Corn, rice, and wheat

Now, I’m not much of a farming type.  But for some reason, about a year ago I became intensely curious about three cereal grainscorn, rice, and wheat—and the central role they played in getting civilization off the ground.  And so, on this Passover holiday, when Ashkenazi Jews are supposed to avoid not only leavened bread, but corn and rice as well (the reason? apparently some 13th-century rabbi feared that a grain of wheat might fall in undetected), I thought I’d “go against the grain,” and ask “Four Questions” about all three of these strange plants.

Question I.  How did hunter-gatherers ever get the idea to breed these grains?  Of course, we know today that whether or not they’re labeled “organic” at Whole Foods, cereal grains aren’t much like anything found in nature, but are the result of thousands of years of selective breeding: massive genetic-engineering projects of the ancient world.  The trouble is that, if you ran into one their wild ancestors, there probably wouldn’t be anything appetizing about it.  Corn’s ancestor, for example, seems to have been a barely-edible grass called teosinte.  Does the only explanation we can ever hope for rely on anthropic postselection: eventually some cave-dwellers stumbled on the idea of breeding grain, and we’re all living in the aftermath of the resulting population explosion?  But the fact that it happened not once, not twice, but three times independently—with wheat in the Middle East, rice in Asia, and corn in the Americas—suggests that it couldn’t have been all that unlikely.  Which brings us to…

Question II.  What other plants could similarly be used as the basis for a large civilization?  The one other plant I can think of that’s played a similar role is the yam, in parts of Africa.  Has there ever been a culture that used the potato as its main food source—maybe in Russia or Eastern Europe?  (Update, 4/12: Duhhhhhhh, the Irish, of course, hence the Irish Potato Famine.  Thanks to several commenters for pointing this out.)  OK, what about oats, barley, rye, or sorghum?

Question III.  Corn, rice, wheat: which one is best?  Is there one such that, if we all switched to it, we’d be ten times healthier and also save the planet?  Or, on the tiny chance that we can’t settle that question via blog comments, can we at least elucidate the salient differences?  (Corn does seem like the outlier among the three, much as I enjoy grilled rice and wheat on the cob…)

Question IV.  Should we still be eating these grains today?  It seems clear that corn, rice, and wheat were directly responsible for a human population explosion, and that even today, the planet couldn’t support most of its inhabitants without them.  But for those who can afford to, the promoters of “hunter-gatherer diets” advocate returning to foods that were available in the ancestral environment, such as nuts, berries, and roasted mammoth leg.  The underlying question here is actually an interesting one: did the switch to agriculture cause some sort of massive change in human health?  The most surprising answer would seem to be that it didn’t.

Despite the staggering amount of research I did for this post, it remains conceivable that there are readers who know more about these topics than I do.  And so, having thrown out a few seeds, I look forward to reaping a bounteous harvest of grain-related comments.

88 Responses to “Corn, rice, and wheat”

  1. JN Says:

    All right, I’ll bite it.

    1: I don’t know… Maybe these crops were appreciated in their wild form, because our ancients had different palate. Or maybe they had the same palate and that’s why they dedicated so much time to cultivating tastier crops. Or maybe they couldn’t care less about the taste of the things and were primarily concerned about strains that were more resistant and provided a better yield, strains which simply tasted different and to which our current palate has adapted… I like the question, though, and hope someone will have a nice answer.

    2: How about cassava root?

    3: I believe it boils down to nutrient content and carbohydrate complexity. I once read that rice has a great balance between complex and simple carbohydrates, but I imagine it lacks on the protein side. A simple diet optimization model could answer that.

    4: Despite all ailments of modern society, I advocate not returning to practices common when the human life expectancy was less than 30 years. Just to be on the safe side.


  2. NE1 Says:

    Guns Germs and Steel has a long discussion of other cereal grains, their nutrition, their place of origin and role in supporting a budding civilization. The only thing missing would be modern water/resource usage…

  3. LeBleu Says:

    Basing my knowledge primarily on such reading as Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, I’m going to go with:

    1: I’m going to guess that back before any domesticated crop, when we were scrounging around for anything edible, the precursors to the modern grains must have seemed worth it in their natural state. Perhaps they survived droughts better, so when we got desperate they were still around to eat. Perhaps their edible seeds stored better than anything else, so were some of the few foods besides meat that hunter-gatherers could eat by the end of winter. Perhaps even stored seeds that started sprouting led to the whole agriculture thing.

    2: Taro root. Or see the wikipedia article Staple food for a more extensive list.

    3: I don’t think any of the 3 has a huge lead. Rice is, I believe, the least nutritious of the 3, having lower protein content. Consulting some charts from Healthy Eating Club and Vegetarians in Paradise I found on Google, it looks like wheat and soy are high in protein, and corn and rice are low in protein. Beans however are high in protein. Yield per acre and necessary climate are probably the other two big factors to look at. I vaguely think that corn has been pushed by modern agribusiness to higher yield per acre, especially over a single short growing season such as in northern climates. Rice needs a much wetter climate to grow, which is a good thing if your climate is naturally wet, but a bad thing if you need to irrigate to maintain it.

    4: The initial switch to agriculture caused a significant drop in height, so yes, there was a massive change. However, I doubt dropping consumption of grains is necessary to achieve health. Focusing your diet on less processed versions of them is probably sufficient. However, diet in general is an area with too much hype and too little clear science.


  4. scc Says:

    The kumara or sweet potato was the staple food of the Maoris. Taros are a staple on other pacific islands. Whether this implies either could be used as the basis for large civilisations probably depends on your definition of large.

    Here is a link you may like to check out if you haven’t come across it already:

  5. Dave Says:

    I don’t recall if any of your questions are answered directly in Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, but I do recall an extensive discussion of related concepts in that book.

    Michael Pollan’s opinion (from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food”) is that corn’s prevalence in the American diet is responsible for its ample average wasteline, but both his books on the subject (the latter being particularly emphatic) suggest that it is not the underlying staple, but the amount of processing that happens before it reaches the stomach that determines the health of the diet.

  6. Jon Says:

    “The trouble is that, if you ran into one their wild ancestors, there probably wouldn’t be anything appetizing about it.”

    Well, what choice did they have? These people were incredibly resourceful (and still often starving). They didn’t just find these grains, they also found thousands of other unlikely aids in nature. For example, acorns are poisonous to humans, but the poison can be leeched out.

    Acorns are also poisonous to some other animals that still eat them, but only after waiting a long time (or so says wikipedia). So perhaps the humans paid attention to the animals. And after all, codependent evolution between plants and animals did not start with humans.

  7. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    How did hunter-gatherers ever get the idea to breed these grains?

    Well, three general principles: (1) A thousand years is a long time to have new ideas; indeed there are examples of good ideas that were found and later forgotten in certain civilizations. (2) In some ways, many of these people knew a lot more about plants than you or I do. We live in houses; they lived in the woods. (3) There is little that sharpens the mind like starvation.

    Anyway the specific question is discussed in Wikipedia. Wikipedia claims that you can make edible popcorn directly from teosinte, so that is one possible way to get started.

    What other plants could similarly be used as the basis for a large civilization?

    Again, Wikipedia has a nice article entitled “Staple food”. It lists wheat, barley, rye, maize, rice, potatoes, yams, taro, cassava, beans, sago, breadfruit, and plantains. It seems that the key is to be able to eat the plant off-season.

    Corn, rice, wheat: which one is best?

    One answer is that they are all good choices compared to the wasteful option of feeding them to animals and having humans eat a lot of meat.

