Not without honor

Jared Diamond spends a lot of time in GGS making excuses for groups that didn’t do much domestication of animals and plants. Sometimes the excuses are valid: farming was hard for Eskimos. Mostly they’re not: the wild ancestors of horses and cattle (tarpans and aurochs) were dangerous and mean, not obviously tameable. Yet they were domesticated. His arguments are even worse for domestication of plants. There are many plants that could be domesticated ( yes, there are lots of plants in Africa) – the problem is that once you have a working domesticate, wild but potentially domesticable plants have to complete with that finished, optimized product. “In order for anybody to want to plant a new crop it’s going to have to make them money, to do as well or better than crops they have now,” That and you have to have locals that want to do this. Before the Bantu, the hunter-gatherers of southern Africa never showed much interest in settling down.

So the good is the enemy of the new.

One important factor that has suppressed many locally-developed plants (likely including goosefoot & sumpweed, domesticated in eastern North America) is what you might call ‘alien advantage’. If you grow a crop near its origin, there will be local pests and pathogens that are adapted to it. It you try growing it in a distant land with a compatible climate, it often does very much better than in its own country. So… crops from Central and South America have done very well in Africa, or sometimes in Southeast Asia. Rubber tree plantations work fine in Malaysia and Liberia but fail in Brazil. Maize is the biggest crop in Africa, while manioc and peanuts are important. Most cocoa is grown in Africa: most coffee is grown in South America. Except for civet coffee of course, out of Vietnam. The perfect gift.

If you are thinking about a new domestication, you should keep alien advantage in mind. You might want to raise a domesticated prickly pear in Australia. Or maybe not…

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37 Responses to Not without honor

  1. dearieme says:

    Sir you’re the man to domesticate witchetty grubs. You must tell us how it goes.

    • MawBTS says:

      Nothing in Australia is worth eating. All our plants and animals suck. Notice how when they talk about “Australian food” it’s always things like meat pies and lamingtons (things from other countries, in other words?). Sort of like how AC/DC is somehow an Australian band despite having three Scots, one Brit, and one Australian.

      As a child I ate crocodile meat (which was white, greasy, and tasteless, like overcooked chicken smeared with lard), and emu meat (which was revolting and as tough as galvanised iron). Kangaroo meat was worth buying when they were selling it as dog food and it was $5/kg. Now it’s a boutique meat and it costs about $10/kg. Not worth it at all.

  2. Evolved Defenses? says:

    If you grow a crop near its origin, there will be local pests and pathogens that are adapted to it.

    I guess in theory you also could get the problem that your alien crop lacks evolved defenses against the local pests… but in practice, this doesn’t happen as often, as breeding a plant for a food crop means breeding out a lots of its poisons, hard seed cases, etc, and the best defense in practice is then not that.

    Though all the examples here are tropical – anything like this apply for rice / wheat when adopted in the temperate New World? (Or even within the Old World?).

    • gcochran9 says:

      I know that some crops, like wheat and soybeans, have tended to do better in the Americas and Australia, since some of their traditional pests and diseases didn’t make it across. At least for a while: the soybean aphid was first noticed in the US in 2000. The Russian wheat aphid showed up in Australia in 2016.

    • Ruritanian says:

      Pome fruits in the East Coast of the USA — particularly the humid parts — tend to have
      serious difficulty. Fireblight, rusts, etc. Possibly they’re more vulnerable to tent caterpillars and some other pests as well.

      As stated elsewhere, European grapes were massacred by an epidemic of the American Phylloxera, a relative of the aphid. Hardly any European grapes are now grown on their own roots; the Canary Islands are one of the few places where this is still possible.

  3. dearieme says:

    “three Scots, one Brit, and one Australian”: so that’s four Brits and one Australian. Or, not so long ago, five Brits.

  4. Pierre says:

    Another good example is oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). Native to West Africa but now mostly grown in Southeast Asia (e.g. Indonesia and Malaysia).

  5. random observer says:

    Just reading comments on the last few pieces.

    Anyone know a good, detailed fisking of Stannard’s “American Holocaust”? The Amazon description makes it sound just plumb ludicrous.

  6. RCB says:

    Greg, do you plan to post the final GGS review here on the blog? You might consider posting it somewhere else, so that you can reach a different audience and avoid repetition here. I’m not sure where that would be… maybe others can suggest a location.

  7. Pierre says:

    I have an admission to make: unlike many here who were skeptical even the first time they read the book, I bought the arguments hook, line and sinker.. I don’t believe any desire to support any pc beliefs was a major factor (but who knows). For some reason, I just found the arguments compelling. I guess it was the seemingly empirical nature of the evidence. As they say: the data doesn’t “speak” – it’s interpreted. Good job with these series of posts…

    • gcochran9 says:

      GGS is not like Testosterone Rex, which is complete bullshit. Diamond is not an idiot, nor is he wrong about everything. His basic thesis is silly, but a lot ( not all) of his supporting evidence is sound. Biogeographical factors have certainly been important in the development of civilization.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Diamond is a lot like Sonny Liston in that regard. As Liston’s Manager famously said about him, “Sonny has a lot of good points. It’s his bad points that ain’t so good…”

  8. marcel proust says:

    “You might want to raise a domesticated prickly pear in Australia.

