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Grass seems so ordinary and unimportant

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BAMIYAN, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 7:  Afghan Ba...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

That’s probably because we know so little about grass and how it relates to our humanity and our evolution as humans. As usual Olivia Judson, my favorite science writer, tells the story of grass and grasslands and their basic connection with humans in today’s NY Times Science section.

Some very basic facts about grasses:

“Today, the grass family contains more than 10,000 species — that’s more species of grass than species of bird — and grasslands cover about a third of the planet’s landmasses. (“Grassland” refers to an ecosystem, like prairie, where grasses dominate; it doesn’t mean they are the only plants there.)”

She informs us that “Rice, wheat, rye, oats, maize, millet, barley, sorghum and sugar cane are all grasses” and constitute one third of our diet.

She ends her essay with these thoughts:

Yet regardless of how much grasses shaped our earliest evolution, in the recent past they have transformed us. We usually talk of our domestication of grasses, and the ways in which we have evolved them: we have made plants with bigger, more nutritious seeds that don’t fall to the ground, for example.

But their effect on us has been far more profound. Our domestication of grasses, 10,000 years ago or so, allowed the building of the first cities, and marks the start of civilization as we know it. Grasses thus enabled the flowering of a new kind of evolution, a kind not seen before in the history of life: the evolution of human culture.

So much for the ordinariness of grass!

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2010/03/03 at 11:30

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