    Has there ever been a culture that used the potato as its main food source?


    Should we still be eating these grains today?

    Along with other sources of nutrition, and along with dental hygiene, yes. They are a much more efficient source of calories than what hunter-gatherers eat.

    Did the switch to agriculture cause some sort of massive change in human health?

    Jared Diamond argues that it changed human health for the worse in ancient civilizations. It led to tooth decay, which is less of a problem for hunter-gatherers; it led to nutritional imbalances; it led to higher population densities that spread diseases; and the work was at least as hard as what the hunter-gatherers did. But, according to Diamond, since it did lead to a higher population density, there was no turning back.

    But we don’t live in an ancient civilization. We can brush our teeth, we can get vaccinated, and we can farm with machines. We can easily balance a staple food base with a jackpot of the best fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy. If hypothetically that weren’t good enough, we could take vitamin pills to reach the optimum.

    So as you might expect, what most people in developed countries actually do is blow right past the optimum, and eat way too much of the jackpot foods because they taste good. It’s hard not to.

  8. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Because I buy about four times as many books as I have time to read, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” keeps getting pushed down in the stack of books I need to read.

    Just for fun, I am tossing out a plausible guess for the background of corn, rice, and wheat.
    (1) For most or all non-prey animals, starvation is the main limit to population. Thus procuring food gets high priority.
    (2) Pre-humans had a wider than average scope of things they ate, including seeds and wild grains.
    (3) They were smart enough to attempt to stash hardier foodstuffs, such as seeds, for hard times, like winter.
    (4) Some stashed seeds appear damaged due to sprouting, and even turning into mini-plants. This would cause some hard thinking, leading to:
    (5) Breakthrough realization 1: You can plant seeds and get a crop later on.
    (6) Breakthrough realization 2: Preferentially reproducing those plants with more/bigger/better tasting/more nutritious seeds is a good idea.
    (7) Iterate step (6) for a few thousand years and you have corn!

    Related note 1. There is a huge, confusing mess of info and theory about which common foods are causing the most damage to health. While not an expert, my guess is that the top three things to avoid are:
    (1) Hydrogenated fats.
    (2) High Fructcose corn syrup.
    (3) Water in plastic bottles.

    Related note 2. I find speculating about the original reason for religious rules (e.g., leavened/unleavened) to be a lot of fun. My guess is that some axioms were obviously true in whatever harsh landscape certain stone age peoples lived in. Then you get a couple thousand years of commentary and theorems by scholars who could have been scientists if they knew Maxwell’s equations. But they didn’t, so they thought too hard about what kind of bread we should eat to keep from getting the deities PO’ed. For a contemporary case of “scholarship gone wild”, check out late night talk radio, where wackos are putting their heads together to work out what kind of flying saucers the CIA keeps in Area 51.

  9. MattF Says:

    One society that used the potato as its main food source was 18th-19th century Ireland– which is why the Great Famine was, indeed, Great. See Wikipedia here.

  10. Joe Says:

    A lot of people are recommending Guns, Germs, and Steel (by Jared Diamond) but actually the more appropriate book in this case might be Collapse, by the same author.

    Even though Collapse is mostly about environmental impact (thus answering part of q. 3 fairly directly) it also discusses quite a bit about why foodstuffs end up being grown and used the way they are – even if there are less detrimental ways available to the growers.

    And, of course, the general idea that in very difficult periods of human history, people will tend to eat nearly anything they can, even if it resembles grass more than corn.

  11. Joe Says:

    And, of course, it’s worth noting that the potato is actually an American plant and was only introduced to Europe post-Columbus. Thus while some Europeans (Ireland, maybe Russia?) made the potato a staple, it is a relatively recent event (in historical terms)

  12. Simon Says:

    A book I read recently which answers 1 is “After the Ice”, by Steven Mithen, which is really fascinating. Basically he says people were gathering these grains in the wild for a long time, and gradually began “wild gardening”, weeding and maintaining particularly productive stands of grain. They made them into flour, along with many other food sources – e.g. nuts such as acorns and some roots.

    Once people started to plant seeds, the key development in domestication was the appearance of varieties which “wait for the harvester”, not releasing the grain spontaneously when it ripens. The development of more productive varieties (such as bigger ears of corn) arrived later.

  13. lylebot Says:

    I don’t think it’s the increased population density so much as the increased reproduction differential. Early farmers were less healthy overall, but their children were more likely to survive to sexual maturity. Is that “postselection”? I don’t think I understand the difference between postselection and plain old selection.

    On a related note, my understanding of the oft-cited “30-year average lifespan” factoid is that it is the result of a strongly bimodal distribution: you either died as a young child or as an old person; if you made it through childhood it was pretty likely that you were going to live 60 years or so. Is that not right?

  14. Jay Gischer Says:

    The old testament, or Torah mentions the concept of a human beings allotted threescore and ten years. There were lots of problems that might keep you from reaching them, but that was still the expectation.

    My understanding is that pre-cultivated wheat had recognizable kernels. As a kid who grew up next to a hay field (not a wheat field, a field full of various grasses), I can attest that human beings would be quite likely to sample various grasses. I sure did. Some of them are quite tasty.

    So it’s not much of a leap to think that humans around stands of wild wheat in the Levant would have gathered it and eaten it. The abundance of the wild stands would have given them enough leisure to try experiments with it, and thus discover cultivation, soaking the kernels in water, and so on. And if you leave the kernels in water too long, you get BEER!

  15. MTZ Says:

    lol, i prefer the mammoth leg… *yum yum* 😀

    Interesting Question, really. I once seen a TV-Documentary about the “rise of civilisations” (german-french broadcasting network – arte). One question, that came up in this context was: Why have corn, grain and rice led to cultural advancements in Asia and America, while the cultivation of yam (i.e. in Eastern Papua) don’t?.

    One explanation was, that yam has not the amount on important nutrients to feed more than one family (or extended family). So no work-sharing could evolve like in Asia or America, where the grower could feed the toolmaker too (and the toolmaker could give his tools to the grower).

  16. Douglas Knight Says:

    Here is a back of the envelope calculation disputing the claim that grain is much more efficient than bison.

  17. denis bider Says:

    Douglas Knight: how does Michael Vassar’s comment dispute the claim that grain is much more efficient than bison? He estimates a worldwide carrying capacity of several tens of millions of hunter gatherers. Lo and behold, we live in a world of six billion today. Is that because we’re all eating bison?

    Most of the food we eat is to replenish expended energy. The energy we get from food comes originally from the Sun. When you get your energy from meat, the energy you get is E1(everything the animal ate over its lifespan) minus E2(energy the animal expended over its lifespan). Assuming that the animal you are eating is not either an incredibly energy efficient and short-lived specimen, the difference you are consuming is most likely dwarfed by E1 and E2.

  18. Scott Says:

    Y’know, every time I post an ‘obvious,’ almost-Wikipediable question, I feel doofusy for an hour afterward. But then the interesting answers start to pour in and I feel a little less silly. So thanks, everyone! (And happy Easter! 🙂 )

  19. hk Says:

    I once heard the idea, that we are actually the servants of, of all things, grasses.

    Without humans the earth would be mostly covered by woods and forests, but the more humans developed, the more we turned woodland into grass covered land (either to feed cattle, or to grow wheat and the likes).

    So you might want to view it the other way around, postselecting on the ultimate success of grass, could it have been done without humans?

