGB: Any fool can commit a murder, but it takes an artist to commit a good natural death.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Pity. If they had stuck around, they would be celebrated by today’s Hollywood ignoranti as “Victims of McCarthyism”. As for Wallace, the old KGB/GRU term “useful idiot” could have been coined just for him.

      • Patrick Boyle says:

        Omar Bradley refused to let then President Harry Truman in on the “Venona Secret” (Russian spy networks) because the Democrats had had so many communists and/or hard leftists serving in the White House. Truman went to his grave never knowing that he had been cut out of the loop.

        I’m reminded of this non-fiction fact whenever I see that scene in “Independence Day” when the Secretary of Defense tells the President that Roswell and flying saucers were real but he just didn’t have clearance.

        Given Obama’s early virulent anti-American rhetoric. I have long suspected that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had had private conversations and contingency plans about whether or not to obey certain orders. I think Obama knows he couldn’t count on the military to automatically obey everything he might order.

      • j3morecharacters says:

        Harry Truman was well aware of being cut off the loop and being surrounded by warmongering rightwing conspirators. In his memories, he describes how he fought back (always within the Constitution) and how he organized a veritable coup to get rid of General MacArthur.

  9. Der Alte says:

    I did not see a link in this blog post to where Lewontin argues with corn. Oversight?

    • gcochran9 says:

      They’re easy to find, but they’re all nonsense, so why bother? You could also check out his criticisms of forensic DNA identification using STRs – that was nonsense too. He is consistent.

  10. rob says:

    I hate to defend Richard Lewontin. Srsly, I do. There is a chance he or an editor or web flunkly english major or such just googled andfound ‘rDNA’ an abbreviation that bio folks sometimes use for the big and often contiguous chunks of genome that code for ribosomal RNAs and proteins. IIRC rRNA genes are easy to compare for evolutionary disstance. They are autosomal (maybe some are sex chromosomes in various species, dunno) of course and inherited like normal genes.
    Most of this is not on topic. OTOH, it does fit with West-Hunts themes the past few days.

    Accepting evolution is hard for progressives. Hard for anyone who wants much anything to change to accept: only selection could lead to Eutopia…

  11. Larry, San Francisco says:

    What is interesting about Harry Dexter White was that he (along with John Maynard Keynes) was the main architect of the Bretton Woods Economic system which Stalin refused to join and brought prosperity to western European capitalist countries for 25 years (it broke down when Nixon devalued the dollar). I always thought that was a bit ironic.

  12. melendwyr says:

    There are a number of problems with this argument which boil down to two points:
    1) Better in precisely what way? Total yield isn’t the only criterion available. There’s also the required inputs, drought, temperature, and disease tolerance, reliability, and so on.
    2) What grounds do you have for asserting that no equally good OP varieties exist? Given that you routinely excoriate other professionals and society in general for holding mainstream but absurd positions, surely you have something other than the widespread use of hybrid corn to justify the widespread use of hybrid corn. What is your evidence?

    There are many vegetables which demonstrate little to no hybrid vigor yet are overwhelmingly preferred by most corporate seedsmen. Why might that be?

    • gcochran9 says:

      Seed companies do of course consider other factors than yield, and in fact they have new drought-tolerant varieties of maize coming out right now, in response to the recent terrible drought in the Corn Belt. In Brazil, they’ve introduced hybrid corn strains optimized for safrinha production [second-season production after soybeans].

      People raise hybrid maize all over the place, from Alabama to Zambia. If using something else paid better, they’d switch. I doubt if the brainwashed farmers of the world are leaving zillions of hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk.

      • melendwyr says:

        “If using something else paid better, they’d switch.”
        Like the Indian farmers who went bankrupt buying the fertilizers and pesticides that Bourlag rice requires and committed suicide?

        If the market at large will only pay for maximixed yield – which is currently the case – then farmers don’t have a lot of choice. But it doesn’t follow that maximized yield is actually desirable. It’s associated, among other things, with reduced nutritional value, because the plants aren’t any better at extracting minerals, they just produce more calories. When it’s not merely an increase in water content, that is. There is a major market pressure for large fruits and vegetables because of a frailty in human nature: consumers tend to buy bigger stuff. Even when the result is less flavorful and/or nutritious. That’s not even touching genetic diversity, which past experience teaches is ultimately the best way to avoid crippling crop plagues, and which is incompatible with hybrids.

