Published September 27, 2016

McMullen Lecture

Crop science scholar Denison to present Oct. 3 talk
  • Author and scholar R. Ford Denison
Author and scholar R. Ford Denison will present Monmouth College’s annual Donald B. McMullen Memorial Lecture in Biology at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3 in the Kasch Performance Hall of Dahl Chapel and Auditorium.

The author of Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture, Denison is an adjunct professor in the University of Minnesota Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. He holds a Ph.D. in crop science from Cornell University.

Free and open to the public, his lecture is titled, “Hardin’s Garden: Untapped Potential for Plant-Microbe-Human Cooperation in Agriculture.” A book-signing will follow his talk.

“Hardin’s Garden” refers to a paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in 1968 by legendary bioethicist Garrett Hardin. In the paper, Hardin discussed conflicts between individual and group interests in the management of shared grazing land, pollution and human population growth. Similar individual-versus-group conflicts over the course of evolution shaped the wild ancestors of today’s crops and livestock.

Natural selection usually favors individuals over groups, reducing group-level efficiency in using shared resources, such as water. In such cases, plant and animal breeders can increase the efficiency of crops and livestock by reversing past evolution.

For example, Denison says that natural selection kept the wild ancestors of wheat and rice tall, to compete against each other for light. Plant breeders developed shorter plants, which put more resources into grain and less into stems, relative to taller plants.

During the lecture, Denison will discuss some less-familiar examples of progress and opportunities for improving crops, livestock and beneficial microbes, based on individual-versus-group tradeoffs.

“Humans cooperate more than we might expect from Hardin’s analysis, but there is plenty of room for improvement,” he said. “Agricultural examples include coordinated management of pests that move between farms.”

Earlier in the day, Denison will deliver a talk geared to Monmouth’s biology students titled, “What Can Short-Term Experiments Tell Us about Long-Term Agricultural Sustainability?” That talk, which is also open to the public, will be held at 4 p.m. in the Pattee Auditorium of the Center for Science and Business.

The McMullen Lectureship in Biology was endowed in 1973 by Mrs. Donald McMullen of Silver Springs, Md., in memory of her husband, who was Monmouth College biology professor from 1928-38. The fund annual brings an outstanding scholar in the biological sciences to campus.
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