  20. Gerke Says:

    Regarding Question #3, it’s not really a question of which one we should all switch to. All three are primarily used for one thing: calories (not nutrients). So the real question is which one produces the highest yield (in calories) for the limited resources (land and labor) available. And that question is fundamentally based on climate: colder, dryer climates favor wheat, while warm, wet climates favor rice. In China, for example, where labor is nearly free, the only question is the calorie yield per acre. And there is a discernible line across China, north of which ONLY wheat is cultivated, and south of which ONLY rice is cultivated. Thus, in northern China, traditional cuisine is based on noodles, and in southern China based on rice. Of course, with modern shipping, both are now eaten on both sides of the line. But it is still the case that each side of the line grows only one or the other.

  21. Ninguem Says:

    Potatoes were the staple food of the Inca empire in South America. Corn was more prevalent in Central America. Manioc/Cassava was planted in the south american lowlands but did not lead to major civilizations.

  22. Patrick Says:

    They’re not cereal grains, but in response to QII don’t forget the legumes, dried beans, such as lentils have been important staples as far back as there are written records. Soy was typically fermented rather than dried, but even before fermentation processes emerged in Asia, it was an important crop as part of a crop-rotation cycle (legumes are nitrogen-fixers).

    Finally, millet was likely the most important staple prior to the development of rice and wheat. ( Millet is convenient as the first cereal grain because the size of the seed head on non-domesticated varieties is quite large in comparison to proto-rice and proto-wheat. The intuitive leap from nuts and berries to proto-millet seed is less dramatic than to the others. Once millet processing became established, it seems natural that communities would seek out other similar grains.

    Indeed, one could offer the conjecture that the similarity of other proto-cereals grains to millet was what provided the starting point necessary for the eureka moment that led to cultivation of rice and wheat, etc.

    There’s evidence of rather advanced millet processing in China as far back as 7000 BCE. It’s not a huge leap (at least not for a non-expert like me) to postulate that millet cultivation by Asian population migrating into the Americas may have provided the inspiration for the domestication of corn as well.

  23. Scott Says:

    I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t really know anything about the Irish Potato Famine, other than that there was one in the 1840s and it caused a lot of emigration from Ireland. I recommend that anyone else in a similar state of ignorance read the Wikipedia article and associated links. Potatoes actually come off more-or-less OK in this story, but one can’t say the same for British landlords, the House of Commons, the Church, or laissez-faire economics.

  24. Michael Says:

    “Y’know, every time I post an ‘obvious,’ almost-Wikipediable question, I feel doofusy for an hour afterward.”

    We’re only scratching the surface here. It’s really not obvious. Understanding this complex, multifaceted question will be a key part of our response to climate change.

    “Is there one such that, if we all switched to it, we’d be ten times healthier and also save the planet?”

    I don’t know if there’s too much to choose between rice and wheat. Rice is specialized for very wet conditions, though there are dryland varieties, and wheat is specialized for drier conditions, so it’s important to have both to optimize land use. We would definitely be better off switching away from field corn for the simple reason that it’s inedible until it’s processed through livestock, mainly cows, which reduces the available food energy by an order of magnitude and creates a huge source of methane. There’s definitely a role for field corn to make meal, but I can’t imagine it’s so substantial as at present.

    Soy and other legumes are also an important complement to these grains as they provide protein and, used in crop rotation, help to replenish the nitrogen consumed by grains. American Indians in the Northeast planted the “Three Sisters”, corn, beans and squash, together in order to take advantages of the many synergies between the three crops, both nutritionally and in growth.

    Another important consideration is how these crops will respond to climate change. Stephen Long at Illinois has been doing some exceptional work with his SoyFACE project on measuring the response of crops to increased levels of atmospheric CO2 and ozone. His research is still ongoing, but so far he’s discovered that higher levels of CO2 stimulate photosynthesis in soy but lower the plant’s resistance to pests and grain quality. I saw a presentation by him on Friday at a conference on climate change and it was more than a little harrowing.

  25. Michael Says:

    “Here is a back of the envelope calculation disputing the claim that grain is much more efficient than bison.”

    The argument only holds for livestock that are fed grass. Much land that is presently cultivated should not be because it’s too prone to erosion, too easily exhausted, etc. If that land was allowed to revert to grasslands and then grazed, we’d get a much better caloric stream from that land, which would be sustainable over time and provide healthier, leaner protein in smaller amounts. We eat WAY too much protein in the US already. We don’t need the factory farms.

  26. John Sidles Says:

    Michael is 100% right that “We don’t need the factory farms.”

    A lot of the discussion here assumes that the purpose of farms is to grow food. But once upon a time, America’s treasures included entities called “family farms” whose purpose was (in large part) to grow families.

    This leads to the (anthropologically defensible) point of view, that farming spread rapidly not because it provided an efficient means of growing food, but rather because it provided a nuturing environment for growing families.

    That’s why America made a disastrously bad economic decision, when it allowed family farms to be destroyed by corporate farms (and yes, I’m an Iowa farmboy).

    These ideas aren’t original to me. Economists like Amartya Sen and philosophers like Wendel Berry have written eloquently upon them.

    If Charles Dickens were alive today, wouldn’t he point out that by many measures, American lives are becoming more “short, nasty, and brutish”?

    This would be a good trend to reverse (obviously).

  27. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I recommend that anyone else in a similar state of ignorance read the Wikipedia article and associated links. Potatoes actually come off more-or-less OK in this story, but one can’t say the same for British landlords, the House of Commons, the Church, or laissez-faire economics.

    I saw that article. This is a topic where it is relatively difficult for Wikipedia to stay objective. (Or more precisely, to converge to objectivity.) The British look callous and greedy, and otherwise awful. If a Wikipedia article identifies such a villain, for all I know correctly so, it’s no fun to go back and also blame the potato.

    I am not expert on this topic, but there are other Wikipedia articles that I know completely drop the ball. Or maybe I don’t truly “know” better than the Wikiverse knows, but I am convinced for the time being. I wish that someone would fix these articles. But for there can be a lot of people who want to keep these articles as they are — what they say may be more widely believed or more appealing than the truth. And there is no real enthusiasm among experts to set the record straight, if the article is not one of the most important ones in Wikipedia.

  28. Douglas Knight Says:

    denis bider,
    it certainly indicates that bison were more efficient than the corn and cultivation techniques available in 1500. There probably was more room for improvement in corn and cultivation techniques than there was in native bison eating native grass, although there definitely was room for improvements of efficiency of bison management.

    Michael: why did you quote me?

    John Sidles,
    When you say “farming spread rapidly” are you referring to the displacement of hunter-gatherers and pastoralists? Did Berry or Sen write on this topic? Could you point to an anthropological defense, or at least a clear claim?

  29. scc Says:

    Another interesting link:

    This time an open letter to the president (of the U.S.A) on food production in America. Two quotes:

    ‘This, in brief, is the bad news: the food and agriculture policies you’ve inherited — designed to maximize production at all costs and relying on cheap energy to do so — are in shambles, and the need to address the problems they have caused is acute.’

    ‘we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine’

  30. John Sidles Says:

    Douglas, you will find Sen and Berry quoted side-by-side on the frontspiece page of Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power. Here Sen and Berry are saying pretty much the same thing … Dr. Sen in academic language, farmer Berry in … well … the clear and direct language of an ordinary citizen.

    Two good introductions to Berry’s thought (and indirectly, Sen’s) are Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition and Citizenship Papers: Essays.

    Superficially their respective writings seem rather different: Berry is generally critical of the morality of academic science, and Sen is generally critical of the morality of academic economics. But IMHO, both Sen and Berry are among today’s heirs to both the economic thought and the moral philosophy of of Thomas Jefferson; this includes Berry and Sen’s shared respect for both the economy and the ecology of rural communities.

