Omnivore’s Dilemna

Pollan M.  2006.  The Omnivore’s Dilemna.  Toronto: Penguin Group.  Pages 15-119.


Though the prose is a bit grandiose, it does get its point across.  And the explanations of terminology is done very well, like on page 21 where the author likens stomata opening to losing blood to breathe.  A very visceral image that immediately gets the point across.  The divisions between chapters are also very good.  Each division is quite short, and the chapter titles also help keep everything fresh and interesting.  In books with long chapters I would often find myself slowly swapping from engaged reading to skimming, and with short chapters this was happening a lot less.

And as usual, corn, corn and more corn.  It was especially interesting to hear that you can’t plant a whole corn cob (pg 27).  I figured that the plant would have some of its seeds germinate and have some wait, but according to the author the seeds would just out-compete each other and die.  So not only do we rely on corn for gross energy, it relies on us for its very existence.  And on another note I suppose it makes sense that it provides more energy since as the author notes, it was better adapted to the climate in the first place.  Not every invasive species is successful after all.

Which is why it is so astounding to hear later on that the farmers who make the stuff can barely scrape a living (pg.34).  And with all the subsidies and tax forgiveness, how is it that someone making this highly useful product can hardly scrape by?  The food you buy made from corn is expensive enough.  And compare that to other “extraction” type jobs (extraction here being a blanket anything-out-of-the earth sort of thing).  Someone working at a mine or doing forestry year-round makes far more.  Several people I know work in mines or in forestry, and they never seem to have money problems (short of buying expansive things before said mine/logging season ends).  And now that I think about it, the local farm I know best (it belongs to my brother’s friend’s family) had to diversify their products to start making money again.  Why is it that iron and wood are worth so much more than the food that sustains us?  Hardly seems right.  And if farming is such hard work for no benefit, then eventually when they give up and the country relies on one territory or solely on imports it exposes itself to weakness in a time of crisis.

Imagine what would happen to a place that depends so heavily on imported food if it was suddenly cut off (natural disaster, diplomatic incident etc.).

And thinking about that reminded me about the other silly things that a farmer would have to deal with.  Being responsible for keeping other people’s GMO products from contaminating their yields for one.  And the people who make the GMO in the first place expect everyone else to pay them if their pollen hits a different farmers field?  Ridiculous.  If anything the farmer should be able to counter-sue since the other person’s actions led to the incident in the first place.  And on the other side of the coin, some people are absolutely terrified of modified foods (remind them about seedless fruits and see if that changes their minds) but have no qualms about modifying their bodies or even their children?  Why is it that ingesting a modified food is so frightening but making your children all tall, smart and athletic hardly bats an eye?  Doesn’t make sense to me.

Anyway, yet again I got sidetracked but I think that thinking about how all this stuff relates to everything is probably the point of this assignment in the first place.  Overall good read, but could lay off some of the “hook” type writing.

Guns, Germs, and Steel

Diamond J.  1999.  Guns, Germs, and Steel.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.  Chapters 4-6,8.

This one was even easier to get into.

But before I cover any of that, I have to talk about the photos in the middle of the book.  There are a bunch of pictures of natives, and then the picture of the Japanese emperor on his birthday (between pages 96/97).  It confused the heck out of me for awhile, before I realized it was referring to the Asian food production versus the native hunter-gatherer pictures.  Still seems out of place, and it gets a score of wry-grin/10.

The part where he talks about the limits travel had on childbearing was something I never thought about before (pg 89).  Then later on with domesticated animals and the multiple uses they had.  It makes me question the bit in class where the whole plants domesticating people idea comes up.  Ultimately the plants that get used as farm crops tended to have the easiest way to extract energy (potatoes, bananas,corn).  And so they are grown at the expense of less edible foods.  Rather than a domestication, I think it is more along the lines of a mutualistic relationship.  You have the plants that are able to have their competition wiped out and reproduce with help by humans, and humans that are able to increase their number and take over more territory with the greater populations and faster growth rates that crop plants provide.  And with food stores and greater food abundance in general, more time is allowed for improving technologies instead of scraping enough food to merely survive.  So I would argue that both the crop plants and humans benefit from the relationship and rather than one side being subservient to the other, it is more along the lines of increasing fitness of both organisms with mutualism.

