Buffalo gourds and Josephson junctions

Every technique is in competition with rival techniques. This inhibits the development of new techniques, even if they have high potential in the long run. To succeed, they have to beat out existing techniques in the short run.

For example, there are potential advantages for superconducting electronics for computing, but CMOS keeps improving. It’s a moving target: it’s not enough to be good, or interesting, you have to be better. Soon, not in 50 years. This is particularly difficult considering the enormous amount of resources currently invested in improving semiconductor computing technology.

In the same way, one successful domestication tends to inhibit other domestications. Several crops were domesticated in the eastern United States, but with the advent of maize and beans, most were abandoned. Maybe if those Amerindians had continued to selectively breed sumpweed for a few thousand years, it would have been competitive: but nobody is that crazy. Pretty crazy, but not that crazy.

Teosinte was an unpromising weed: it’s hard to see why anyone bothered to try to domesticate it, and it took a long time to turn it into maize. If someone had brought wheat to Mexico six thousand years ago, likely the locals would have dropped maize like a hot potato. But maize ultimately had advantages: it’s a C4 plant, while wheat is C3: maize yields can be much higher.

Modern scientific plant breeders seldom or never start with a wild plant and try to domesticate it. Instead they modify already-domesticated plants. Many wild plants could be domesticated, but people aren’t willing to put in the huge effort required to get that plant to the point of being competitive with existing, highly optimized crops.

Maybe they should: but there’s a huge startup cost. Plant breeders at the University of Arizona made efforts to domesticate buffalo gourd as drought-tolerant source of oi, protein, and starch. But that was 35 years ago: the natural fate of such long-term projects is death by boredom, impatience, and retirement..

Why didn’t people domesticate foxes, back in the day? Is it because foxes are solitary hunters, don’t have the right pack structure and thus can’t be domesticated, blah blah blah? No: they’re easy to domesticate, at least they if you’re a crazy Russian. But we already had dogs: what was the point?

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33 Responses to Buffalo gourds and Josephson junctions

  1. Jim says:

    “dropped maize like a hot potato”. But had they domesticated the potato by then?

  2. Belayev started doing this only a few years after Stalin’s death and de-facto ban on genetics, which continued even after. But probably no politicians cared about foxes.

  3. Jim says:

    Yes, there should be all kinds of plants with enormous potential for human benefit. Of course there may also be plants like opium with enormous potential for harm to humanity.

  4. ziel says:

    These last few posts feel like pre-reading for the big GG&S review coming our way.

  5. P. K. Adithya says:

    Hi Dr. Cochran, big fan of your blog here.

    Just wondering how this fits in with your post – Wikipedia says the donkey was probably first domesticated by Nubian pastoralists and it supplanted the ox as their main pack animal. If they already had oxen, would it have been obvious to them that it was worth spending the time and effort to domesticate donkeys? Or were wild asses easy to domesticate?


    • gcochran9 says:

      Donkeys might tolerate heat better. I hear that Nubia’s pretty hot.

      • another fred says:

        Donkeys would do much better in difficult terrain.

        There may be something in the structure of the back that makes oxen better at pulling loads while a donkey is better for bearing loads.

        • another fred says:

          How would you like to tour the Grand Canyon on an ox?

          • J says:

            There is some old saying to paraphrase: A trained horse will run off the edge of a cliff if told to do so by its rider; a donkey will outright refuse to do something dangerous (like the path in the video); a mule being half-way in between will do something dangerous in a safe manner.

            Horses live in herds and safety comes from relying on the herd. Donkeys are solitary so have to be smarter or more wary of danger to survive.

      • DRA says:

        I’ve read that oxen walk at about 3 mph and horses at about 6 mph. Haven’t looked up donkeys or zebras.

    • The Onager says:

      On a tangent, regarding the donkey, there’s also the question of why the onager was not domesticated.

      A large robust, fast moving member of the Assinus clade with distribution in West Asia, domesticated it could well have been a competitor for the horse’s niche in human culture (while the donkey, smaller, less so). We see onagers in the standards of Ur, pulling carts or chariots.

      So why no domestication? Because they already had the donkey? This probably mattered for our history (e.g. “The Horse, the Wheel and Language”).

    • TWS says:

      Donkeys are smaller and safer, can go further in a day and faster. Other that nothing.

  6. I have puzzled about teosinte and wondered if there were some other food-purpose along the way, as a spice or flavoring. I’m not imaginative enough to think of a non-food purpose that could have kept it as a going concern.

