Domesticated species are often disregarded by historians of technology; yet they are no less a complex product of human invention than radars, boats, or computers. The only differences between biological artifacts (such as the Tomato, the Dog or the Yoghurt Bacteria) and others is, first, that biological artifacts could reproduce themselves (though this is less and less the case), and second, that biological engineering was, in the beginning, far less conscious and purposeful than other forms of human ingenuity. Today, however, both these differences are fading away with the rise of genetic engineering, and the conceptual boundaries between nature and cultures are slowly fading (see this paper by Dan Sperber arguing that biological artefacts are genuine artefacts). Monsanto and the works of Jared Diamond (see here) made Artificial Selection a hot topic, 150 years after Darwin used it to clarify the idea of selection in "the Origin of Species".

Michael Pollan's book, "The Botany of Desire: a plant's eye's view of the world", tells the story of 4 famous biological artefacts: the Apple, the Tulip, Cannabis and the (Monsanto-GE) Potato. In each case, Pollan's point of view is a curious blend of fascination towards the achievements of agronomic technology, and fear that the same achievements might destroy the diversity of life. His favorite characters are those like Johnny “Appleseed”, who both produced new varieties of biological artifacts and allowed the species they spread to run wild, thus producing new, unexpected varieties. Quoting Thoreau (“In wildness is the preservation of the world”) and greek mythology, Pollan praises the american Dyonisius, such as Appleseed, or the modern pot-gardeners. His agronomic ideal is one that would use biodiversity while enhancing it at the same time, not restricting it to a monotonous bunch of crops suited to human needs. Pollan's account of Appleseed's adventures suggests that these two imperatives might not always run counter to each other, and that biological engineering may sometimes produce 'Wildness'.

This reminds me of an hypothesis put forward by Alfred W. Crosby in his 1988 book, Ecological Imperialism: the biological expansion of Europe. Crosby claims that before european humans conquered the New Worlds, the european ecosystem took over the world; why was that? Because the european ecosystem was particularly suited to invade foreign lands, and that in turn was because the european flora had the best weeds. The European clover was so widespread in South America by 1555 that the Aztecs coined a name for it. The subsequent spread of european stock, germs, guns and steel was all due to the success of Europe's home-made wilderness. Quoting Crosby:

“The word (weeds) refers to any plant that spreads rapidly and outcompetes others on disturbed soil. Before the advent of agriculture, there were relatively few of these plants representing any given species; they were the pioneers of secondary succession, or colonizers,specilaizing in the occupation of ground stripped of plants by landslides, floods, fires, and so forth. Weeds are not always unlikeable. Rye and Oats were once weeds; now theyr are crop plants. Can a crop plant shift the other way and become a weed? Yes. Amaranth and crabgrass were prehistoric crops in America and Europe (...) now both have been demoted to weeds. (...) Weeds are not good or bad; they are simply the plants that tempt the botanist to use such anthropomorphist terms as aggressive and opportunistic.”

You can find the complete and fascinating success story of Old World Weeds in the seventh chapter of Crosby' book. What Crosby does not explain is why Europe was so weeds-rich? Is it because of the periodic advance and retreat of the glaciers, revealing naked lands of opportunity to our biological conquistadores? Is it because of the various wastelands produced by overgrazing, deforesting and agriculture ? My guess is European weeds were stronger because of the many generation of farmers who spent their days patiently unweeding their fields, thereby breeding weeds selected for strength, fast growth and rapid proliferation. If my guess were true, this would make weeds genuine biological artefacts.

Does protecting weeds make any sense? This is one of the many conundrums that surround the project of protecting biodiversity. Weeds are hegemonic, expansionist species, and, though, as does the Nettle, they may prove useful, it is not precisely a coincidence that many of them are pests, not only to human culture, but to other species as well. Yet they hold the promise of rapidly regenerating the world's flora after whatever cataclysm that might befall on us ; and they are the source of our agriculture: nearly every human crop began as a pest. Culture was begot from weeds.

I think Thoreau was right after all: in wildness is the preservation of the world; but I would add: Wildness can also be built with human hands. Indeed, it has to be engineered and cared upon if we want our familiar pests to thrive. I enjoy the idea that, all this time my ancestors were toiling the dirt, they were conscientiously, if unwittingly, manufacturing wildness.