    Given the choice, I read Berry! 🙂

  31. Mr. Hmm Says:

    Scott, as a committee member, when are the CCC’09 accepted papers are going to be published?
    It seems that the notification was already a week ago.

  32. John Sidles Says:

    Regarding the modern literature of farming, Annie Proulx’ That Old Ace in the Hole is a hilariously funny, somewhat dark, and (to use Scott’s phrase) “fool-skewering” book about corporate farming practices.

    Even darker (and in some passages, even more hilarious) is Adam Johnson’s fool-skewering academic comedy Parasites Like Us, which includes extensive, scientifically accurate passages about the paleolithic origins of farming in the Americas.

    Darkest of all is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which leaves the nature of its ecological collapse unspecified (is it a broad-spectrum crop blight?), but leaves no doubt whatsoever about the intimate linkage between moral collapse and eco-collapse.

    All three books are on the “subversive literature” shelf that our Quantum System Engineering Group maintains. Or have been … the fool-skewering comedic books tend to disappear fairly rapidly. Good!

    Furthermore, I agree completely with Michael’s comment “We’re only scratching the surface here.” For example, no one has yet mentioned the (obvious) QIS relevance of large-scale ab initio quantum simulations of both photosynthetic pathways and nitrogen-fixing enzymes. And this knowledge has been around for a long time — even in the 1960s every farm kid learned about the difference between C3 and C4 carbon fixation pathways.

    I have personally custom-applied many hundreds of tons of anhydrous ammonia to corn fields, in service of the first of these metabolic pathways, in consequence of the absence of the second (in corn as contrasted with soybeans). The cheap energy that made this style of farming possible is indeed coming to an end. Now is a good time for quantum information scientists and engineers to step forward with viable alternatives.

    Scott, are these strong QIS connections to the future of farming part of the reason that you started this thread? Is farming the next industry in line for a QIS revolution? Can we realistically hope that QIS-driven farming will be (in Berry’s phrase) more just and merciful, than corporate farming has been in recent decades? 🙂

  33. dblbassbill Says:

    The best explanation that has always made the most sense to me regarding how these grasses were turned into grain is trade and professional development. just like people here in our time have jobs that take up lots of our time and attention so did the people in the past. once you start gathering the grass seeds you will probably notice that the seed is what cause the plant , maybe not right away but after a generation or two and it would only take one person to notice then pass on the knowledge. And it most likely wasn’t grains being intentionally mixed just chosen afterwards.
    and while taste and size would need to be chosen. things like yield must surely increase on its own in as the one that gives the most yield will be most available for planting.
    but it really just comes down to this is how a lot of people spent their lives and who doesn’t want to be good at what he does.

  34. Scott Says:

    “Mr. Hmm”: I’m not a PC member, and indeed was wondering the same thing you are.

  35. Mr. Hmm Says:

    Oh, of course – you’re not (oddly, the main Conference Committee link names you as a member (for 2011)).

    Unfortunately, no other PC member has a blog to inquire about this.

  36. Scott Says:

    Conference committee ≠ program committee. The PC’s the one that does the real work (i.e. reviewing the papers).

  37. John Sidles Says:

    To link together several of Scott’s recent threads, here’s a nice article that applies modern QIS theory to practical issues in photosynthesis … and as a bonus, the article has an MIT connection … Mohseni, Rebentrost, Lloyd, and Aspuru-Guzik: Environment-Assisted Quantum Walks in Photosynthetic Energy Transfer.

    Our quantum walk formalism can be implemented numerically using the Monte Carlo wavefunction (MCWF) approach. … The main advantage of MCWF is the fact that one only needs to simulate the wave function rather than the density operator. … Our approach can potentially be used to enhance energy transfer efficiency via engineering quantum interference effects. … In general, the combined biology and quantum information inspired approach of this study could provide new insight for engineering artificial photosystems.

    This QIS vision seems well-conceived to me. So which will come first, the QIS-inspired computer, or the QIS-inspired breakfast cereal? If we are fortunate, both are coming soon.

  38. Pat Cahalan Says:

    @ Greg

    > This is a topic where it is relatively difficult for
    > Wikipedia to stay objective. (Or more precisely,
    > to converge to objectivity.) The British look
    > callous and greedy, and otherwise awful.

    This is not meant as a dig at the British, but there is a slight flaw in your logic here. If a large group of people *are* being callous and greedy, converging to objectivity is going to produce an article that reflects callous and greedy behavior, no?

    Not that people of Irish descent weren’t completely capable of turning around and doing this to other groups; there were plenty of Irish who emigrated to the U.S. to escape the famine that turned around and abused Puerto Ricans, or African Americans, or eastern European immigrants.

    There are lots of historical examples of large groups of people treating other large groups of people very poorly. Pretty much every tribe came from someplace other than where they are currently living, and were abused (either by the environment or another tribe) into relocating somewhere where they could leverage their technology, ability to organize, or sheer numbers into abusing the people who lived in that space into sharing resources.

    Of course, if what you’re trying to say is that the behaviors of large groups of people shouldn’t be judged by the same criteria that we apply to individuals (that “callous and greedy” aren’t good adjectives to apply to groups, only individuals), I agree with you… it’s disingenuous to say “the British” were greedy and callous because some British abused the Irish during the famine, just like it’s disingenuous to say “all Germans” were anti-Semites during WWII, or “white Americans” as a class were responsible for the dispossession of the tribal nations that lived in North America prior to their arrival.

    Unfortunately, English doesn’t really have linguistic operators to limit the use of descriptors to classes of nouns; there is a loss of nuance when you use one word (like “callous”) to describe an individual action vs. the effective combined action of a group or a class.

  39. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    QIS-inspired breakfast cereal” Post QISpy Critters? Quaker Qubits? Cheerios-and-Ones? In any case, healthier than Taco Bell’s Theorem.

  40. Rob Blake Says:

    Tangentally related to 4:

    My parents are both biochemists, and they occasionally have to teach nutrition classes for medical students. Here’s their response whenever someone brings up returning to a natural diet.

    The human digestive system has a unique enzyme that is able to extract nutrients from the excrement of other animals. Assuming the necessary evolutionary pressure for the development of this enzyme, what does this tell you about what we used to eat?

  41. John Sidles Says:

    Rob, I love “medical factoids” and your enzyme assertion definitely would quality … but a PubMed search failed to confirm it … and it was very surprising to me that I have never encountered it in the anthropological literature. Every farmer knows that cattle uniquely benefit from urea supplements (which the bacteria in the rumen can digest), but that’s not what you’re talking about, it it?

    Frankly, this sounds like one of those pseudo-scientific claims that both vegans and anti-vegans (for example) love to propagate. I’d love to be proved wrong with a literature citation!

    Of course, everything medical is fabulously interesting from the QIS point of view … enzymes not least. 🙂

  42. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    If a large group of people *are* being callous and greedy, converging to objectivity is going to produce an article that reflects callous and greedy behavior, no?

    Reflect, sure, but I’m left wondering if the potato famine article in Wikipedia goes overboard. Again, I don’t know enough about the Great Famine to come to conclusions. The key question in this case is who did what wrong in the Great Famine, not whether the Irish (or some Irish) can behave as badly as the British (or some British) in other circumstances.
    Somehow the Wikipedia article is difficult for me to interpret. It has a raft of citations that point in dozens of directions. Very few of these citations are of economists or epidemiologists. Instead, many of the most devastating quotes are from 19th century partisans or 20th century radicals. Some of the citations are from more neutral historians, but facts being cited in these cases are themselves more neutral. There are plenty of citations, but somehow they don’t hang together.