        You’re looking at a very complex and interesting issue, then staking out a very uncomplex and absolute position on it, unwisely. I have little doubt that Lewontin is a fool and his arguments are equally foolish, but that invalidates the argument and not the conclusion. You cannot conclude X because a moron makes a bad argument that not-X.

        I’m sure that you’re going to lose a lot of sleep over this, but: you’re probably wrong in your conclusions, and your argument is definitely wrong on its merits.

      • The fact that Indian farmers actually smuggle seeds from China says a lot about the abject paranoia that influences a lot of people in this debate.

      • ursiform says:

        Here in California we provide farmers with subsidized water so they can grow rice in a desert. Which really has nothing to do with markets …

  13. Greying Wanderer says:


    Say you have two populations A and B and only B has some very beneficial alleles.

    Admixture event 1:
    Males of A plus females of B in one admixture event so you get 50% of each in the autosomal of the first generation. Assuming there’s an advantage in getting two copies of the advantageous alleles would the autosomal percentage of B go above 50%?

    Admixture event 2:
    Say 90% A and 10% B at the start and assuming those particular genes of B are strongly selected for then over multiple generations could B’s autosomal dna get to 50% and would it be less likely to get above 50% than in the first example because the cards will have been shuffled more often on the way to 50%?

  14. RS says:

    > If using something else paid better, they’d switch. I doubt if the brainwashed farmers of the world are leaving zillions of hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk.

    I usually find appeals to “if X, someone would already be rich…” to be fairly weak. Dumbness abounds and is well-documented. In this case though, I think the appeal is convincing, at least wrt the medium-term interest of farmers (it may or may not be the best thing for the soil, water table, etc in the long run). This is because all these farmers are in direct contact with the results year after year, bureaucrats are absent (at least in many cases) — ideologies, potent special interests, tendencies toward signalling behavior etc also pretty absent from the question.

  15. rob says:

    Heterozygote diversity is a side effect of a population expansion into sweet territory: the human equivalent of virgin soil epidemic. Anything that gets through the filter gets through, right?

    Cochran, you said that figuring out how Attica flowered out of the manure of the Greek Dark Age was a thick problem; one that someone needed to know a fair amount about lots of stuff related to the topic?

    A bit on topic, La Bana man had blue eyes, and he was dark. Was his sort of HG common? In old stories my family tells there are of blue-eyed Indians: Dark men and women with blue eyes. I know we’re mostly hicks and bumpkins, but my family has long generations, lives a long time and plans ahead well.

    Not to brag. I’m a lunatic.True to life dialogue:

    A relative: Think of the black sheep in the family.
    Me: uh, well, hmmm…
    Them:Can’t think of any?
    Me: No…?
    Them:Everyone else could.
    Me: Well, I have been accurately insulted.[Oh, dizzam yo!]

    I exagerate for effect.

    The odds that ‘Melungeons’ are Moors or whatever is like zero. But early stories of Portyghee?The Portuguese took to the seas like fish out of water: they lost ships and men like crazy. How much of a payoff did they get? Do blue eyes pop up as a homozygote?. Could blue eyes pop up fairly often: most occular albinisms have associated differences, and they’re defects. Do heterozygotes for common types of blue eye alleles show any differences? Maybe a difference that isn’t a defect? I wonder if early European genes spread among the survivors of the diseases they brought. A human addiction molecule: a disease and men with (at least mild) genetic resistance evolved over generations. Most diseases kill more men than women, and women are more likely to be taken as ‘war brides’. Little girls to be kept as investments to ‘mature’

    Come to think of it, what Native genes introgressed into the European colonists? Native tribes maybe didn’t have overwhelming genetic advantages over each other, but there must have been a constant arms race on what they did have: optimization of homoygotes-not many great novel alleles, so selection mostly purges load and breeds homoygotes?-did the Conquistadors pick up anything useful from the Pre-Colombian religious and warrior aristocratic castes?

    What percent Native American are ‘Old Stock’ white Americans?

    The effect of, I dunno selection for something else?. Most occular albinisms are really bad. Did selection hit on a few ways that weren’t to signal paternity? Delayed maturity for longer childhood learning from K selection? Handicap principles are weird, but evolution can favor cooperation through both kin selection and reciprocity. Groups can out-compete Randroid loner sorts. Honest signals are too expensive to fake: they force interdependency through comparative advantage to make reciprocal altruism a stable and successful strategy. When kin selection and (in-group) reciprocal altruism are under “heavyevolutionary pressure” or a are combined the advantage for a group of dudes to cooperate against nearly anything.

