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Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact

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Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact

Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact

Professor Gary A. Sojka Ph.D.
Bucknell University
Course No.  1557
Course No.  1557
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

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:

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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.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Man the Domesticator
    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. x
  • 2
    The Beginnings of Domestication
    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. x
  • 3
    The Basis for Settled Communities
    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. x
  • 4
    The Dispersal and Spread of Agriculture
    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. x
  • 5
    Agriculture Impacts Ecology and Geology
    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. x
  • 6
    You Are What You Eat, Raise, and Build
    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. x
  • 7
    The Domestication of Cereal Grains
    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. x
  • 8
    The Oligarchy of the Garden Patch
    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. x
  • 9
    The Importance of Storage Crops
    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. x
  • 10
    Three of Man's Best Friends
    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. x
  • 11
    The Common Barnyard Domesticates
    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. x
  • 12
    Landraces, Breeds, and Strains
    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. x
  • 13
    The Columbian Exchange
    When Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, he initiated a new path of trade that forever changed the ecology of both the x
  • 14
    Plants That Influenced Global Culture
    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. x
  • 15
    Agriculture in the Age of Reason
    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. x
  • 16
    Darwin, Galton, and Mendel
    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. x
  • 17
    Some Notable Scientific Plant Breeders
    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. x
  • 18
    Farming the Waters
    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. x
  • 19
    Domesticated Mice, Molds, and Microbes
    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. x
  • 20
    Our Technology-Based Global Food System
    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. x
  • 21
    Engineering Our Domesticates
    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. x
  • 22
    Novel Delivery Systems and Spare Parts
    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. x
  • 23
    The Age of Industrial Farming
    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. x
  • 24
    The Path Forward
    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? x