    For instance, the article devotes a paragraph to Francis Boyle, who concludes that the Great Famine was a British genocide. But Boyle, as far as I can see, is light on expertise and heavy on wild exaggerations on many political issues. Why is he cited uncritically?

    Then there is an interesting link to another Wikipedia article on “Souperism”. This article suggests that famine relief was highly politicized, and that some of the Catholics cared at least as much about about religion and nationalism as they cared about preventing starvation. “Souperist practices, reported at the time, included serving meat soups on Fridays — which Catholics were forbidden by their faith from consuming.” Is that really so terrible? Why not just skip the soup kitchen on Friday?

  43. Kaleberg Says:

    1) Many wild grass seeds are edible. The ones I’ve tasted have been kind of sweet and starchy. Hunter gatherers eventually tried eating everything, so they eventually figured out about edible grains and that they could be dried and stored, or eaten and the feces stored and dried for a second pass through the system. Plants tend to grow where they have grown, so early gatherers just went back to the original site, though it is likely that they’d pull up trees and other invaders, and eventually experiment with preparing soil and planting seeds directly. There has been a lot of research on the exact process with conflicting results suggesting that there has been more than one way to develop agriculture.

    2) Sorghum, millet, rye, spelt and emmer have all been important cereals even if my spell checker can only recognize some of them. The Incans lived on potatoes and quinoa. The latter is a non-cereal grain, a chenopod (for its duck foot shaped leaves). In fact, we served quinoa with our lamb tagine for Passover. There are also a lot of important roots like yams, sweet potatoes, and cassava which serve as starchy staples. Most of these are easier to digest with some form of cooking which cuts the time spent eating dramatically when you consider how many hours ruminants spend simply chewing.

    3) Corn is the C3 plant, so it is more efficient in its production of sugars. The GM people are working on C3 rice, but it’s quite a trick. Which is best? is an incomplete question. It should be Which is best for what? Obviously corn and rice are no good for one’s Passover seder.

    4) I can’t think of any reason we shouldn’t we be eating the same basic grains today. You can argue about the cultivars and production mechanisms, but rice, bread, corn pudding, and the like are still perfectly good foods. Many people romanticize the hunting and gathering life style, but they are the same people who were all kings and queens in their previous lives, and not the more likely commoners and slaves. I always find it hard to romanticize life without air conditioning, antibiotics and the internet.

  44. John Sidles Says:

    Kaleberg Says: The GM people are working on C3 rice, but it’s quite a trick.

    Hmmmm … you may have gotten C3 and C4 crossed over, Kaleberg … isn’t it corn (maize) that uses the (photosynthetically efficient) C4 carbon pathway, and rice that people wish was a C4 plant? You are right that we are still far from achieving goals like this in any systematic way.

    If we take a broad-ranging view of QIS, then it most definitely does encompass quantum aspects of synthetic biology … both dynamical and observational … which makes it pretty clear that better mastery of fundamental QIS is central to resource-creating, global-scale projects such as breeding C4 rice, and the ongoing efforts at the JCVI to “boot” synthetic genomes into free-living organisms.

  45. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Pat brings up an excellent point. As you look back, ethnic groups were a lot smaller, and everyone was being bullied by another group. It is likely that many groups were eliminated, and everyone alive today has many ancestor groups that perpetrated massacres. This is why it makes no sense to try to fix injustices of the past and restore land/glory/whatever to whoever claims “rightful ownership”. How many iterations do you go?

    Until following the leads to info about the potato famine, I had thought it was later. The actual timing likely explains how my great grandfather wound up in Illinois, joining the Army to become a citizen. He was captured in a SNAFU at the siege of Vicksburg. At the Tyler Texas POW camp, one of his buddies died. Honoring a soldier’s tradition of the day, upon release he went to Ohio to marry the widow and support the children. That’s my great grandmother.

  46. Simina Says:

    One of the best foods ever, made of corn, is polenta 🙂 – also known as ‘mamaliga’ in Romanian culture. I haven’t found any replacement for it, so that’s a strong reason to continue using corn!
    Also, it is consumed in industrial quantities in some countries (Romania for sure), and people are not fat, so I’d think it just depends on how it’s used.

  47. Raoul Ohio Says:


    If life deals you mush, regard it polenta. I love it. Fried, of course.

  48. Simina Says:

    Thank you Raoul.

  49. Chris W. Says:

    Somebody should put in a good word for quinoa, another New World food crop of exceptional nutritional value, which was very important to the Incas. (It is readily available in health food stores these days.)

  50. John Rogers Says:

    Mr. Hmm (and others who are interested):

    The accepted paper list for CCC 2009 is now posted and conference registration is now open. See

  51. John Sidles Says:

    Raoul Ohio Says: It makes no sense to try to fix injustices of the past.

    Raoul, with respect, that statement is only a very tiny cognitive step from “It makes no sense to try to fix injustices of the present” … or even worse … “It makes no sense to seek justice in the future.”

    Haven’t far too many people already taken this step? 🙁

  52. Jack in Danville Says:

    John, this is really beneath you. You took one sentence of Raoul Ohio’s out of context to commit an association fallacy, which appears to have been intended as an ad hominem attack.Have you considered a career in journalism?

  53. John Sidles Says:

    Jack, no offense was intended. Certainly Raoul Ohio’s thought-provoking assertions regarding the infeasibility of justice raise important issues for everyone … not only the mathematics, science, and engineering community.

    I hope Raoul’s assertions are wrong, and yet I greatly fear that they may be right. And if the latter should prove true, aren’t we all slouching inexorably towards a morally dystopian (and ecologically disastrous) 21st century?

    That’s why I was careful to criticize the statement and *not* the person … recognizing that I personally (along with many folks) am standing on more-than-shaky moral ground when it comes to confronting issues of courage, foresight, faith, and sacrifice in relation to the challenges of our century.

    Just to say something provocative, if I had to name a single profession that engages the thorny issues of justice with the greatest courage, foresight, faith, and sacrifice … I would name … well … journalists!

    It is no accident (IMHO) that many of humanity’s greatest writers have worked as journalists: Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, and (in recent years) Annie Proulx all come to mind.

    Have I considered a career in journalism? Eh … no … mostly `cuz I don’t think I’m brave enough, foresighted enough, empathic enough, and smart enough! So hurrah for journalists! 🙂

  54. Jack in Danville Says:

    But John, the form of your criticism was an association fallacy. You say “[Raoul’s] statement is only a very tiny cognitive step from…” and then you exploited the short edit distance from Raoul’s statement to a morally repugnant statement. That is one way machines reason, but not most humans.

    It reminded me of too much journalism I see where a key fact is left out of a story, which story gets picked up and repeated again and again. Of course it’s also a fallacy on my part to associate “journalists” with that kind of reporting.

  55. Raoul Ohio Says:

    John, I disagree about ” that statement is only a very tiny cognitive step from “It makes no sense to try to fix injustices of the present” … or even worse … “It makes no sense to seek justice in the future.””. When you are trying to figure out how the world should work, you often hit the hardest part: *** you have to draw the line somewhere ***. In this case; how far back is it reasonable to try to fix past injustices?

    Many participants of this forum are theorists, and good at immediately thinking any issue through to (one or more) extreme cases, where it is easy to see what is right. That works great in math and physics, but not so well in human affairs, where I think the best strategy is to try to arrange things so it doesn’t happen again, and get on with life. Here in the US, lots of people are disappointed that the Obama team is not running down every crime committed by certain evil jerks in the previous administration. My view is that there are better things to do.

