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Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact

Discover valuable truths about one of the most important developments in the history of the human species—one that has laid the foundation for all of human culture and that will continue to have implications for our future.
Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 34.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great General Interest Excellent presentation of a really interesting course on man's development of animals and plants for food sources. A very general subject that should be of interest to all.
Date published: 2022-05-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting History of Plant/ Animal Domestication Really enjoyed this course.The lecturer did a good job of leading me through the domestication of plants and animals, essentially the history of agriculture. It involved selective breeding which gave impetus to Darwin's ideas on natural selection.
Date published: 2020-02-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Eye-opening and interesting I'm not sure why this course caught my eye, since its focus is not one of my primary interests and not on my list of "nice to find out about" subjects, either. But I found Professor Sojka's journey through the interdependence of humans and domesticated plants and animals valuable and interesting. It's an interdisciplinary course, and kudos to The Great Courses for recognizing that this professor could be an expert in a field that he didn't specialize in during his scientific training. Partly historical and partly scientific, it's accessible to non-specialists, and the narration is well told even if a bit stiff sometimes with an overabundance of passive verb constructions. I listened on audio and found the professor easy to understand and pay attention to. The two best lectures in the course concerned the so-called Columbian Exchange, where many plants and animals crossed over to the New World from the Old or vice versa, and lecture #14 on where coffee, tea, tobacco and chocolate came from and the number of countries that their cultivation and consumption traveled to and why. Recommended.
Date published: 2019-08-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Weird Title, Very Good Course The opaque title doesn’t tell you anything about the course subject, which is plant and animal domestication and their effects upon both domesticates and humans. In Professor Sojka’s view, domestication was not something clever that humans did to nature; it arose as a mutually beneficial partnership between humans on the one side, and certain plants and animals on the other. As he puts it, domesticates met us halfway. They provide reliable supply of food, fuel, clothing and (in the case of cattle and horses) traction, while humans protect domesticates from (other) predators, suppress wild competitors and ensure their reproduction. There are a lot more horse, sheep, pigs and chickens in the world, for example, than there would be if these animals were left in a complete state of nature. The same applies to cereals, legumes, and other domesticated plants. At the same time, humans have not been content to leave these life forms as they were, but they have instead deliberately reshaped them for through selective breeding and now genetic engineering. This partnership has a long history. It began in the Paleolithic Era, when people first domesticated dogs and gourds (probably for carrying water). The Neolithic Revolution brought grains, livestock and most of the other plants that we see in today’s supermarkets. It set up a positive feedback in which more food production enabled larger populations, which required more food production, which enabled still larger populations. The Columbian Exchange after 1492 introduced American plants to Europe, Asia and Africa and European animals to the Americas. Unfortunately, American Indians were the losers, because the Exchange also brought them European germs and human conquerors. Since the eighteenth century, farmers, breeders, scientists and agronomists have worked together methodically to achieve food production able to support several billion humans and billions more of our domesticates. Domestication has therefore been a great success, right? Not entirely, because there are serious risks and moral costs. To keep up with growing human populations we must either expand the area under cultivation, which shrinks living space for wildlife, or intensify production. In agriculture, this means large-scale mono-cropping that exposes plants to pests and diseases. Think of the potato blight in the 1840s and what that did to the Irish. Of course, pesticides can protect plants today, but they also poison streams and lakes. Holding hundreds of animals in tightly-packed “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs) is cruel. It also generates huge quantities of bodily wastes and exposes them to contagious diseases. Antibiotics may protect animals as well as bulking them up for our dinner tables, but overuse is also promoting resistant bacteria that endanger humans. Modern animal breeding techniques that rely on developing a few excellent males to fertilize many females reduce genetic diversity. Our global production system depends on cheap and reliable transportation that, if disrupted by a large-scale war, could leave millions to starve to death. As Sojka points out, no one knows what the Earth’s carrying capacity for humans really is. But there are two other problems that he misses. First, mass food production makes possible mass accumulation, allowing small numbers of wealthy and politically powerful people to lord it over the rest of humanity, turning people into slaves, debt-peons and/or taxpayers. Yes, the Great Pyramids, the Palace of Versailles, and the Great Wall of China look impressive, but did peasants really benefit from any of them? James C. Scott has recently written on this theme, in a book called Against the Grain. Second, modern food production is far too efficient for our own good; humans in the developed world are eating far too much grain, sugar and red meat, leading to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. But back to the lectures! The presentation could be somewhat better. There are few visual aids, for example. Sojka sometimes stumbles in his speech or pauses and loses his concentration for several seconds. There is also a minor mistake on page 48 of the guidebook where he calls Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man a “chapter” (presumably in the Origin of Species) rather than a later standalone work. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend this course. It gives you something to think about the next time you go out for groceries. It’s too bad the video version is no longer available, but the audio download should still be highly informative.
