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Book details how Native American cotton selection led to the Industrial Revolution

Friday, May 15, 2015

LAWRENCE — Most historians credit English inventors with developing the mechanization of cotton spinning, which became a driving factor in the Industrial Revolution and introduction of the factory system as a substitute for hand labor.

But a University of Kansas researcher argues without the involvement of Native Americans selecting a new type of cotton over thousands of years in the Americas, the Industrial Revolution wouldn't have been possible at that time.

"The traits of New World cotton made it possible to mechanize, and the most important trait among those was being very long fibers, which makes strong thread," said Edmund Russell, the University of Kansas Joyce and Elizabeth Hall Distinguished Professor of History. "That new thread was the result of thousand of years of selection by Native Americans. The English inventors responded to an opportunity created for them by American Indians and New World cotton. They didn't invent the Industrial Revolution out of thin air."

Russell uses the example in his book "Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth," which was recently featured on the website NewBooksinGeography.com for Russell's innovative approach to the idea of what influence human activity can have on evolution and non-human species.

"Often people think of evolution as subject matter for biologists and not for the humanities and not for the general public," Russell said. "What I’m trying to do is show that it's something that all of us can understand the concepts of and it's something that affects the lives of everybody, so it's in our best interest to understand how and why it works."

Russell uses the example of the both the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions as the two most important in history. The Agricultural Revolution and the development of being able to grow crops to establish a consistent food source reshaped humans from hunter-gatherers to settled farmers.

"Once you had settlements, then you had the growth of towns and cities, nations and empires, all of those things," Russell said. "They all rest on a base of agriculture. You don't get that complex social structure among hunter-gatherers."

The Industrial Revolution likewise allowed humans to tap into social energy that was captured millions of years ago and stored in coal, petroleum and natural gas, causing the development of machines, substantive labor and rapid economic growth into an industrial economy.

He said thinking of both in the context of evolution is important because both became possible due to evolution and non-human species. In addition to the Native Americans selecting a new type of cotton that made it easier for machines to easily produce clothing, the Agricultural Revolution also relied on a change.

"In order to domesticate plants and animals, the traits needed to be modified from wild traits to domestic traits so that you could have them growing in captivity," Russell said.

He uses the examples to illustrate how evolution doesn't necessarily lead to creation of a new species, he said.

"Most people think of evolution as something that happened out there in space and time. It's just something that nature did in the past. It stopped. Once species were created, it ended, and it doesn't really affect us today," Russell said. "It's an ongoing process. It's happening today, and it affects every minute of our lives."

He said thinking of evolution allows for the explanation in public health and agriculture on why certain diseases or pests develop resistance to chemicals that we use for vaccinations or as pesticides to treat crops.

Cambridge University Press published Russell's book.