There’s an article over at New Scientist on how crops farmed may have affected cultural and maybe even genetically mediated cognitive development:
It is a cliché to say that East Asians think in terms of the group, while Westerners think in terms of the individual. But there is some truth to it, and part of the explanation may lie in what our ancestors ate. Rice farming seems to have fostered collective thinking while wheat farming favoured individualism.
The popular image of Americans and Europeans as individualist and innovative, versus Asians as collectivist and conforming, is partly true. People from the West and Far East can and do think in both ways, but these peoples’ cognitive styles divide broadly along those lines.
Researchers have proposed many possible explanations for these cultural habits, including differences in prosperity and rates of infectious disease.
Thomas Talhelm of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville wondered if a region’s long-term way of life is what matters: specifically, whether its people grow rice or wheat. “The rice-growing regions of East Asia are less individualistic than the Western world or northern China, even with their wealth and modernisation,” says Talhelm.
I think that’s right but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Different crops have differing nutritional payoffs. You can support more people per hectare growing rice and soy beans than you can growing wheat, oats, rye, and barley but in turn it takes more people working more intensively to accomplish it. Paddy rice culture both encourages and requires more people.
However, you can support even more people growing maize and beans with a lot less work. Why didn’t Central America develop the huge populations that China and Europe did? I think the answer is that corn is very hard on the soil and Central America doesn’t have enormous amounts of arable land. That discouraged the long-term stable occupation of the land required to develop those populations. The people of Central America, consequently, developed a different strategy than those of Europe and Asia did.
As usual Africa drew the short straw. The problem in sub-Saharan Africa has always been protein.
In a nutshell that’s the way I see that human civilization developed. The crops you cultivated, the requirements for their cultivation, and the land you lived in all contributed to genetic and cultural development.