Date published: 2019-01-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Human Factor: Invisible Hands of Domestication Explore major global transitions of the human species from prehistory to the postmodern era: the NEOLITHIC Revolution (rise of agriculture / origins of civilization / sedentary life), the COLUMBIAN Exchange (global trade / mercantilism / colonialism), and the Age of REASON (conscious evolution / bio-genetics / engineering solutions). Professor Gary Sojka's "Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact" charts the changes from food procurers of hunter-gatherers to food producers of pastoralists and horticulturists, the DOMESTICATION of plants, animals, waters, and microbes; the spread and exchange to new habitats of domesticates, products, people, and bacterial diseases between Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas; and the transcendence of blind nature with artificial breeding methods, microbiology, transgenic DNA, and pharmaceutical industries. The impact on ecological and geological systems, the growing co-dependence of man with its domesticated and engineered partners, the food-population connection dynamic, the global food technological industrial, transport, and preservation systems, etc, are analyzed in detail along the way. The presentation is clear, scientific, interdisciplinary, and critical in its implications due to man's conscious intervention into NATURAL SELECTION driving the evolution of species. The higher reviews show that the professor's interdisciplinary approach and his awareness of the MUTUALISTIC SYMBIOSIS between CIVILIZATION and its domesticates, and the potential threat of exceeding the CARRY CAPACITY of healthy environments are never lost sight of throughout the lectures. The lower reviews center around the DVD presentation and the title of the course. This review is based on the CD version and not one substantial criticism can be made to the delivery. The title "Understanding the Human Factor" is simply ingenious focusing on the species factor in its simultaneous transformation of nature -- the natural and human poles -- in my opinion. To fully address this issue, I offer the professor's own paradoxical words and hope critics re-take the course and newcomers are stimulated with this observation in mind: "Throughout the past 10,000 years, humans and their domesticates have become ever-more codependent...present irony...our generation depends more on domesticates than any before it yet may be more removed from day-to-day contact than any that have preceded us." The combined planned and unintended impacts on the GLOBAL environmental infrastructure is by analogy termed the ANTHROPOCENE EPOCH in another Great Course series titled "Understanding Cultural and Human Geography" by Professor Paul Robbins. These two courses if offered as a set (hint!), would complement and construct a scientific and scholarly VISION of contemporary civilization's TERRESTRIAL and AQUATIC environmental successes, challenges, issues, and trajectories shaping the future. These should be required courses for all concerned observers and activists of the modern social scene! *** Very Highly Recommended ***
Date published: 2016-10-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Food for thought In this course Prof. Sojka takes you from the Mesolithic to the present day charting the evolution from hunter gatherer to the present day food industry. Some reviews comment negatively about his presentation style, however I found him very easy to listen to, and if you are not familiar with genetics and cell biology he gives very clear and easy to understand explanations. From what I have learnt on this course eating my morning bowl of porridge has been transformed from a mundane routine experience into a fascinating trip into the worlds of science and history. Many thanks for a wonderful course.
Date published: 2016-03-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Much More Than 'Our Friend, the Cow' I loved the course. It is unique in my experience. Early on, Professor Sojka discusses the role of domestication in the rise of civilization. He then discusses the domesticated organisms we interact with, and explains how few of the plant and animal species we have actually domesticated. Before this course, had I been asked about domestication, I would have talked about animals close to man. I never considered anything beyond their proximity as a factor in their domestication. I never seriously thought about the behavioral changes, or the genetic factors involved in the process of domestication. The word 'landrace', new to me, put a name on a concept that was very familiar. The domestication of plants involves much more than just living close to the locales the where the plants choose to grow. And most strange, for a man who has spent twenty years working for a major brewer, I had never recognized microorganisms as domesticated organisms. This was in spite of the fact that I had seen the havoc a wild, undomesticated strain of yeast can impose on a process when it invades. Professor Sojka discusses at length the effects of increased food supply as a factor in the positive growth of populations. I was surprised when he discussed the positive and negative feedback effects of food on population dynamics without using the classic lynx and hare results of Hewitt. His argument, which is valid, is hard to explain to the audience who is right in the middle of the upcycle of a positive food expansion phase in western society. We in the west, for the most part, don't believe in starvation. It will be better understood by the survivors when either the food generation system or the food distribution system fails. Over the course of my education, I have had many professors who have never been outside the academic setting. They are always precise, correct, and lack a flair for the topic. Professor Sojka is, proudly, a farmer. He knows domesticated crops and animals by experience. To him, a sheep is not just a collection of numbers reflecting biology and economics, it is a smelly, fuzzy mass of reality. I recommend the course to anyone who is trying to gain a firmer sense of our place in the biosphere. It was a lot of fun.
Date published: 2015-04-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Depends on what you are looking for The professor was very well spoken, interesting and knew the subject well. I would have liked a more in depth coverage of the material.
Date published: 2015-03-04
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Survey the remarkable innovation that signaled the greatest transition in human history: the domestication of plants and animals. In Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact, award-winning Professor Gary A. Sojka offers a unique, multidisciplinary perspective on human life seldom made available in a single course. In 24 lectures, he weaves a remarkable tale of science and history than spans from the ancient roots of human culture to the most pressing concerns facing today's world. Join Professor Sojka for an enlightening view of humankind's relationship to domestication and discover valuable truths about the development of our species.


