Today, we see how a genetic mutation gave birth to our civilization.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
To fulfill our destiny as a species of builders and makers,
we first had to leave hunting and gathering to take up farming. The scientist
and historian Jacob Bronowski tells a remarkable tale of plant genetics that
suggests this change came down to a key flash of human ingenuity.
Archaeological evidence makes it clear that two stages of genetic change
set the stage. Before 8000 BC, the ancestor of wheat more closely resembled
a wild grass than the heavy grain-bearing plant we eat today. Then a mutation
occurred in which this plant was crossed with another grass. The result was
a fertile hybrid called emmer with edible seeds that blew in
the wind and sowed themselves.
The hunting-gathering tribes took to harvesting and eating these seeds. But
they didn't have to worry about planting emmer, because it sowed itself.
Then a remarkable thing happened. A second genetic mutation occurred sometime
between 8000 and 6000 B.C. This mutation yielded something very close to our
modern wheat, with its much plumper grain. It may have happened many times
before that, but if it did we'd have no way of knowing, because wheat doesn't
blow in the wind, and it can't sow itself. A mutation -- even a fertile one --
couldn't survive on its own.
Modern wheat survives only in a symbiotic relationship with humans. Without
someone to harvest it and plant it, it dies away. But somehow some very clever
person spotted one of these mutations of emmer and recognized the potential of
collecting and manually replanting the seeds. A hunter-gatherer conceived of farming.
This pivotal event in human history happened rather close to the beginning
of biblical chronology -- the chronology of humankind once it took up farming.
This was the prototypical act of a kind of technological creativity that's gone
on ever since. Someone happened across an oddity -- in this case, a stalk of
fat grain that couldn't ride the wind -- and saw possibility within it. That
person saw how to cast what was evident into a new arrangement and to gain a
result that was not evident at all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the
way inventive minds work.
Bronowski, J., The Harvest of the Seasons. The Ascent of Man.
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973, Chapter 2.
I deal with the invention of agriculture in accordance with more up-to-date
source material in Episodes 540 and 571.
top: Modern white Gaines wheat.
bottom: A wild wheat-like grass, triticum monococcum.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John
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