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The year is 8000 B.C. A man wanders across a field of prairie grasses in search of edible berries and roots and wild game to feed his family. As he walks, the tips of the grasses brush against him, releasing seeds. He collects a few of these seeds and brings them back to his camp. Later, he notices that when they fall on earth, they begin to sprout, and a new plant grows.

In small moments like these, the path of Homo sapiens sapiens is changed forever. The process of domesticating plants and animals reflects the greatest transition in the history of humankind—one that served to make us the humans we are today. This momentous innovation, which allowed human beings to become the dominant species on earth, sparked a chain reaction that laid the foundation for human civilization:

  • By mastering the complexities of herding and farming, human beings secured their food supply indefinitely.
  • These secure food sources led to settled communities and higher population densities around the world.
  • With more highly concentrated and populated societies, humans developed complex systems in order to divide labor among individuals and groups.
  • This division of labor eventually led to the creation of more specialized and essential human systems, such as government, law, and religion.

Today, we still feel the impact of this early innovation. Inasmuch as humankind has changed the species it domesticates, so have the plants and animals we cultivate and tend changed the shape of our history and lives. These interactions are the key not only to our rise but also our continued success on this planet. In fact, it’s been suggested that if contributions from our domesticates suddenly stopped, civilization would almost certainly and instantly collapse.

In Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact, award-winning educator Professor Gary A. Sojka takes you on a journey through this fascinating story, surveying the remarkable innovations that transformed humankind into the sole agriculturists on our planet.

Over the course of 24 thought-provoking lectures, Professor Sojka draws on the latest science to offer a unique, multidisciplinary perspective on human life seldom available in a single course.

Bringing together insights from a wide variety of fields—including microbiology, genetics, archaeology, and sociology—Professor Sojka weaves a complex and remarkable tale, a fascinating synthesis of science and history that spans from the ancient roots of human culture to some of the most significant issues facing the modern world.

10,000 Years of Change

The course begins with the conversion of human beings from hunter-gatherers into farmers and keepers of livestock. As you explore more than 10,000 years of human history, you’ll uncover the remarkable innovations, adaptations, and evolutions that have affected people and their plant and animal domesticates.

You’ll view this grand story from a variety of perspectives. Through the lens of science, you’ll explore the biological implications of cultivation and see how breeding practices have altered the genetic makeup of our domesticates. Focusing on history and anthropology, you’ll examine how these changes, in turn, affected humankind and formed the foundation for the development of human civilization and culture. Your understanding of this rich story is enhanced with evidence drawn from many areas of study, including genetic research, archaeological excavation, carbon dating, mitochondrial DNA, and comparative linguistics.

As you explore this history, you’ll trace a number of foundational ideas that lie at the heart of this field of study:

  • Domestication is a mutually beneficial partnership between humans and the plants and animals they cultivate.
  • Not any wild species can be domesticated. In each human-domesticate relationship, the plant or animal has “met us partway,” exhibiting characteristics and behaviors that make domestication possible.
  • Domestication is a two-way street. Just as we have changed the animals, plants, and microbes we have domesticated, so have we been changed through our relationship with them.

Unexpected Insights

Along the way, you’ll encounter fascinating facts and unexpected insights that bring this topic to life. Some of these intriguing details include these:

  • The story of the domestication of dogs: Modern-day dogs originally arose from outcast members of wolf packs. Those animals that exhibited a weaker “flight response” could tolerate human communities and soon learned how to benefit from this interaction.
  • Unexpected domesticates: Domesticates don’t live only in the barnyard. Some important domesticates include the yeast used to brew beer and bake bread, the microbes that produce antibiotics, and mice that are bred to be used in the laboratory.
  • The “expatriation” of species: While we may think of tomatoes as quintessentially Italian, potatoes as typically Irish, and horses as icons of the American West, all these species—and many others that we associate with particular regions—are actually foreign transplants whose identification with these regions is shaped by human intervention.
  • The impact of domesticates on humans: Without sled dogs, Inuit peoples could not have moved into Arctic climates, just as desert peoples needed camels to thrive in their environment.

Glimpse the Future of Humankind

In addition to illuminating the distant past of humanity, Understanding the Human Factor also sheds light on current and future developments in the human experience. As you trace modern developments, you’ll see how some of humankind’s most advanced innovations—including such new technologies as artificial insemination, cloning, and interspecies gene transfer—are part of the ongoing relationship the human species has formed with its domesticates.

You’ll also explore the repercussions and implications of humankind’s “grand experiment” in domestication. As you’ll see, the story of domestication serves as the foundation for some of the most hotly debated issues in the modern world, including sustainability, animal rights, agribusiness, pollution, and world hunger. Through his balanced and scientifically based discussion of humankind’s history of food production, Professor Sojka provides you with the context to understand both these debates themselves and our species’ capacity for contending with these issues.

An Unprecedented Perspective on Life on Earth

In Understanding the Human Factor, you’ll gain a unique and valuable opportunity to grasp the full story of humankind’s relationship to domestication. Through this single course, you’ll encounter a synthesis of insights drawn from a wide range of disciplines.

As an award-winning educator and a practitioner of agriculture and animal husbandry, Professor Sojka is the perfect guide for this grand saga. Weaving together material from a wide range of scholarly viewpoints, he presents a one-of-a-kind vision of humankind’s unique role on Earth.

Join Professor Sojka for this enlightening view of the human story, and discover valuable truths about one of the most important developments in the history of the human species—one that has laid the foundation for all of human culture and that will continue to have implications for our future.

Visit Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact (The Great Courses) to read more...

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