Gary A. Sojka

We are the beneficiaries of a civilization that has come down to us as the result of 10,000 years of progress and change.


Bucknell University

Dr. Gary A. Sojka is Professor Emeritus of Biology at Bucknell University, where he also served as president. He previously taught at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he was also dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He earned his master's degree and Ph.D. in Biochemical Genetics at Purdue University. In addition to teaching courses in microbiology, cell biology, and the general studies curriculum at Bucknell, Professor Sojka offered guest lectures in anthropology and bioethics as well as seminars on the domestication of plants and animals and the security of the world's food supply. His expertise as an educator has been recognized with a number of awards, including the Indiana University Bloomington Senior Class Award for Teaching Excellence and Dedication to Undergraduates, the Indiana University System Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching, and the Sheepskin Award from the Pennsylvania Association of Colleges and Universities. Dr. Sojka is also a practicing agriculturalist, working with his wife, Sandra, to breed and raise endangered livestock. He has served as the president of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture and continues to pursue his interest in public policy relating to animal welfare, breed conservation, farm safety, and equine athlete health and safety.

Man the Domesticator

01: Man the Domesticator

About 10,000 years ago, fundamental changes occurred in the lives of "Homo sapiens" as groups of people began to produce their own food. Gain an overview of this critical point in history and begin to ask key questions about the impact of domestication on Earth's dominant species, humankind.

32 min
The Beginnings of Domestication

02: The Beginnings of Domestication

While Neolithic humans eventually learned to domesticate plants and animals, these organisms had to meet human beings partway on the road to domestication. Explore the characteristics and the evolutionary processes that predisposed certain organisms for domestication, as well as the human behaviors that helped the process along.

30 min
The Basis for Settled Communities

03: The Basis for Settled Communities

Domestication transformed more than just the plants and animals involved; human beings also experienced enormous changes as a result of the agricultural revolution they initiated. Learn about the lifestyle of early agriculturalists and see how these patterns differed from those of their hunter-gatherer ancestors.

32 min
The Dispersal and Spread of Agriculture

04: The Dispersal and Spread of Agriculture

How did the practice of agriculture spread all over the world? Examine the various approaches scientists use - including archaeology, biology, molecular biology, physics, and linguistics - to answer this question, and investigate some of the patterns of development these approaches have uncovered.

31 min
Agriculture Impacts Ecology and Geology

05: Agriculture Impacts Ecology and Geology

Agriculture gives humanity the ability to feed itself, but it can also pose a threat to the environment that sustains us. Learn about the delicate balance between our population size and food production, and explore particular examples of how domestication changes and often damages our environment.

28 min
You Are What You Eat, Raise, and Build

06: You Are What You Eat, Raise, and Build

Just as plants and animals are adapted to the process of domestication, so human beings have been changed by their domesticates. Explore the many ways human cultivation has helped shape cultures all over the world.

31 min
The Domestication of Cereal Grains

07: The Domestication of Cereal Grains

Begin to focus on some of the most successful domesticates, starting with the cereal grains. Investigate how grains such as wheat, corn, rice, and oats were originally cultivated from wild grasses, and learn why these grains have been so crucial to human survival for millennia.

30 min
The Oligarchy of the Garden Patch

08: The Oligarchy of the Garden Patch

Continue your consideration of successful domesticates as you take a closer look at examples from a few families that dominate the backyard garden and the dinner table. These examples include familiar plants such as legumes, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and cabbages.

