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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 38 September 10, 2022

Maddox on Schultz and Gawne and Peregrine, ’The Convergent Evolution of Agriculture in Humans and Insects’

Friday 9 September 2022


Reviewed by Gregory H. Maddox (Texas Southern University)

The Convergent Evolution of Agriculture in Humans and Insects
by Ted R. Schultz, Richard Gawne, Peter N. Peregrine, eds.

Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology.
Cambridge: MIT Press
2022. 338 pp.
$75.00 (paper)
ISBN 978-0-262-54320-0.

In this edited collection, a group of primarily evolutionary biologists examine the biological adaptations of insect species that “cultivate” primarily fungi as well as other insects as examples of convergent evolution with humans who have developed food production by domesticating a wide range of plants and animals. Convergent evolution in this case applies to the idea of evolutionarily distinct organisms developing methods of getting food through the cultivation of other organisms in some way. This volume focuses only on insects and humans and not on snails, other mollusks, or fish that also cultivate. The authors highlight the diversity of insects that cultivate, from ambrosia beetles that grow fungi under the bark of trees, to the termite and ant species that grow fungi in nests that they feed with plant cuttings they collect, to those that “farm” other insects such as aphids. Many of the essays, however, are weaker on the diversity, complexity, and history of human cultivation (as is not surprising for scientists trained in evolutionary or theoretical biology), and in many of the contributions it is unclear what a student of human agriculture can learn from these studies of insect agriculture.

Despite the similarities in agricultural practices between insects and humans, the differences remain huge. Most of the insects that cultivate are social organisms and live in colonies, like leaf-cutter ants, and many cannot survive with the cultivation of their crop (although some of the ant species also hunt and gather plant products for nutrition). That similarity with modern human societies is valid, even if an individual human could theoretically survive without cultivated products. However, all of these insect species evolved over millions of years to cultivate one (or in some cases a couple of closely related) species. Many of the farmed species likewise have coevolved so that they cannot survive without the cultivation of the insects. Human agriculture developed historically over ten thousand years, and human societies always consumed a range of food stuffs, eventually almost all from cultivated sources. Insects evolved to become food producers; humans changed their practices as they learned first how to cultivate certain plants and domesticate certain animals. They then gradually learned how to direct biological changes in their domesticates that made them more productive of the output wanted. Unfortunately, some of the authors here do not seem to have a clear picture of the complexity or history of human agriculture. In at least one case, an author compares different insect species to different human societies, an approach that reads cultural and historical differences into biology.

Other authors acknowledge the variety of human agricultural practices, even if in some cases they are a little shaky on its history. For a student of human agricultural societies the most informative essays include those by Dorian Fuller and Tim Denham on the processes of coevolution in agricultural systems; Lumila Menéndez and Laura Buck on changes in human physiology as a result of agriculture; Richard Gawne and Kenneth McKenna on the biological potential and limits of domesticates; and Ted Schultz on the fundamental differences between insect and human agriculture that cover the biological origins of human agriculture and evolutionary changes in plants, animals, and even humans driven by the development of agriculture. In general, though, this collection does not contain striking insights that could drive a rethinking of the history of human food production.

[This work from H-Net is reproduced here under a Creative Commins license]

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