  7. Random River Joe says:

    A great deal of effort was made to produce Josephson components such as memory and gates – much underwritten by major corporations and the NSF. But the problem of miniaturizing such devices and having them withstand repeated cooling cycles to liquid helium temperatures without destruction was so formidable that the field was largely (but not entirely) abandoned.

    And in retrospect, correctly. Many other technologies held much more promise and delivered more value in the ensuing years. As these technologies reach their ultimate limits a reexamination of superconducting switches may be in order. At least one economically significant application where a simple Josephson processor could outperform an inexpensive conventional device would be all that were needed. As it happened, in the past it was always better to bet on conventional devices becoming faster than it was to bet on Josephson switches.

  8. Looking Forwards says:

    What do we think about CRISPR-cas9 tech sharply dropping the barriers to startup domestication? Find out general mechanisms of domestiation of high yields, dump them into analogues in the sumpweed genome. Skip out the intermediate stages.

    Merging this with the “consensus genome” idea that Greg has previously raised, what about taking foxes, coyotes, wolves, dogs.

    Write up a consensus genome of all species, essentially the Canid LCA, basically, then shift in whatever Williams Syndromal neural crest fuck up mutations that make dogs like they are (http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/what-makes-dogs-so-friendly-study-finds-genetic-link-super-outgoing-people). Could be a fitter companion species than dogs.

    Or even go deeper – reconstruct the consensus Carnivorean LCA (LCA of Feliforms and Caniforms), add domestication. You might be able to get more marketable breeds out of a less highly derived root. Pets! (or a nice disaster movie plot!)

    (Thinking of Neal Stephenson’s seveneves here – the post-Hard Rain, post-timeskip human reconquista of Earth doesn’t bother to, and can’t, reconstruct full species diversity, so reconstruct broad clades like canids.

    There’s also some stuff about manipulating species history for superior epigenetic adaptation, to offset the generalised nature of what they implement, but, well…)

    The ideas in Greg’s post here aren’t necessarily just intellectual curiosities. Taking a Diamondian position of the general useless of present day non-domesticates as potential domesticates may inhibit what we can do with this technology…

    • TWS says:

      My understanding is that the us govt has made this impossible in the US. Somebody already did this with dogs but now that’s shut down for animal husbandry purposes.

  9. mar says:

    … at least they if you’re a crazy Russian.

    Not just normal, everyday crazy. He was crazy like a fox.

  10. Cavalier says:

    Catastrophe-related punctuated equilibrium?

  11. MawBTS says:

    It makes you think about all the cool stuff we’re missing out on just because we already had something mildly better.

    If crop x yields more than crop y, then everyone will use crop x. But if crop yield is under selection we’d need to think of it as a vector, with a direction as well as a magnitude. How fast can it be moved through genetic space? Maybe you can select crop y way more successfully than crop x, but unless you tough it out with a shitty crop (in the short term) you’ll never know.

    Would cows-via-bison be better than cows-via-aurochsen? Is there some terrible-tasting fruit that has potential to be really great once we select it a bit? And do human races differ not just in their mean IQ, but in their potential to increase in IQ (so that some populations are 60% g but some others might be 50% g)?

    Darwinian evolution is a race, but it’s a race we can only observe as a snapshot (until we manage to live for hundreds or thousands of years). Just because something’s below par now doesn’t mean it’s not eventually going to blitz past something else, on a long enough timescale.

    • gcochran9 says:

      and all the technology paths that were surpassed and abandoned, but might have had long-run potential.

      • myb6 says:

        Don’t take this as endorsement of their environmental ideas (the climate effects of switching to human-powered appliances will be ~0), but I really enjoy the historical articles on lowtechmagazine.com. Energy transmission via hoses or mechanical cables, optical telegraphs, tile vaults, masonry heaters. Very (non-steam)punk.

        Rather OT: a similar path-dependency is why I’m skeptical of orthodox trade econ. History is rather contrary to a “most open should grow fastest” thesis, and it makes sense that the most efficient short-run development path may not be the path with the greatest potential in the long-run. Eg various forms of the cheap-human-labor path seem to always hit diminishing returns (no IR in Rome/India/China).

      • teageegeepea says:

        Were you the one who pointed out that building roads for horses rather than relying on a more robust animal (like camels elsewhere) led to much better results in the very long run that initial road-builders couldn’t anticipate? Because I can no longer find the blog post using that as an example.

  12. Archandsuperior says:

    Sounds similar to your musing on the Future Strategist podcast about the upgrade path of camels vs. ox carts. Presumably then, the only way to find out which approach is best in the long run is to have multiple, competing societies that all try different approaches. I think Jared Diamond said something about that…

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