A world for mutants

There is an interesting story regarding how we humans domesticated wheat and started farming about 12,000 years ago.

Wild wheat and barley, among the first crops to be domesticated, grew on top of stalks that spontaneously shattered to drop their seeds on the ground. A unique genetic mutation prevented some wheat and barley plants from having shattering stalks. Their seeds would, instead, remain in the plant even after ripening. Similarly, peas grew in pods and developed a gene that would cause them to spontaneously burst out as soon as they were formed inside. Occasional mutant peas did not have this gene and remained unpopped in their pods.

In the wild, these genetic mutations were harmful, for the wheat stalks that didn’t shatter and the pea pods that didn’t burst would end up rotting in their plants rather than germinating and passing their genes along.

However, an animal entered their natural environment – one that was specifically interested in these rare mutant wheat and pea plants. As humans walked across these wild fields, they noticed that the occasional wheat or pea plant had their seeds intact, waiting to be harvested. Quite by accident, they selected those plants and started growing them. Across generations of plants, they singled out the mutants for propagation. By doing so, they had turned evolution around by 180 degrees, selecting for a gene that was traditionally a weakness. That gene now turned into a superpower for those plants.

It is important to note that this shift did not happen until the natural environment of the plants themselves changed. It now included humans. Similarly, we all know what became of humans when their environment was transformed by the agricultural revolution.

As individuals, we are all born with a particular genetic makeup that gives us our strengths, talents and tendencies. That is why some of us are good at running, interested in football and can learn to play the guitar much quicker than others.

Conventional wisdom tells us that we ought to be “well-rounded”. This implies that while we have our strengths and inclinations, it is important to focus on our “weaknesses”. If we were exceptional on the football field, the world pushes us to concentrate on learning math. If we were exceptionally academic, our resume begs us to fill out the “extra-curricular” sections. This ends up forcing us to work against our natural strengths and inherent dispositions to fit into a world that values homogeneity ahead of everything else.

But the times, they are a changing. Today, the world is at once the most heterogeneous that it has ever been and more homogeneous than it will ever be. As distances continue to shrink we will only see this diversity growing even further.

This implies we now have the freedom to focus on our strengths. Rather than being well-rounded, we can be sharp, pointy individuals, exceptionally good at the things that come naturally to us and those that excite us. If that is not rewarded, all we need to do is to change our environment. And we live in a world where it is easier than ever to change our environment by moving to a different one.

It is much easier to roll a rock downhill than to try and incessantly push it uphill.

Everybody who has changed the world has done so not by being well-rounded, but by embracing their individual brilliance rather than suppressing it.

Those pioneers are the mutants – the unpopped peas and the unbroken wheat stalks of our times.

Source: Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond

PS: Evidently, every morsel of food you eat has been genetically modified since the very birth of civilization. Do not let the GMO fad get in the way of a tasty meal!

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