I used to work with plant breeders, who spent their days pushing male and female corn genetics in opposite directions. When combined, the offspring were vigorous and produced high yields for farmers. It feels a lot like people are pushing in opposite directions these days, and unlike the common understanding among these breeders, the measure of what is better seems eerily absent from the debate.
In genetics, the principle is called “heterosis”. In securing close human relationship, it is referred to as “tension of the opposites”. There is a human understanding, even an evolutionary theory, that strength comes from combining dissimilarity, and it even seems reflected in the system of government laid out by our founding fathers. They are called “inbreds” in the corn seed business. Driving the Midwest, you likely have seen a field where male and female inbreds are being used to produce hybrid seed that eventually will be sold to farmers. Think of these fields as a man-made system where productivity is entirely dependent on combining dissimilarity.
Corn has an imperfect flower, meaning male and female flower parts are distinctly separate on the plant. Male pollen is made by the tassel on top. Silks emerge at the tip of the ear, with each silk connected to an embryo at the base of the kernel. Fertilization happens when wind or gravity bring pollen to silk, and yes, most of the embryos are left on your face after eating sweet corn. This “imperfection” is not just valuable, it is essential to creating a productive result.
You notice a hybrid seed production field because it lacks uniformity. There is a single row of plants used as males — the pollen donors — that are taller and left intact. On either side are four rows used as the inbred females, the plants receiving the male pollen and ultimately harvested for their hybrid seed. The pollen-producing tassels are removed from female plants to avoid self-pollination, or further inbreeding. The pattern of one tall male row, bound on either side by four shorter female rows, continues across the field. It is even more noticeable after pollination when male rows are removed to prevent their stunted self-pollinated seeds from mixing with vigorous hybrid seeds. It took thousands of years of cultivating teosinte into corn to learn this system, how best to use dissimilarity, and then only 80 years to increase yields 10-fold.
Before the 1930s, farmers planted back some of the corn they had harvested for grain. By now, you might see how this practice was inherently limited by inbreeding; these seeds had pollinated themselves. As such, yields were limited to about 30 bushels per acre, and weather, pests and nutrients were the biggest predictors of success.
Interestingly, corn genetic diversity has declined over 80 years, while yields have skyrocketed. The national average corn yield regularly exceeds a staggering 180 bushels per acre, and a farmer in Virginia recently produced over 500 bushels. That farmer must have optimized every variable under his control. Still, the factor that explains most of his 500-bushel success, is not the amount of genetic diversity, but a system designed to combine dissimilarity.
Locally, we have witnessed tampering with, and corruption of, our man-made systems. Individuals have actively prevented the combining of dissimilar ideas, and the evidence suggests these one-sided seeds are lowering community yield. Beyond government, schools, and institutions, it is also affecting our neighborhoods. Who wants to track yard signs and voting records when we could be making new friends, sharing recipes, and becoming better through our combined differences?
Like the farmer, we must assess our resources, consider all options, and make difficult choices in cultivating a more vigorous community. My hope is we can farm more like the guy in Virginia. We can forget about national averages, separate ourselves from national influence, and circle around a law of nature that says: We are better together.