Seldom are plants mentioned in the grand narratives of war, peace, and even everyday life, and yet plants have profoundly influenced the course of human history ever since the origins of agriculture at the dawn of human civilization. Humans have modified plants via unconscious selection, traditional plant breeding, and genetic engineering, and in turn, plants have provided the food, fiber, fuel, structural materials, and medicines and other compounds for spiritual and recreational uses that have sustained human civilization. The big idea of this course is that it is productive and informative to view the processes of plant domestication and human civilization as occurring as co-evolutionary processes.
This perspective leads to a number of provocative questions: What features of certain cereal grasses facilitated their successful co-domestication with a heretofore inauspicious huntingand-gathering primate, namely us? How did the cultivation of sugar, tobacco, and cotton affect the colonization, settlement, and exploitation of the New World? What roles did tea, coffee, potato, opium, rubber, and quinine play in the spread and organization of the British Empire? How can we use our emerging appreciation of historical human-plant dynamics to arrive at a deeper understanding of contemporary issues such as genetic engineering, indigenous ceremonial plants vs. alien narcotics, illicit trade in rare orchids and other endangered species, global climate changes, and diminishing tropical rainforests?