Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

Gary A. Sojka

About Your Professor

Gary A. Sojka, Ph.D.
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,...
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Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 33.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting History of Plant/ Animal Domestication Really enjoyed this course.The lecturer did a good job of leading me through the domestication of plants and animals, essentially the history of agriculture. It involved selective breeding which gave impetus to Darwin's ideas on natural selection.
Date published: 2020-02-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Eye-opening and interesting I'm not sure why this course caught my eye, since its focus is not one of my primary interests and not on my list of "nice to find out about" subjects, either. But I found Professor Sojka's journey through the interdependence of humans and domesticated plants and animals valuable and interesting. It's an interdisciplinary course, and kudos to The Great Courses for recognizing that this professor could be an expert in a field that he didn't specialize in during his scientific training. Partly historical and partly scientific, it's accessible to non-specialists, and the narration is well told even if a bit stiff sometimes with an overabundance of passive verb constructions. I listened on audio and found the professor easy to understand and pay attention to. The two best lectures in the course concerned the so-called Columbian Exchange, where many plants and animals crossed over to the New World from the Old or vice versa, and lecture #14 on where coffee, tea, tobacco and chocolate came from and the number of countries that their cultivation and consumption traveled to and why. Recommended.
Date published: 2019-08-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Weird Title, Very Good Course The opaque title doesn’t tell you anything about the course subject, which is plant and animal domestication and their effects upon both domesticates and humans. In Professor Sojka’s view, domestication was not something clever that humans did to nature; it arose as a mutually beneficial partnership between humans on the one side, and certain plants and animals on the other. As he puts it, domesticates met us halfway. They provide reliable supply of food, fuel, clothing and (in the case of cattle and horses) traction, while humans protect domesticates from (other) predators, suppress wild competitors and ensure their reproduction. There are a lot more horse, sheep, pigs and chickens in the world, for example, than there would be if these animals were left in a complete state of nature. The same applies to cereals, legumes, and other domesticated plants. At the same time, humans have not been content to leave these life forms as they were, but they have instead deliberately reshaped them for through selective breeding and now genetic engineering. This partnership has a long history. It began in the Paleolithic Era, when people first domesticated dogs and gourds (probably for carrying water). The Neolithic Revolution brought grains, livestock and most of the other plants that we see in today’s supermarkets. It set up a positive feedback in which more food production enabled larger populations, which required more food production, which enabled still larger populations. The Columbian Exchange after 1492 introduced American plants to Europe, Asia and Africa and European animals to the Americas. Unfortunately, American Indians were the losers, because the Exchange also brought them European germs and human conquerors. Since the eighteenth century, farmers, breeders, scientists and agronomists have worked together methodically to achieve food production able to support several billion humans and billions more of our domesticates. Domestication has therefore been a great success, right? Not entirely, because there are serious risks and moral costs. To keep up with growing human populations we must either expand the area under cultivation, which shrinks living space for wildlife, or intensify production. In agriculture, this means large-scale mono-cropping that exposes plants to pests and diseases. Think of the potato blight in the 1840s and what that did to the Irish. Of course, pesticides can protect plants today, but they also poison streams and lakes. Holding hundreds of animals in tightly-packed “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs) is cruel. It also generates huge quantities of bodily wastes and exposes them to contagious diseases. Antibiotics may protect animals as well as bulking them up for our dinner tables, but overuse is also promoting resistant bacteria that endanger humans. Modern animal breeding techniques that rely on developing a few excellent males to fertilize many females reduce genetic diversity. Our global production system depends on cheap and reliable transportation that, if disrupted by a large-scale war, could leave millions to starve to death. As Sojka points out, no one knows what the Earth’s carrying capacity for humans really is. But there are two other problems that he misses. First, mass food production makes possible mass accumulation, allowing small numbers of wealthy and politically powerful people to lord it over the rest of humanity, turning people into slaves, debt-peons and/or taxpayers. Yes, the Great Pyramids, the Palace of Versailles, and the Great Wall of China look impressive, but did peasants really benefit from any of them? James C. Scott has recently written on this theme, in a book called Against the Grain. Second, modern food production is far too efficient for our own good; humans in the developed world are eating far too much grain, sugar and red meat, leading to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. But back to the lectures! The presentation could be somewhat better. There are few visual aids, for example. Sojka sometimes stumbles in his speech or pauses and loses his concentration for several seconds. There is also a minor mistake on page 48 of the guidebook where he calls Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man a “chapter” (presumably in the Origin of Species) rather than a later standalone work. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend this course. It gives you something to think about the next time you go out for groceries. It’s too bad the video version is no longer available, but the audio download should still be highly informative.