  56. John Sidles Says:

    Raoul, most of your posts I agree with 100% (and your post on returning civil war veterans was especially great … I too have an ancestor held POW at Andersonville). And most definitely, I never intend to give personal offense to you, or to any poster on any forum.

    And furthermore, I agree 100% with what I take to be one of your main points: that attempts to remediate injustices of the past via the assignment of guilt, the assessment of penalties, and the infliction of punishment have failed utterly, in most countries and at most times.

    It is telling that punitive approaches are much-favored by the four worst forms of government, namely right-wing despotism, left-wing despotism, religious despotism, and plain old generic-brand despotism.

    But to conclude that “It makes no sense to try to fix injustices of the past” goes too far, and IMHO amounts to an outright moral mistake. The point is that we are under no obligation to embrace the punitive moral methods of despotism.

    A very good example of a successful, nonpunitive, open engagement with the harsh injustices of the past, by approaches that have succeeded in creating foundations for a more hopeful and just future, is the Irish Peace Process, which is thoroughly documented in the Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN).

    Ay laddie … now that’s the kind of openness … of both the intelligent mind and the justice-seeking heart … that looks unflinchingly at a grim past and toward a hopeful future … that deserves to be called a peace process! 🙂

  57. proaonuiq Says:

    Corn, rice, wheat: wich one is the best ?

    The answer is QUINOA (Chenopondium Quinoa).
    It is a grain-like pseudocereal (it is not a grass) and due to its nutritional properties it is considered as an almost perfect vegetable food.

    The drawback is that at present it can not be produced massively and it seems not easy to adapt outside the
    Andes (afaik USA and Canadian companies have failed on this).

    By FAO statistics its production has more than doubled in 50 years, so it´s general adoption is just a matter of time (as it was for potato, tomato, cocoa…and parallel computing!!).

  58. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I’m going throw in an off-topic question about complexity theory. I think that I know the answer, but I’d still like to compare notes.

    One of the models of NP is that it describes games of solitaire with no hidden information. If you have a generalized solitaire game, say with n cards a various rules for which cards can go where, and if the game lasts poly(n) turns and has no hidden cards, then “Can you win this game?” is an NP-complete problem.

    But suppose that the solitaire game does have hidden cards or equivalent hidden information. It could be a game like Klondike, or Mahjong with some covered tiles. Then if I understand correctly, the question “Can you roughly say whether you are likely or unlikely to win?” is a public-coin IP-complete problem? (Technically it might be a promise problem, with a gap between the chance of winning in favorable and unfavorable cases.) And that public-coin IP equals private-coin IP, so therefore generalized solitaire with hidden information is PSPACE-hard?

    Also, a generalized two-player game with no hidden information and with polynomially many moves is clearly a description of AP. And I know the result that AP = PSPACE. If the game also has hidden information, e.g., two-player poker, is that still just PSPACE or did I miss something?

    Okay, finally a question that could be a little harder. Is the complexity class of a two-player game with cooperating players, but the players do not have the same information, now MIP = NEXP? What about generalized bridge, with two opposing teams, and each team has cooperating players that do not have the same information? (As always, when I say “generalized”, I mean a loose generalization with arbitrary rules that can be refereed in P.)

  59. BPR Says:

    II … OK, what about oats, barley, rye, or sorghum?

    Obviously more a flippant comment but (…
    Samuel Johnson notoriously defined oats in his Dictionary as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”

  60. Raoul Ohio Says:


    Upon further reflection, my opinion is somewhat closer to yours; I think you can try to mollify the consequences of events of the recent past. The far past is the problem. Obviously people will disagree about where to draw the line.

    Some times thinks work out surprisingly well. 25 years ago it appeared a disaster for everyone was imminent in South Africa. It appears Ireland is moving in the right direction. I have several Irish ancestors, I think some were Catholic and some Protestant, but don’t ask me which was which: don’t know, don’t care, don’t want to know.

    In the US, Irish religious friction is strong in the Northeast, and fades away as you go South and West. By the time you get to Ohio, it is mostly joking about what kind of whiskey you drink; Jamison (Catholic) or Bushmills (Protestant). The general consensus is that Jamison has better karma (because they make it a point to hire some Protestants) but Bushmills tastes better. Personally, I recommend avoiding distilled spirits and partaking of the only good proof ever offered of God’ existence: beer and wine.

  61. Jonathan Shewchuk Says:

    Grains are full of anti-nutrients and toxins, which are part of the plant’s defense against having its most concentrated stores of energy eaten. Human health (and height) dropped precipitously with the adoption of agriculture.

    If you don’t want to have a heart attack or diabetes in old age, stay away from wheat and corn. Dr. William Davis of Heart Scan Blog, who runs hundreds of his patients through regular heart scans so he can track the progression or regression of their atherosclerosis, finds that the most effective dietary interventions for athersclerotic plaque are cutting out wheat and sugar (especially fructose). He lists cornstarch in third place.

    One of the reasons why wheat is perhaps the most fattening and diabetes-inducing grain seems to be wheat germ agglutinin, a lectin that acts as an insulin mimetic and binds the insulin receptor much more tightly than insulin itself (thus making your fat cells store fat). I’m not sure whether wheat germ agglutinin plays a role in heart disease as well. But wheat consumption causes a clear rise in Lp(a), the lipoprotein that seems to be most strongly correlated with atherosclerosis. (Whether Lp(a) plays a causative role or is merely a marker of some other nasty effect, I don’t know.)

    Rice seems to be more benign, which is why Asians aren’t as fat as Americans. However, it does contain a lot of phytic acid, which inhibits magnesium absorption and a lot of other nutrients. I don’t entirely trust rice, but I think it’s one of the least toxic grains.

    An excellent source for learning about grain toxicity (and how to prepare grains so they’re less toxic) is Whole Health Source.

  62. Zhiyi Says:

    Could population explosion also be a cause, rather than effect of exploring more food varieties? I wouldn’t accuse the Chinese geneticist Yuan of inducing overpopulation in Asia.

  63. John Sidles Says:

    I am still thinking of how to translate Greg Kuperman’s game-theoretic problems into equivalent engineering problems … thank you Greg for that thought-provoking post.

    In the meantime, I will observe that perhaps quinoa (chenopondium quinoa) not the ideal food for the Seattle region. Because suppose that every evening, 10^5 Seattle households soaked their quinoa grain to remove its naturally occuring saponin compounds, then dumped their soaking water down the drain.

    To humans saponin compounds are merely bitter-tasting, but to fish, saponin compounds are a deadly poison. Result: Seattle’s Lake Washington salmon run would be ruined!

    That’s why, up here in Seattle, we subsist mainly upon nature’s only perfect food. Vroom! Vroom! 🙂

  64. Norbert Says:

    I believe that the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers knew about wheat, sorghum, etc and how they grew but had no great impetus to cultivate them. These grains were native to the Middle East and during the ice age the climate there wasn’t really suitable for cultivating them. Plus there were large animals roaming the landscape which were a pretty reliable source of food.

    Supposedly, after the ice age ended, these animals became extinct, and furthermore frost-free periods were reliable enough growing grains became more of an option. So during droughts and other periods when their usual hunting and gathering activities suffered it was tempting to look at agriculture as a substitute. Since farming can sustain much larger populations per square mile than hunting-gathering, agricultural communities spread over time to pretty much anywhere that could support it. I am not sure if farming started the same way in more tropical areas, but this is what I’ve heard.

