15 November 2011

Darwin down on the farm


To Darwin, agriculture was a vital source of evidence for evolution and for natural selection. One area where Wallace disagreed with Darwin was in how useful agriculture was in explaining evolution. Wallace thought that the comparison was not very close nor was it very effective whereas Darwin devoted much space to it in the Origin. In many ways Wallace was proven correct as evolution has been only a bit player in agriculture over the last 150 years. Until now. A new book, Pragmatic Evolution: Applications of Evolutionary Theory edited by Also Poiani, is due out in December and looks at where evolution is helping to understand the world around us in a practical sense. One of those areas in in agriculture. One of the chapters, Evolution in agriculture, is written by Steve Wratten (Lincoln University) with a former student Mark Gillespie and colleague Aldo Poiani. In this chapter they review how understanding evolution is transforming what we know in the area of agroecology. Steve points out that most agricultural activities attempt to halt evolutionary processes, trapping ecosystems in a state which produces consistent crops and so on. Much evolutionary conflict comes from this including resistence to insecticides, reducing diversity in communities,and removing natural predators and competitors. Taking an evolutionary approach allows us to build more natural and sustainable agricultural ecosystems. In the chapter Steve explains how an evolutonary approach is vital for agriculture to move forward. Hopefully this is the start of evolution regaining its natural place in this most human of endeavours and that Darwin is welcomed down on the farm.

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