Date published: 2019-01-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Human Factor: Invisible Hands of Domestication Explore major global transitions of the human species from prehistory to the postmodern era: the NEOLITHIC Revolution (rise of agriculture / origins of civilization / sedentary life), the COLUMBIAN Exchange (global trade / mercantilism / colonialism), and the Age of REASON (conscious evolution / bio-genetics / engineering solutions). Professor Gary Sojka's "Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact" charts the changes from food procurers of hunter-gatherers to food producers of pastoralists and horticulturists, the DOMESTICATION of plants, animals, waters, and microbes; the spread and exchange to new habitats of domesticates, products, people, and bacterial diseases between Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas; and the transcendence of blind nature with artificial breeding methods, microbiology, transgenic DNA, and pharmaceutical industries. The impact on ecological and geological systems, the growing co-dependence of man with its domesticated and engineered partners, the food-population connection dynamic, the global food technological industrial, transport, and preservation systems, etc, are analyzed in detail along the way. The presentation is clear, scientific, interdisciplinary, and critical in its implications due to man's conscious intervention into NATURAL SELECTION driving the evolution of species. The higher reviews show that the professor's interdisciplinary approach and his awareness of the MUTUALISTIC SYMBIOSIS between CIVILIZATION and its domesticates, and the potential threat of exceeding the CARRY CAPACITY of healthy environments are never lost sight of throughout the lectures. The lower reviews center around the DVD presentation and the title of the course. This review is based on the CD version and not one substantial criticism can be made to the delivery. The title "Understanding the Human Factor" is simply ingenious focusing on the species factor in its simultaneous transformation of nature -- the natural and human poles -- in my opinion. To fully address this issue, I offer the professor's own paradoxical words and hope critics re-take the course and newcomers are stimulated with this observation in mind: "Throughout the past 10,000 years, humans and their domesticates have become ever-more codependent...present irony...our generation depends more on domesticates than any before it yet may be more removed from day-to-day contact than any that have preceded us." The combined planned and unintended impacts on the GLOBAL environmental infrastructure is by analogy termed the ANTHROPOCENE EPOCH in another Great Course series titled "Understanding Cultural and Human Geography" by Professor Paul Robbins. These two courses if offered as a set (hint!), would complement and construct a scientific and scholarly VISION of contemporary civilization's TERRESTRIAL and AQUATIC environmental successes, challenges, issues, and trajectories shaping the future. These should be required courses for all concerned observers and activists of the modern social scene! *** Very Highly Recommended ***
Date published: 2016-10-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Food for thought In this course Prof. Sojka takes you from the Mesolithic to the present day charting the evolution from hunter gatherer to the present day food industry. Some reviews comment negatively about his presentation style, however I found him very easy to listen to, and if you are not familiar with genetics and cell biology he gives very clear and easy to understand explanations. From what I have learnt on this course eating my morning bowl of porridge has been transformed from a mundane routine experience into a fascinating trip into the worlds of science and history. Many thanks for a wonderful course.
Date published: 2016-03-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Much More Than 'Our Friend, the Cow' I loved the course. It is unique in my experience. Early on, Professor Sojka discusses the role of domestication in the rise of civilization. He then discusses the domesticated organisms we interact with, and explains how few of the plant and animal species we have actually domesticated. Before this course, had I been asked about domestication, I would have talked about animals close to man. I never considered anything beyond their proximity as a factor in their domestication. I never seriously thought about the behavioral changes, or the genetic factors involved in the process of domestication. The word 'landrace', new to me, put a name on a concept that was very familiar. The domestication of plants involves much more than just living close to the locales the where the plants choose to grow. And most strange, for a man who has spent twenty years working for a major brewer, I had never recognized microorganisms as domesticated organisms. This was in spite of the fact that I had seen the havoc a wild, undomesticated strain of yeast can impose on a process when it invades. Professor Sojka discusses at length the effects of increased food supply as a factor in the positive growth of populations. I was surprised when he discussed the positive and negative feedback effects of food on population dynamics without using the classic lynx and hare results of Hewitt. His argument, which is valid, is hard to explain to the audience who is right in the middle of the upcycle of a positive food expansion phase in western society. We in the west, for the most part, don't believe in starvation. It will be better understood by the survivors when either the food generation system or the food distribution system fails. Over the course of my education, I have had many professors who have never been outside the academic setting. They are always precise, correct, and lack a flair for the topic. Professor Sojka is, proudly, a farmer. He knows domesticated crops and animals by experience. To him, a sheep is not just a collection of numbers reflecting biology and economics, it is a smelly, fuzzy mass of reality. I recommend the course to anyone who is trying to gain a firmer sense of our place in the biosphere. It was a lot of fun.
Date published: 2015-04-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2015-03-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-10-09
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