    So wheat etc is used in Europe because that is what grew in Turkey and nearby areas when they started agriculture. Same with rice in Asia, yams in New Guinea, teosinte in Mexico, etc.

  65. Raoul Ohio Says:

    I want to pass along an important tip on optimal strategy for dealing with accidentally swallowing the Higgs Boson:

  66. John Sidles Says:

    Raul, your mention of the South Africa peace process was excellent. These “primary justice” methods (as they are sometimes called) are also being applied in Zimbabwe. Good. Much, much more about these grim realities can be found in the most sobering peer-reviewed scientific journal that I have ever read: IRCT Torture Journal.

    What is the link between moral science and plant science? It is strong: the worst moral atrocities are often associated with ecological collapse of farming.

    Are broad themes of justice (and plant science) linked, in turn, to QIS? Absolutely. That is why I study QIS. Perhaps I will post some thoughts about this perceived link (later this weekend) on the preceding topic Federal Vision for QIS . The starting point is the etymology of the word federal, which derives from the latin foedĕrātus: leagued together, confederated, allied.

    Federal was not a common word, until the framers of the American Constitution began using to describe the form of government they envisioned. Perhaps it should be more common in discussions of the future of QIS too.

    And I am still thinking about Greg Kuperberg’s post … which has stimulated me to think (systematically and formally) about reductions of classic problems in engineering to classic problems in computational complexity. E.g. Greg’s “Suppose the solitaire game does have hidden cards or equivalent hidden information … can you roughly say whether you are likely or unlikely to win?”” can be viewed as a reduction from “Suppose the 747 autopilot does have hidden code or equivalent hidden state-space information … can you roughly say whether you are likely or unlikely to crash on landing?”

    It turns out to be very challenging—and a lot of fun too—to chart an explicit isomorphism between the intuitions of complexity theory and the intuitions of systems engineering.

  67. proaonuiq Says:

    Yes saponine is another of Quinoa´s drawbacks.
    Not beeing an expert it seems to me that it can be processed (and it is) before beeing introduced into the market and use its byproduct (the saponie) for the cosmetic industry so that Seattle´s fishs and humans health can be preserved.

  68. John Sidles Says:

    Zhiyi links to (Chinese plant scientist) Yuan Longping …

    Zhiyi, please may I say, that is a wonderful link! 🙂 Also, another (much older) plant scientist whose work is worth knowing is Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (from Iowa!) Norman Borlaug.

    A great challenge for QIS in our twenty-first century will be to increase the already-astonishing yield gains made by plant scientists like Yuan and Borlaug in the twentieth century, without using more energy, and without further degrading our (surprisingly fragile) planetary ecosystem. Since this will require pressing against fundamental quantum limits, it obviously is a problem in QIS. 🙂

    If we succeed, our planet may prosper. If we fail, billions surely will perish, if not directly by famine, then indirectly by chaos, plague, warfare … and hopelessness. Aye Laddie, now that’s a QIS challenge.

  69. John Sidles Says:

    Hmmm … this thread points to an interesting historical fact that is the answer an interesting historical question: “Who are the two scientists to win a Nobel Peace Prize for their scientific work?”

    The two scientists, of course, are Linus Pauling (1962) and Norman Borlaug (1970) … and no, Al Gore doesn’t count! 🙂

    Which in turn suggests a question about the future: “What will be the next discipline to produce scientific work that receives a Nobel Peace Prize? And when will that be?”

    Probabilistically, I would accept either side of the wager: “QIS before 2035.” This follows from a Fermi-type estimate: The peaceful prosperity of humanity will require capabilities that (if you think about it) only QIS can provide … by 2035 or earlier … and as von Neumann observed “the human species has been subjected to similar tests before, and seems to have a congenital ability to come through, after varying amounts of trouble.”

    Those who hope that the affirmative side of this wager will come true, will prefer to conceive the scope of QIS broadly. 🙂

  70. Jack in Danville Says:

    Jonathan Shewchuk,

    If you’ve ever looked up the infamous Owsley, a.k.a Bear, on the internet, he claims to have eaten nothing but meat, and I think some dairy, for the past four decades or so; and credits that diet with saving him from a bought of throat cancer.

    I just report. You decide.

  71. Jack in Danville Says:

    Whoops…make that 5 decades.

  72. Patrick Says:

    All I have to say is that I’m not that sure that the hunter gatherer diet is the best way to go. Many humans have genetic changes that are a direct result of ancestry living in an agrarian society. Some are good and some are bad, but one could argue that an agrarian diet is more “natural” these days.

    Several good examples:
    #1 Smaller Jaw/Crooked Teeth. Some thousands of years ago people didn’t have crooked teeth(or a need for orthodontists). Their Jaws were larger and they had room for their wisdom teeth. When agrarian life came along, the importance of effective chewing and biting became much less important. The food in such a society(even a very old one), is much more processed than it would be straight-off the bush or mammoth. Our jaws are smaller now.

    #2 Alcohol metabolizing enzymes. We didn’t used to be able to deal with alcohol the way our bodies can today. Alcohol would make you very sick and perhaps be much more addictive. We evolved enzymes that allow us to metabolize alcohol because alcohol had such miraculous health benefits. (ie potable water) Alcohol, being created from grain, is a largely agrarian product.

    #3 Lactase. We evolved to retain enzymes from childhood so that we can consume milk as adults. It provided a source of calories and protein that we couldn’t elsewhere.

    #4 Appendix. Our digestive system was once set up to deal with all sorts of bits of sand, sticks, dirt, and rocks. This is no longer the case. That component of our bodies is now gone.

    #5 We’re bigger. It was once extremely uncommon for men to be 6 feet tall. Now many are. This is probably not genetic, but if you have been eating like you live in an industrial society for your whole life, your body type is probably such that you have larger caloric requirements than someone who was raised on the hunter/gatherer diet.

    #6 Obesity. While we mainly look at obesity as a bad thing, it is an adaptation to the amount of historical variation in your ancestors food supply. The ability to retain fat is crucial in an agrarian society, because during the winter new food sources were limited and starvation was common. The amount of fat that one retains is quite probably a finely tuned variable. (insofar as it was often the deciding factor between life and death)

    You may look at some of these things as good things and some as bad, but that isn’t really my point. My point is that we are adapting to the environment we are in and trying to change that environment towards some normative ideal is really what is unnatural.

  73. Kaleberg Says:

    Yup, I flipped C3 and C4.

  74. John Sidles Says:

    Hmmmm … am I the only person commenting on this blog—other than Scott (possibly)—who conceives his two most recent topics, namely (1) Corn, Rice, and Wheat and (2) Teleport, Tunnel, Adiabat, are so naturally and intimately united, via the centrality of QIS to both, as to constitute (at their foundation) one single topic?

    And from a purely literary point of view, mightn’t it be the case that the topic Teleport, Tunnel, Adiabat was a thematic foreshadowing of Corn, Rice, and Wheat? `Cuz heck, cognitive science tells us that foreshadowing is commonplace even in the absence of deliberative intent. 🙂

    Just to state my own opinion, the issue of broad-versus-narrow QIS is one of those questions upon which the health and vigor of the polity are best served when everybody does not agree.

    Over Lance Fortnow’s blog I see that a similar discussion is ongoing regarding the relation of theoretical CS to multi-core processing … there too isn’t the existence, openness, and quality of the debate a more important consideration even than “who’s right”?

