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Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact

YEAR: 2009 | LENGTH: 24 parts (~30 minutes each)  |  SOURCE: TGC


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.


About 10,000 years ago, fundamental changes occurred in the lives of Homo sapiens sapiens as groups of people began to produce their own food. Gain an overview of this critical point in history and begin to ask key questions about the impact of domestication on Earth's dominant species, humankind.

While Neolithic humans eventually learned to domesticate plants and animals, these organisms had to meet human beings partway on the road to domestication. Explore the characteristics and the evolutionary processes that predisposed certain organisms for domestication, as well as the human behaviors that helped the process along.

Domestication transformed more than just the plants and animals involved; human beings also experienced enormous changes as a result of the agricultural revolution they initiated. Learn about the lifestyle of early agriculturalists and see how these patterns differed from those of their hunter-gatherer ancestors.

How did the practice of agriculture spread all over the world? Examine the various approaches scientists use—including archaeology, biology, molecular biology, physics, and linguistics—to answer this question, and investigate some of the patterns of development these approaches have uncovered.

Agriculture gives humanity the ability to feed itself, but it can also pose a threat to the environment that sustains us. Learn about the delicate balance between our population size and food production, and explore particular examples of how domestication changes—and often damages—our environment.

Just as plants and animals are adapted to the process of domestication, so human beings have been changed by their domesticates. Explore the many ways human cultivation has helped shape cultures all over the world.

Begin to focus on some of the most successful domesticates, starting with the cereal grains. Investigate how grains such as wheat, corn, rice, and oats were originally cultivated from wild grasses, and learn why these grains have been so crucial to human survival for millennia.

Continue your consideration of successful domesticates as you take a closer look at examples from a few families that dominate the backyard garden and the dinner table. These examples include familiar plants such as legumes, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and cabbages.

Since vegetables and fruits mainly grow during the warm season, much attention has been given to the cultivation of "storage crops." Learn about these crops—including potatoes, root vegetables, and apples—as well as the techniques for preserving these important foods to ensure survival through cold, barren winters.

Shift your attention to the animal world as you explore three of man's oldest, most cherished, and important domestic animal partners: the dog, the cat, and the chicken. Examine the impact of domestication on these species as well as the benefits of their partnership with humankind.

Step back into prehistory to discuss some important "barnyard" animals that played an important role in the establishment of food production as a way of life. Consider the domestication of sheep, goats, pigs, horses, and cattle, and look at how their descendants are used today.

Nature supplies an abundance of variety in its organisms. Learn how plant and animal breeders, stockmen, and horticulturists take advantage of this variation to group organisms, culling and selecting traits that make them more beneficial and preferable to human beings.

When Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, he initiated a new path of trade that forever changed the ecology of both the

Focus on four plant species that have flourished as domesticates despite having little or no nutritive value: coffee, tea, tobacco, and cocoa. Examine the history of each of these important plants and explore how these products have gained importance because of their role in generating and enhancing social interaction.

From the middle of the 17th century through the end of the 18th century, notable figures in the Age of Reason turned their attention to the issue of agriculture. Learn how these prominent individuals applied a more systematic approach to the domestication and cultivation of crops and livestock.

Through their scientific breakthroughs, Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, and Gregor Mendel shed light on the processes that help drive the domestication of organisms. Explore how their work in the discovery of natural selection and the laws of heredity offered a new, more complete understanding of domestication.

From the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, the world of agriculture saw great advances in systematic, scientific plant breeding. Study the work of four of the great contributors to this field: Hugo de Vries, Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver, and Nicolai Vavilov.

While humankind has long derived nutrition from aquatic environments, one recent development is an expanding set of practices known as "farming the waters." Learn about the benefits and problems associated with this burgeoning practice and explore the implications of the cultivation of domesticated fish, shellfish, and aquatic plants.

Not all domesticates grow in the garden or the barnyard. Consider some unexpected domesticates that play a key role in the bakery, the brewery, and the laboratory: mice, brewer's and baker's yeast, and microbes that help produce antibiotics.

As technology has advanced, humankind has developed new tools for supporting more efficient and productive agricultural output to feed people all over the world. Explore the impact of these various technologies, from artificial insemination to robotic milking machines.

Since the days when Mendel first uncovered the secrets of genetics, human beings have made steady progress in hereditary science. Explore the implications of such new methods as cloning and transgenic crosses.

As technology advances, what new uses will human beings develop for our domesticated partners? Will they serve as sources for transplanted body parts for human beings? Consider these questions and other ways that new transgenic techniques may be used in surgery, drug production, and the administration of pharmaceuticals.

Is Old MacDonald's farm a thing of the past? Over the last century, there has been a trend away from independent family farms to large, technologically advanced agricultural conglomerates. Consider how this trend has affected the lives of farmers, consumers, and livestock, and explore the many repercussions of this shift in agricultural practice.

Take a glimpse into the future as you consider the implications and potential outcome of our current agriculture needs and practices. Can humankind continue to feed its ever-growing population? How does understanding our past contribute to wise decisions about food production and resource use in the future?