    Lots of the muggles think paleo-man killed off megafauna by accident. But eff that! If there were woolly mammoths roamin’ my hood, I would call Animal control or the police. But shit be real then yo! Nine one one is joke? Nah, 911 ain’t even a joke in the day. Gotta get some family ’round. Bands of brothers to kill them biggass things. Then easy prey can come around more often. What happens when the chicks get their thang goin’ all chilling in little garden paradises: lazy and fat with fruit trees all ’round? Maybe some nuts. Women can run the carrying capacity up, shit. What’s the limiting resource for any dude? Yup: poontang. If women support themselves, or if men can keep ’em hobbled all preggers in the tent. Women are the means of reproduction: theft can be rough.

    How many kids can a healthy girl have? Eight if you treat her right and get lucky: treat ’em too rough and Medea murders ’em outa spite. Sacrifice myself for two brothers: meh. But for eight nieces and nephews?

    The Attican Greeks were homosocial, had intellectually and physically competitive cultures, as well as an almost incomprehensible (to me) sexual orientation: A beautiful youth might do very well from the social networking and bonding available. The Iliad records ‘bastard’ sons as having no stigma. Women were captives and prizes. Captured and cloistered. Delayed male reproduction led to high mutation rates and more raw material for selection. Aristo women were secluded and married very young: the high reproduction rate, high mutation rate and strong selection on men throughout the warrior-leading elite caste through delayed reproduction and competition led to the highly fit Athenian/Attican elite.

  16. Hayrick says:

    You lost me Rob. All I know is I cannot stand corn nor the Industrial tasteless food that hangs off it. Why anyone eats chemically treated industrial corn syrup in place of natural sugars beats me. What are we doing to the landscape and environment with this cheap product that is genetically modified to withstand and absorb without damage, poisonous spray that kills everything else. You cannot call anything evolutionary when it drives you into a corner where there is NO diversity on which evolution can act. Another thing, what makes anyone think we are genetically adapted to this rubbish.
    Take a lesson from the Oceanic branch of homo sapiens that left our branch behind in the mid-east for dead 50-60,000yrs ago whilst they crossed waterways. Their lifestyle produced an agricultural system that was extremely diverse. 200 varieties of banana (we use only a few that are now insipid tasting and worry about disease- so off we go with chemicals again) 100 varieties of sugar cane (ditto), and a range of species of root vegetables (which we do not count as real food) all with more than 50 varieties ranging from small to larger than 5ft long. not to mention possible development of many shore plants. Incidentally no one paid any copyright on the banana and cane, we just took it. No doubt when that gets genetically modified to suit some greedy global scrooge there will be copyright to the moon in perpetuity, loans to get the banking system rent and legal beagles wallowing in this tasteless s***.
    Hybridisation is an unsavoury Industry all about power and enslavement of farmers and consumers to the global Industrial /banking industry backed by the suppression capability of the biggest military complex on the planet.
    Diversity and fitness go out of the window for profit. Period!

    • gcochran9 says:

      Aren’t you the pinhead! Reminds me of a young lady in LA who once told me that Venus was the Mother Ship: I demurred, but I continued to take her out dancing occasionally anyhow.

      She was a LOT better looking than you are.

  17. Jim says:

    Hayrick – I lived as a child in Guam as a child and I remember the delicious bananas that were available all year round. The banana tree in our yard required absolutely nothing in the way of maintenance – no pesticides, no fertilizer, no water – nothing. It produced tons of bunches of big scrumptious bananas all year round. The only thing we had to do was cut them off, bring them in the house and eat them.

    Considering how many insects Guam has those banana trees most have had considerable natural defenses. Our banana tree never showed any signs of insect damage. It came through many tropical storms with wind speeds of 150-200 mph unscathed.

    Guam was one of the first inhabited remote islands of the Pacific. The earliest evidence of humans on Guam dates to about 1000 AD..

  18. One of the hypotheticals about corn is whether mass selection of OP corn might have had similar results had similar levels of resources been poured into it. There have been attempts, at Wageningen and possibly elsewhere, to devote time, skill and resources to mass selection of corn, but there just isn’t the stomach for it in the absence of intellectual property protection, especially now that most universities have got out of the business of public goods.

  19. Pingback: Lewontin wins the Craaford Prize | West Hunter

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