    Is our host hinting that he is thinking of emigrating?

  9. AppSocRes says:

    Another barrier in the process of domesticating plants is that domestication usually requires concentration and concentration leads to easier infestations and attacks by native species that live off the concentrated plants.

  10. sprfls says:

    One important factor that has suppressed many locally-developed plants…is what you might call ‘alien advantage’.

    Kind of like why weed from say the Pacific Northwest is way better than from Central Asia? J/k, j/k. 🙂

    On a tangential but related note, afaik not enough attention has been given to looking at the spread of flora to help fill in open questions about ancient ancestry. Cannabis seems to be associated with some sort of proto-ANE people and in turn much later spread by steppe cultures. (Just the fact that it appears exactly at ~2000 BC in the Hindu Kush, while ancestral forms have existed around the Altai for tens of thousands of years, should have shut up the out-of-India and related crazies).

    Another plant I thought could be explanatory is olives. Looks to me to be spread by a specific wave of Eastern Mediterranean farmers. Wild olive trees existed all along the Mediterranean yet almost all the olives ever eaten derive from trees native to a small section of the northern Levant.

  11. civet coffee being the perfect gift

    How else to thank Diamond for his contributions?

  12. melendwyr says:

    There’s also the simple point that if you try to grow a crop surrounded by wild relatives, pollen containing wild traits will constantly contaminate your population, diluting any changes you try to make to the domesticate genepool. There are excellent reasons why so many of our crop plants are obligate or nearly-obligate self-fertilizers, and that’s one of them.

    • anonymous says:

      If you grow a crop near its origin, there will be local pests and pathogens that are adapted to it.

      … and yet, wheat, maize, rice, and pretty much all other major crops were domesticated in their native habitats.

      <i.>if you try to grow a crop surrounded by wild relatives, pollen containing wild traits will constantly contaminate your population, diluting any changes you try to make to the domesticate genepool.

      Teosinte, ancestor of maize, can pollinate maize but not the other way around — one suspects that teosintes crossed with maize were unable to self seed in the wild, leading to a rapid selection for asymmetric pollination capability.

  13. Calvin X Hobbes says:

    “Jared Diamond spends a lot of time in GGS making excuses for groups that didn’t do much domestication of animals and plants.”

    If x years ago people in one location started domesticating some wild animal and people in another location did not attempt to domesticate available wild animals that were just as easy to domesticate as that animal in the first location, was it because the people in the second location were more lazy, stupid, or feckless than the people in the first location? Or was it more because the steps in the domestication process made more short-term sense for people in the first location than for people in the second location?

    I’m no believer in the psychic unity of mankind. It does seem like people in some places really are more lazy or more stupid or more feckless than people in other places. Still, I would think that, at least until not so long ago, the human behavior in the domestication process of plants and animals was motivated by short-term thinking with a time horizon of months or at most a few years.

  14. j says:

    Jared Diamond is 80 years old and his books reflect post-WWII science and weltanschauung. Totally past its consume to date. It is a bit unfair – but very funny – to deconstruct him from today’s perspective and with all we have learned since. Yet…

    “Europe’s colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography—in particular, to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. That is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.”
    ― Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

    In the above quote, he maintains that there are no intrinsic differences between European and African peoples themselves. It is all an accident of biogeography. Applying this argument to its extreme, there is no difference between humans and chimps, it is all accident of biogeography.

    • JerryC says:

      And as Sailer has pointed out many times, if the environments in Europe and Africa were so profoundly different, that must have driven genetic differences in the people who lived there. If that didn’t happen, then the theory of evolution is just wrong.

    • BB753 says:

      “Europe’s colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. ”

      Hey, even Africans used to say Europeans were smarter than themselves! That is, until a generation ago, when P.C. started to kick in. They had no problem with that, as far as I can remember.

      • j says:

        “The relations of production define the forms of social consciousness.” (Marx). In other words, it looks different if you are below or above.

        Now, I heard that in the Philippines they are mainstreaming anti-oxidants to whiten the skin. Is that real or fake news? What would be the consequences if it works? Should I resign my poorly paid job in the university and open a skin whitening clinic?

  15. DataExplorer says:

    “If you grow a crop near its origin, there will be local pests and pathogens that are adapted to it. It you try growing it in a distant land with a compatible climate, it often does very much better than in its own country”

    Surely the plant has evolved to survive against those pests? In a foreign environment there will be pests that it has no evolved defence against. For example my Oleander in Florida has to be sprayed at least 3 times a year to protext against caterpillars, but it seems to thrive in its natural habitat of the Mediterranean.

  16. Kyro says:

    Alien advantage arguably applies to humans as well, given that the disease load is heaviest in SS Africa.

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