July 28, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

From Hunter-Gatherer to Modern Farmer

Here are some headlines concerning early man and the ongoing struggle by humans to improve life.

Throw the dog a bone:  An extinct ape named Oreopithecus did not walk upright as earlier claimed, Science Daily admitted.  Maybe they sat as they made little black cookies with white cream in the middle.  “The study, published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, confirms that anatomical features related to habitual upright, two-legged walking remain exclusively associated with humans and their fossil ancestors.”

Back in Liang Bua Cave: Whatever happened to The Hobbit?  News about those little fossil people from Indonesia occasionally breaks above the din into the headlines.  Latest claim: they looked like us but were not us.  Science Daily reported, “3D-Comparative Analysis Confirms Status of Homo Floresiensis as Fossil Human Species.”  A team from Stony Brook University claims that they were not victims of microcephaly.  That keeps them in the genus Homo, but as a separate species – at least, until the next analysis contradicts it.

Give peace a chance:  Scientists are fighting over whether early humans were aggressive and warlike.  Reviewing a paper in Science, Elizabeth Culotta, in her perspective article, announced, “Latest Skirmish Over Ancestral Violence Strikes Blow for Peace.”  Early people were peacemakers.  That’s the opinion of two Finns who published an article in Science about whether “lethal aggression” was dominant among mobile foraging bands.  It has “implications for the origins of war,” they wrote.  “But those on the other side of the debate” are fighting back, Culotta wrote; they “say that the paper lacks the numerical data to evaluate how common war and homicide actually are.”  And how can there be a peace treaty if both sides can’t even define what war is?  Darwin always wins, regardless.  “If war is a common feature of the foraging way of life, then perhaps it was a driving force in human evolution,” Culotta said.  Well, then, what “if” it wasn’t?  Then, presumably, peace and cooperation were the driving forces in human evolution.

Ancient mariners:  Using traditional craft and no modern navigation aids, a Polynesian team completed a voyage from New Zealand to Easter Island and back, the BBC News reported.  The feat revitalized natives to remember a skill that is rapidly being lost.  For “over 3,000 years, John Pickford wrote, “the Polynesians had been using their great canoes, combined with near-miraculous navigation skills, to explore and settle a vast stretch of the Pacific.”  Today’s islanders, want often to leave their paradise and get jobs on the mainland, it was a big morale booster.  “They are a powerful reminder of a heroic age not so long ago when those mythic islands of the south seas were more connected and the ocean really was a highway rather than a barrier.”

Crop rotation, good:  Since the days the Jews were ordered to give their land a Sabbath rest, allowing native plants to grow back for a year, wise early farmers have learned that crop rotation increases productivity of the land.  It’s a trick medieval farmers had to re-learn the hard way.  Now, Science Daily claims to know why crop rotation works: it causes a shift in soil microbes.  The microbes affixed to the roots of some plant species, like legumes, know how to fix nitrogen and fertilize the soil.   Not only that, rotation has a  “profound effect … on enriching soil with bacteria, fungi and protozoa,” researchers at the John Innes Centre found.

Farm changer, world changer:  Moving up to modern times, now, here’s a story to watch.  Science Daily reported that a professor at the University of Nottingham has found a way to take nitrogen fertilizer from the air.  No, he hasn’t invented a way to do it; he’s just borrowing the technology of nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  Nitrogen is the most abundant molecule in the atmosphere, but its triple bonds make it hard to crack.  Man’s methods of fixing nitrogen to produce fertilizer are costly and require heat.  The press release could hardly contain the excitement:

Professor Edward Cocking, Director of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation, has developed a unique method of putting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of plant roots. His major breakthrough came when he found a specific strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar-cane which he discovered could intracellularly colonise all major crop plants. This ground-breaking development potentially provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. The implications for agriculture are enormous as this new technology can provide much of the plant’s nitrogen needs.

Turbocharging farmsCurrent Biology has another idea to increase farm productivity: genetically engineer crops to use C4 photosynthesis.  97% of plants use the C3 method, but a few species, particularly those in harsh environments like deserts, use C4.  Now that humans have learned genetic engineering, could they use C4 to get more mileage out of crops?  Elizabeth A. Kellogg thinks so:

The number of humans on earth is increasing, generating concerns about food security and spurring efforts throughout the world to increase the productivity of crops. If a way could be found to increase the yield of crops by, say, 20%, it would have immense impact on global food supplies. Fortunately, evolution has already crafted such a mechanism, known as C4 photosynthesis. The C4 pathway is in effect a turbocharger for the more conventional C3 pathway. Just as a turbocharger improves performance of an engine by forcing more air into the manifold, C4 improves photosynthetic performance by forcing CO2 into the standard C3 photosynthetic apparatus. The added efficiency of this mechanism is obvious at a global level.

In a sense, humans continue to use ingenuity (a.k.a., intelligent design) to improve their lot in life, using natural resources more and more efficiently.  If modern humans have existed on this globe for at least 40,000 years (some evolutionists think Homo species were our equals two million years ago), would they not have invented seafaring and agriculture much earlier?  (See 7/06/13, “Farming Came Too Late in the Evolutionary Timetable”.)

Despite all the progress in agriculture, there are worries that humans are devolving, not evolving.  Evidence was right here in the article: a retreat into pagan mysticism, as evident in Kellogg’s statement, “Fortunately, evolution has already crafted such a mechanism, known as C4 photosynthesis…in effect a turbocharger….”  There’s not much hope for mankind with that kind of personification fallacy getting published in a major science journal.


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