Tall poppies, tall corn and creating the right environment

All opinions my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

The first time I heard the saying, “Cutting down the tall poppies,” I was in Australia, over 20 years ago, talking to an Professor who was a US expatriate and working at the University of Queensland.  I’ve heard it since in conversations with people from the UK, Denmark and other countries.  The specific connotation in each culture differs somewhat, but the general underlying meaning is that those who rise above the crowd should in some way be brought back down to the level of everyone else. This might be in a physical and material sense, or in an attitudinal way, as in, “don’t think you are better than us just because of your (choose one) wealth, success, position, knowledge, etc.” An egalitarian sentiment, to be sure, but one that sounds odd to someone raised in the US, where individual attainment and excellence are among the key values.

I often contrast that idea to the following story about tall corn.  I first heard it from Professor Michael Freeling when I was a graduate teaching assistant at UC Berkeley, and assigned to TA for his class on Genetics and Society. This was an undergraduate survey class and on the first day, a freshman stood up (aren’t freshmen cute?  Always so earnest and ready to play “stump the Professor.”) and asked Michael where he stood on the question of Nature versus Nurture.

Michael’s answer was to describe his own work in maize genetics. Take a handful of genetically diverse maize kernels, he said, and sow them in a field and see what happens.  You get plants growing to a variety of heights, and each plant will give you different yields. Take another handful of kernels from the same batch and plant them in a greenhouse.  Give them fertilizer, gro-lights, plenty of water, keep out bugs and other pathogens. Then you’ll see the plants growing to more or less the same height, and yielding similarly, every ear on every one.

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