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.