Unnatural Selection

One of the most head-scratching, skull-busting concepts I encountered in school was the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Simply put, as you get down to the lowest level of matter, it is impossible to know both the position and speed of a particle.  The more precisely you know a particle’s speed, the less precisely you know its position and vice versa.

Setting aside the mathematics, what it really says is that, at the limit, the separation between the observer and the observed breaks down.  The observer always impacts the observed.  In finding out where something is, you inevitably change how fast it is going.  Find out how fast something is going, and you inevitably change where it is.

Fortunately, this principle becomes true only at the quantum level, which means the rest of us don’t have to worry about it.

Or do we?

If you’ll cast your minds back about 10,000 years ago, near the Middle East, you might encounter some very bright ladies who were about to foment a revolution.  They were hunter gathers.  Each year the women (the “gatherers” part of the clan) would return to their favorite spots, hoping that there’d been enough rain and sun to make the seeds they depended on appear.  If they had, the women would gather all the seeds that had fallen to the ground, grab any they could see on the plants, and everyone would eat whatever they found.

In short, they acted just like the birds who were their main competition.  From the plants’ point of view, they were just one of the environmental hazards that stood between them and producing the next generation of plants.  But the plants had been shaped by millions years of coping with a chancy environment and with the birds and other seed thieves.

The plants knew better than to produce all their seeds at once on the off chance that the rains would come at just that right moment.  They knew, too, that their seeds might have to lie on the ground for a long time, so they spent their limited energy making the hulls thick and strong.  And they knew that clustering all their seeds together just made them easy pickings, so they spread them along the stems.

But then came the revolution.

After having been nomadic hunters and gatherers for a few hundred thousand years, these ladies decided that just migrating north and south, following the seasons and hoping for the best, was all very well but a bit chancy.  They had a better idea.

Now imagine there was a nice little dale that seemed perfect for growing seeds.  A place that they returned to year after year.  And suppose, that instead of eating every seed they found the ladies withheld some and scattered them on the ground.  Perhaps the next time they came they would find the little dale ready to give them still more seeds.

In short, the agricultural revolution probably began long before people decided to settle down in one place and become farmers.  It probably began with the gatherers, those brilliant ladies, becoming the first human beings to do what is arguably the true hallmark of our species.  Having always lived with whatever the environment chose to throw at them, they decided instead to change their environment.

All very well for the humans, but what about the plants?  After all, the environment those pesky people were fooling around with was the plants’ own.

You might think that the plants wouldn’t care, but you’d be wrong.  For millions of years the propagation rules had been the same: The plant that had the best odds of passing on to the next generation was the one that spread its seeding over a long period, had thick hulls, and bore its seeds over as much of the plant as possible.

But suddenly the rules changed.  Now, to improve your odds, you wanted to be one of those plants whose seeds the ladies collected and scattered (or even planted).  Suddenly it was a good idea to have all your seeds ripen in a short period of time.  It was a good idea to have thin hulls and concentrate your energy on filling those hulls with extra meat.  And now it was a good idea to have all your seeds clustered together where the ladies could see them and gather them.

So long before our ancestors ever thought of specializing on one plant in preference to another and long before we started crossing various flora and fauna to produce favored hybrids, we were changing the way things lived.  Long before it might seem obvious that we had begun to domesticate things, we were changing the rules under which they lived.  We humans were changing the environment and forcing things to adapt (it’s called the Adaptive Syndrome) long before we realized it.


Well, maybe it tells us Heisenberg was right.  Maybe it’s all about the interaction between the observer and the observed.  Or maybe it’s all about that human urge to control our world.  But maybe, just maybe, it’s a profound truth about human nature:

Human beings simply can’t look at something without interfering with it.

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