Lecture Titles

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Gary A. Sojka
Ph.D. Gary A. Sojka
Bucknell University
Dr. Gary A. Sojka is Professor Emeritus of Biology at Bucknell University, where he also served as president. He previously taught at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he was also dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He earned his master's degree and Ph.D. in Biochemical Genetics at Purdue University. In addition to teaching courses in microbiology, cell biology, and the general studies curriculum at Bucknell, Professor Sojka offered guest lectures in anthropology and bioethics as well as seminars on the domestication of plants and animals and the security of the world's food supply. His expertise as an educator has been recognized with a number of awards, including the Indiana University Bloomington Senior Class Award for Teaching Excellence and Dedication to Undergraduates, the Indiana University System Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching, and the Sheepskin Award from the Pennsylvania Association of Colleges and Universities. Dr. Sojka is also a practicing agriculturalist, working with his wife, Sandra, to breed and raise endangered livestock. He has served as the president of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture and continues to pursue his interest in public policy relating to animal welfare, breed conservation, farm safety, and equine athlete health and safety.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by 25 reviewers.
Rated 3 out of 5 by Depends on what you are looking for The professor was very well spoken, interesting and knew the subject well. I would have liked a more in depth coverage of the material. March 4, 2015
Rated 4 out of 5 by A history of agriculture & animal husbandry This course should be re-titled; it comprises the history and impact of agriculture and animal-rearing, very competently and authoritatively presented. The lectures begin with man as a hunter/gatherer, tracing his discovery of the advantages of maintaining crops and raising animals, through to the present state of agriculture and animal husbandry, with a gaze into the future. There are many important side issues along the way, all of which are quite fascinating and informative. The professor's style is pleasant and appealing. Some reviewers have commented negatively that he is reading the lectures... well, I do not fault him for this. I enoyed the course and recommend it to all as I believe everyone can benefit from these compelling lectures on a subject of vital importance to mankind. October 9, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by Uneven but excellent? This course has left me scratching my head. I enjoyed it, and felt as though I learned a great deal, but the process was nevertheless quite painful. Other reviewers have noted Prof. Sojka's presentation problems. I listened to the audio version, and while I found his presentation style to be less than exciting, it was tolerable once I got past the first couple of lectures. I did have the sense that he was reading his lectures rather than speaking from working notes, but this was only mildly distracting in the audio. A much more difficult issue I had with his presentation was imprecision (or even error). In lecture 5 he introduces the concepts of carrying capacity and positive and negative feedback loops. And he says that he mentioned this previously and explained the concept of positive feedback using the example of childbirth. Now that should have been an example that stuck in my head, but I didn't remember it. So, nutcase that I am, I went back and listened to the first four lectures over - looking for that example. I don't believe he ever used it. In fact, as far as I could tell, he never previously mentioned the words positive feedback. More substantively, I disagree with his explanation of human population growth being an example of positive feedback. Prof. Sojka argues that when mankind moved from being food PROCURERS to food PRODUCERS, they somehow changed the food equation from being a negative feedback. That is: population rises lead to greater food consumption, which leads to food shortages, which lead to die-offs, which lead to less food consumption. Elementary. Prof. Sojka argues that because we became food producers, population increases lead to greater food production, which lead to greater food availability, which leads to population growth, which leads to greater food production. Two things are wrong with that equation, though. It depends on food production being a function of population. This might have been true for a very short period when every human was engaged in food production, but almost as soon as civilization arose, that ceased to be true with the rise of specialization. (Food production is more of a function of technology, and I suppose one could argue that more humans means more brains that have the potential to create useful technology, but that seems too highly attenuated to call a positive feedback loop. A positive feedback loop requires that the output of a given function be an input to that same function or a secondary function of the first. A relationship that's not causal necessarily breaks that "loop") The other problem with his argument is that it depends on increasing food resulting in greater fertility, which is again, not remotely clear (and seems extremely unlikely). I think he's confusing raising a limiting factor (i.e., food availability serves as a cap on human population) with it being an input to the function of human fertility, which it is not. Confusingly, he introduces these concepts (positive and negative feedback loops) with carrying capacity, which is a related, but different, concept. He doesn't do an adequate job distinguishing these two (or three) and in fact, I hear him as getting them conflated. Since this positive feedback loop is a recurring theme, needless to say, it drove me to distraction each time he brought it up, since I just wasn't buying it. However, it needn't have been a central theme. His message is just as powerful without this nonsense about positive feedback loops. I would have described what's happened historically as our technological gains have consistently raised the earth's carrying capacity for humans. Prof. Sojka's message is that we are currently on the brink of exceeding that carrying capacity, with a real danger of further rises in the carrying capacity being limited. Or a better way of saying that might be that the technological changes that we've been relying on to raise the carrying capacity are having negative side-effects that have the consequence of potentially offsetting gains to the carrying capacity elsewhere. That is technological gains in the amount of food we produce may be having negative environmental effects. these may net each other out in terms of overall carrying capacity, while our population continues to skyrocket. If the carrying capacity doesn't rise, then we're all in for a major catastrophe. Prof. Sojka warns us that exceeding the carrying capacity is a potentially catastrophic event. He does give a couple of very powerful examples of isolated events of exceeding a local carrying capacity, and those examples should be sobering. I thought he failed to really drive them home, though, which was unfortunate. Overall, Prof. Sojka's message is a powerful one, and one that every consumer of food should be aware of. This is a story that speaks to all of us (at least all of us that eat). And we would all be well served to learn it. So in short, this is a course I recommend, because the content is so powerful. It's a shame Prof. Sojka's not a better presenter, but he does seem to be the right person to deliver the material. In particular, as a couple of other reviewers have noted, he really hits his stride in the last eight or nine lectures (the farming the seas lecture being the notable disappointment is that group). It's a shame he wasn't as animated through the whole course. One other disappointment I will note. I expected he would also include a lecture on our gut bacteria. I think they're fascinating (I know: I'm sick). They would seem to me to meet his definition of domesticates. However the don't even get a mention. (OK, in truth, I do think he gave them a passing mention, but he doesn't give us a whole lecture, or even part of one, that gives us any history, biology, or anything else about them. A shame, really. So a recommended three-star course. It could have been much better, but I certainly don't feel that I've wasted my time or that I'm not a much more informed consumer of food than before I started. January 29, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Among the best I've taken; fascinating course If you've recently visited a supermarket, used an antibiotic, marveled at the beauty and smell of a modern garden, or had days when you haven't given a thought to where your next meal was coming from, you may do well to complete this course. I found it a superb course about something often taken for granted. The Instructor introduces the discipline of Agriculture -- the largest business in the world, one of the most poorly understood, and one we depend on nearly every day (not only for food but for things like antibiotics and aesthetics). Prof Sojka is not only a student of agriculture, he is a "gentleman farmer" and conservator of unique breeds, so he brings practical knowledge to the issues he discusses. Prof Sojka gives such a great summary in his last lecture (#24) that I suggest you listen to it first. As with many TLC courses, the progress seems a bit uneven and repetitious at times. The first eight lectures occasionally seemed a little wander-y, but I'm glad I persisted because he lays the foundation for a superb course. I listened to the audio course and felt no need for the video. Prof Sojka explains the progress of agriculture (the symbiotic domestication of plants, animals, and microbes) from prehistoric times, illustrates how agricultural efficiency and food security were important precursors and conditioners of civilization's many stages (including social and personal values), describes how it has been revolutionized by modern knowledge, and discusses many issues affecting something we take for granted. Prof Sojka says agriculture may be solidly rooted in our distant past, but is no longer some idyllically pastoral endeavor removed from modern busy-ness. Like computers and genomics, agriculture now stands in a realm of technological change, economic interdependence, and distinct vulnerabilities. However, it remains uniquely connected to the natural world, and when we manipulate nature, we do so with an unknowable risk. These connections and risks are shared by billions of people, so he also encourages rational, non-romanticized discussions about modern agriculture, and believes this inter-communication gives us a chance to elevate our own humanity and help improve the world. July 11, 2013
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