31 min
The Importance of Storage Crops

09: The Importance of Storage Crops

Since vegetables and fruits mainly grow during the warm season, much attention has been given to the cultivation of storage crops. Learn about these crops - including potatoes, root vegetables, and apples - as well as the techniques for preserving these important foods to ensure survival through cold, barren winters.

30 min
Three of Man's Best Friends

10: Three of Man's Best Friends

Shift your attention to the animal world as you explore three of man's oldest, most cherished, and important domestic animal partners: the dog, the cat, and the chicken. Examine the impact of domestication on these species as well as the benefits of their partnership with humankind.

32 min
The Common Barnyard Domesticates

11: The Common Barnyard Domesticates

Step back into prehistory to discuss some important "barnyard" animals that played an important role in the establishment of food production as a way of life. Consider the domestication of sheep, goats, pigs, horses, and cattle, and look at how their descendants are used today.

31 min
Landraces, Breeds, and Strains

12: Landraces, Breeds, and Strains

Nature supplies an abundance of variety in its organisms. Learn how plant and animal breeders, stockmen, and horticulturists take advantage of this variation to group organisms, culling and selecting traits that make them more beneficial and preferable to human beings.

31 min
The Columbian Exchange

13: The Columbian Exchange

When Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, he initiated a new path of trade that forever changed the ecology.

31 min
Plants That Influenced Global Culture

14: Plants That Influenced Global Culture

Focus on four plant species that have flourished as domesticates despite having little or no nutritive value: coffee, tea, tobacco, and cocoa. Examine the history of each of these important plants and explore how these products have gained importance because of their role in generating and enhancing social interaction.

29 min
Agriculture in the Age of Reason

15: Agriculture in the Age of Reason

From the middle of the 17th century through the end of the 18th century, notable figures in the Age of Reason turned their attention to the issue of agriculture. Learn how these prominent individuals applied a more systematic approach to the domestication and cultivation of crops and livestock.

29 min
Darwin, Galton, and Mendel

16: Darwin, Galton, and Mendel

Through their scientific breakthroughs, Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, and Gregor Mendel shed light on the processes that help drive the domestication of organisms. Explore how their work in the discovery of natural selection and the laws of heredity offered a new, more complete understanding of domestication.

30 min
Some Notable Scientific Plant Breeders

17: Some Notable Scientific Plant Breeders

From the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, the world of agriculture saw great advances in systematic, scientific plant breeding. Study the work of four of the great contributors to this field: Hugo de Vries, Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver, and Nicolai Vavilov.

30 min
Farming the Waters

18: Farming the Waters

While humankind has long derived nutrition from aquatic environments, one recent development is an expanding set of practices known as "farming the waters." Learn about the benefits and problems associated with this burgeoning practice and explore the implications of the cultivation of domesticated fish, shellfish, and aquatic plants.

30 min
Domesticated Mice, Molds, and Microbes

19: Domesticated Mice, Molds, and Microbes

Not all domesticates grow in the garden or the barnyard. Consider some unexpected domesticates that play a key role in the bakery, the brewery, and the laboratory: mice, brewer's and baker's yeast, and microbes that help produce antibiotics.

32 min
Our Technology-Based Global Food System

20: Our Technology-Based Global Food System

As technology has advanced, humankind has developed new tools for supporting more efficient and productive agricultural output to feed people all over the world. Explore the impact of these various technologies, from artificial insemination to robotic milking machines.

31 min
Engineering Our Domesticates

21: Engineering Our Domesticates

Since the days when Mendel first uncovered the secrets of genetics, human beings have made steady progress in hereditary science. Explore the implications of such new methods as cloning and transgenic crosses.

32 min
Novel Delivery Systems and Spare Parts

22: Novel Delivery Systems and Spare Parts

As technology advances, what new uses will human beings develop for our domesticated partners? Will they serve as sources for transplanted body parts for human beings? Consider these questions and other ways that new transgenic techniques may be used in surgery, drug production, and the administration of pharmaceuticals.

29 min
The Age of Industrial Farming

23: The Age of Industrial Farming

Is Old MacDonald's farm a thing of the past? Over the last century, there has been a trend away from independent family farms to large, technologically advanced agricultural conglomerates. Consider how this trend has affected the lives of farmers, consumers, and livestock, and explore the many repercussions of this shift in agricultural practice.

31 min
The Path Forward

24: The Path Forward

Take a glimpse into the future as you consider the implications and potential outcome of our current agriculture needs and practices. Can humankind continue to feed its ever-growing population? How does understanding our past contribute to wise decisions about food production and resource use in the future?

33 min