The parts on carbon dating and how it has errors from fluctuation was pretty neat, although someone less interested in the science behind it would probably not care too much (pg 95-97).  Keeping track of when each plant was first used would be a pain too, like when he talks about independent peoples domesticating the same plant.  As far as why food production grew in places that had low resources, I think that answers itself by his title, “History’s Haves and Have-Nots”.  When food is already scarce, the best thing to do is either move or increase the production of the area.  As far as how people would decide to plant seeds instead of simply moving to another area would be a better thing to look at.  Maybe they were stuck there because the other good hunter-gatherer areas were taken up by aggressive raiders.  Maybe they were trapped there from some other reason.  Maybe they were never trapped but rather than make a long risky trek they instead colonized.  Especially the effort it would take to get a farm started.  Without tools like we have today farming would have been a lot harder, although having domesticated animals that do the work for you AND feed/clothe you as well would be a welcome boost for those people.

And while all those thoughts were crossing my mind, I wonder if there is a difference in humans planting seeds purposely versus other animals excreting them.  Ultimately the fruit is eaten, it is just that with humans we purposely try to place the seeds where they can succeed most.  So calling cutting out forests for farmlands might not be “unnatural” as some people might think.  If anything it is a behaviour that increases the plants fitness, and since all evolution cares about is the continued survival of its species, the loss from the old plants being replaced might just be the most natural thing of all. And if you think about it, 99% of all species that existed have died, so is it a great tragedy if less successful organisms are replaced by the more successful?

Wasn’t expecting to get philosophical there, but reading this book really puts you into a perspective mode type of thinking (probably could word that better).  And seeing as I’m closing in on excessive words I’ll cut it off here.

The Triumph of Seeds

Hanson T.  2015.  The Triumph of Seeds.  New York: Basic Books.  pg ix-18, 55-80.

This reading was a bit more of what I am used to seeing, with a bit of a story to go along with the information given out.  Probably the part that jumped out at me the most was when on page 63 he likens spore plant adaptions to eggs and sperm turning into 1/3 size people that had to have sex.  That was an interesting way to put it, certainly gets the point across.  The bit about the fossil record being biased since the ferns and non-seed plants were close to bogs and more likely to be fossilized was interesting too (pg 60).  The summary he gives at the beginning was nice and concise (pg xxiii-xxv).

It was a bit hard to pay attention when he was talking about Mendel and Darwin, but mostly because I’ve heard the stories so often.  It was interesting to hear that no-one asked questions at Mendel’s presentation.  Forget anti-plant bias, kind of makes you question their status of scientists if no-one asks questions.

And the part about pushing a snake out of the way (an asp no less) just to stay on a straight line was pretty jarring (pg 4).  Why go through all that effort when you could just avoid the snake?  Death by snake bite hardly seems a fair trade compared to just making a temporary curve in an otherwise straight line.

A small post seems fair given the few pages to read, overall the theme was that careful consideration should be given to evidence you find, and that seeds have an advantage but that does not mean they are the best.  And though it wasn’t part of the readings assigned, it was neat hearing about the turbulence lack of grain causes to institutions.


100 Mile Diet A Year Of Local Eating

Ah, a blog.  Can’t help but feel like a piece of me has died.


Smith, A, MacKinnon, J.B.  2007.  The 100-Mile Diet.  pg.1-131.  Vintage Canada, Toronto.

This book was about Alisa and James and the troubles and benefits they found when trying the 100 mile diet.  Hundred dollar meals and bears in the woods mixed with social interactions they would not otherwise have had was what the first half of the book was about.

Certainly an interesting read, quite a bit different from the standard Biology papers.  It was interesting to see how the two authors transitioned.  It was obvious, but wasn’t stated outright.  Such as when they start giving the other person’s name during the narrative, and the different focuses they both wrote about.  Alisa tended to talk about the people themselves, noting their hair or eye colours (pg 66), while James tended to give more description on what lead to a purchase (pg 88-89).  It was done pretty well, just not something I am used to.  Probably because of the first person point of view and all the “I” did such and such.

I do have to question how far they go to keep to the 100 mile part, especially when James divides mouse poop and wheat.  Would have been famous for an entirely different reason if things had gone wrong there!

Probably a bit short for the first entry, but it will have to so for now.