Todd Cooke, Professor; Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics

 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?

 In this course, we shall take an interdisciplinary approach involving botany, evolutionary biology, history, anthropology, and economics in order to help the students obtain an integrated perspective on plants and humans interacting as co-evolving organisms through time. The course uses a guided lecture-discussion format.In the first section, introductory lecture-discussions, lab exercises, and field trips cover fundamental scientific and historical principles. The second section focuses on individual plants and related historical events and contemporary issues.
Students are expected to do independent readings, participate in class discussions, write two short essays, contribute a powerpoint presentation, participate in a debate evaluating a controversial issue, and submit well-reasoned essay answers to a take home final exam.