  75. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    When I taught Chemistry, Biology, and Anatomy & Physiology Sep-Dec 2008, there was some resistance of the students to connecting the lecture/textbook/lab content to what went on in their own kitchens at home. I saw this also when I spoke to the cuisine arts class, about lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates.

    I suspect that the elimination from many American high schools of wood shop and metal shop, and scaling back of Home Economics classes, have made a disconnect for many students between schoolwork (including Math and Science) and their actual lives.

    Good questions have been raised here:
    * What is the actual carrying capacity of our poanet, n human population?
    * What is the optimum mix of virus, bacterium, fungus, plan, animal, human, if not as at present?
    * How much of nanotechnology resources should be reverse-engineering living organisms, versus designed-from-scratch (this connects with Synthetic Biology)?
    * What computing resources shall it take to do high-resolution (space and time) modeling of a single cell? An organism? A niche? An ecosystem? The biosphere? How can QIS help?
    * To what extent do cells or organisms naturally do quantum computing?
    * Is there a meta-theory that usefully includes classical computers, quantum computers, and living organisms? Continuous semigroups? Category Theory? Or what?

  76. Raoul Ohio Says:


    I will get up to bat on “* What is the actual carrying capacity of our planet, in human population?”. I will pin down carrying capacity as, say, providing resources equivalent to someone at the 25th percentile of consumption in the US in 2009. My guess/estimate: One hundred million to one billion.

    Anyone who thinks the current six odd billion is sustainable should check out the article with a name something like “Plan B to save Civilization” in the current Scientific American, by a prominent civilization saver whose name has slipped my mind at the moment. A key point is that world food production is already falling, starvation is destroying the social order an many parts of the world, leading to “failed states”, leaving no one to deal with pirates and other unpleasantness. This is not going to get better on its own.

    As you read the tasks that might mitigate the damage, you realize the guy is a wildly over optimistic:

    1. Anything you try to do will be trumped by population growth. Anyone in favor of reversing population growth? The bad news is that almost every religion in the world is vemonently opposed, primarily because they have a successful history of outbreeding other cults, and they are not about to mess with what got them there. BTW, organized religion has a lot of clout.

    2. The ultra wealthy also have a lot of clout, leading to getting the rules changed, …, “the rich get richer”, leaving less for public works, …

    Not a pretty picture.

  77. John Sidles Says:

    Great post, Raoul … on a sobering topic. There was a time when the world’s leading experts in QIS wrote passionately upon this subject. Perhaps that tradition will be revived in coming decades.

  78. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    I liked Raoul’s comment. As to the minimum human population, if there were panmixia, we’d need at least 2,000,000 to avoid losing genes. With the kind of nonrandom mating that we have, probably more like 10,000,000. Any fewer, and we’d pass through a bottleneck, and there’s be a founder effect. Of course, our species did indeed go through such a bottleneck at least once.

  79. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Good point, Jonathan. It suggests a question that you might know something about:

    Might population bottlenecks be a major cause of the dramatic shifts that are the key point of the “punctuated equilibrium” aspect of the theory of evolution?

  80. Douglas Knight Says:

    #5 We’re bigger.

    You’ve got that backwards. Americans today are no bigger than hunter-gatherers; it’s agrarians who are short.

    I think that your comments about obesity are also backwards. HG are subject to unpredictable acute famine, while farmers to constant low-level hunger and the ability to store food in the winter. I’m not sure what the consequences for obesity are, though. The predictability of winter may be relevant.

  81. John Sidles Says:

    The data speak: relative decline in American heights.

  82. Geoffrey A. Landis Says:

    John Sidles wrote: “Great post, Raoul … on a sobering topic.”
    Indeed it is a good post… except that it consists primarily of an unsubstantiated and poorly-calculated assertion.
    My quick estimate of the carrying capacity of the planet is that it is roughly one trillion humans, based on the fundamental physics (which is, about 100 (kilo)calories per hour per human), the efficiency of photosynthesis, and the solar constant. Raoul estimates “One hundred million to one billion.”
    These two estimates differ by three to four orders of magnitude.
    Is there some ambiguity in the definition of “carrying capacity”?
    (Note that the question was “What is the carrying capacity of the planet,” not “what is the optimum number of humans on the planet to make a desirable place to live.” My living room could contain a hundred people, but that would not be a desirable way to live.)

  83. John Sidles Says:

    Geoffrey, perhaps you and Raoul are both right.

    You may well be right that Planet Earth could support, at a minimum, 10^12 fully rational, thermodynamically efficient, technically skilled, optimally cooperative, sapient life-forms.

    Yet Raoul may also be right—IMHO he likely is right—that our Planet Earth is considerably over its carrying capacity for a hominid species having a demonstrated aptitude for extirpating other species, short-sightedly ruining ecologies, celebrating genocidal warfare, and embracing non-rational religious and political ideologies of every description (with education providing little or no immunity).

    Fortunately, we hominids also possess considerable resources … like remarkable technical ingenuity … an instinctive passion for justice … an instinctive liking for children … and an absolutely astonishing aptitude for humor, foresight, empathy, mercy … and storytelling! 🙂

  84. Raoul Ohio Says:

    I agree with John than Geoffrey and I are both right: We both stated our definition of carrying capacity and gave a plausible guess.

  85. John Sidles Says:

    My interest in food science—and the potentialities of QIS too—stems in part from a personal experience that very few academics have shared … but with which many hundreds of millions of global citizens are too familiar … the experience of sustained involuntary hunger … consequent to an adventure in which my son involved me … occuring in the neighborhood of 7° 22.876’N, 147° 1.935’E and the surrounding seas …. from which I returned home to SeaTac airport wearing nothing but a loin-cloth and a shell necklace … weighting forty pounds less than when I left.

    That weight-loss didn’t last … but the awakening to the realities of third-world poverty was permanent.

  86. Raoul Ohio Says:

    A slightly related note, over at “Ph. D” comics, Jorge Cham summarizes what is known about cancer and its treatment, rolled up into a brief comic:

    Check it out.

  87. rrtucci Says:

    There will never be a cure for infections. You see, there are millions of different kinds of bacteria, and you can’t expect to find a magic bullet that kills them all. Besides, we pharmaceuticals only investigate high return meds(e.g., Humira, Embrel and Remicade for rheumatoid arthritis, at $2000/month) Why should we pharmaceuticals investigate leads that promise the types of profit margins that vulgar, normal businesses get.

  88. John Sidles Says:

    Raoul, that is a wonderful link to an exceedingly sobering “PhD comic” … and rrtucci, your sardonic remarks about the pharmaceutical industry are to-the-point.

    Those who pursue these topics further will find ample scientific and economic justification for pessimism … for example, the average age of a first award for an NIH R01 investigator is now 45 years old.

    So … Yikes! Is it the case, therefore, that young students have solid grounds to decide that pursuing a traditional career in biomedical research is just as unrealistic as pursuing a traditional career in QIS research? That careers in both QIS and biomedicine are ceasing to make sense for young people?

    Well, I am not going to argue the point — they are right. However, to borrow an old punch-line: “Hurrah! There must be a pony in here somewhere!” So let’s look around for ponies.

    For example, if cancer is not one disease, but instead, 10^6 distinct diseases, then isn’t the most reasonable strategy to speed up the pace of research, and retire the risks of research, by a factor of 10^6?

    There aren’t many branches of mathematics, science, and engineering that can realistically aim for such a speedup. In fact (insofar as I can foresee) QIS is pretty much the only such discipline.

    This hope is a big reason that previous generations worked in QIS; this is why I personally work in QIS; and this is (IMHO) the single most compelling reason why future generations will work in QIS.