Although humans have been breeding plants and animals for thousands of years, recent understanding of the evolutionary process lets us attack this task in a more scientific fashion. Following are some highlights in the field of agriculture, courtesy of our understanding of the evolutionary process and principles:

1 Advancements in breeding: Understanding the detail of the evolutionary process can help us devise new breeding strategies. Head to Chapter 11, which explores in detail a breeding program that successfully bred chickens that produced more eggs by selecting for chickens that got along well together in chicken coops — definitely not the normal situation and something that had been a serious problem in chicken farming before these developments.

1 Crop variation: The presence of genetic variation allows populations to respond to environmental changes; in the absence of such variation, populations can be destroyed by a sudden environmental change. Plant genetically similar crops over wide areas, and you run the risk of an agricultural disaster. Case in point? The Irish potato famine. Across Ireland, genetically identical potato plants were cultivated; a disease that attacked one potato turned out to be able to destroy them all, with horrific results.

t Crop history: Evolutionary biology allows scientists to understand the history of crop plants. Corn, for example, was domesticated by Native Americans, but for the longest time, biologists had no idea what wild plant it was derived from. Now, detailed studies of the evolutionary relationships of plants allow scientists to identify the wild plant from which corn was artificially selected. Having found the parent plant, scientists can study the genetics of how this plant survives in the presence of insects and microbial pests, which can only help in the quest to develop even better corn.

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