Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. Basic Books, New York, USA.
The advent of seeds was certainly one of the most important evolutionary events in the whole history of plants. Thor Hanson, the author of the book, “The Triumph of Seeds” makes this readily apparent in the few passages that were assigned this week. The author makes us acutely aware of a seed’s resilience with a great passage that revolved around the frustrated author trying to crack the seed coat of a particularly resilient plant. The section continues, discussing the advent of seeds and how they became some of the most important structures in all of nature. In the last section of the introduction, the author outlines what he will be discussing throughout this book: the innovations of seeds that render them the resilient, astounding, and bountiful objects that they are today.
The introductory passage’s first image really caught my attention. The challenging time the author was having trying to break the seed coat really caught my attention, and brought to light the hidden strengths of the lowly seed. A seed is the protective coat, the element of parental protection that’s “as fundamental as a broody hen guarding her clutch of eggs, or a lioness defending her cubs.” As the author mentions, seeds are the final remnant of the “parental instinct” that plants have for their offspring. Personally, the imagery of the quoted line above really brings to light the power of plants, and how integral plants are to the environment. Thor also revealed this idea in a subsequent section, where he pointed out humanity’s perception of wilderness places. We define the wild not by the animals which thrive within it, but by the base plants that colour the surroundings in a particular place. Even though a portion of society tends to have “plant blindness”, our inherent perceptions of the world and the importance of plants in that world, leaches into our vocabulary, hinting at a time when the green world was an even more integral component of our everyday lives.
Spore plants and their allies were touched on next in the readings in question. Thor reviews his excursion to a paleobotany conference, where he and a group of researchers looked at fossils near a coal vein which are dated to the Carboniferous period. These fossil beds are dominated by spore plants, organisms that are tied to warm, wet areas of the globe due to their dependency on water in the propagation of their life cycles. Previously, many researchers in this particular field were convinced that this particular period in the Earth’s history was one of a planet covered in spore plants that thrived in the apparently wetter and warmer environment of the day. Seed plants were originally reported to be a minor player in the ecospheres of the Carboniferous. That is, until the advent of newer studies mediated by the researcher Bill DiMichele, which found vast repositories of seeds – that’s right, seeds- in the mud flats where the spore plants resided. A growing body of evidence points to the fact that seed plants were not minor contenders in the early Earth’s ecology, but rather were large organisms inhabiting the drier high elevation climes of the planet.
Seeds, the little packaged embryo of the plant with a protective coat and a packed lunch, had an adaptive advantage in the aforementioned drier conditions of the early Earth. When the Earth began to dry out in later time periods, the seed plants that were originally isolated to the higher elevations began to out compete the spore plants. With a lack of dependency on water, the realized niche of the seed plants was markedly larger than that of the spore plants. This allowed them to overwhelm the spore plants, resulting in the modern era of seed plants. There was also commentary on seed propagation, Mendelian genetics, and crops.
I really felt that this section was immersive; it let the reader really understand the environment in which the plants of the Carboniferous period resided. “A steamy swamp festooned with huge, mossy-topped trees like something from a Dr. Seuss book, and populated by newt-like amphibians as large as horses.” The quote creates an almost alien image; a place that no person on earth could easily fathom or even understand without actually being there.
The mention of seed plants with regards to how important they were to agriculture, selective breeding, and Mendelian genetics was an intriguing passage that I never really thought about. Without the advent of seeds, aerial pollination, and flowering structures, all of the genetics work set down by Gregor Mendel would have been nigh impossible. The author offers forward the reader an image of a disgruntled priest rifling about in the mud, trying to collect microscopic spores to perform heredity studies. This comedic image brings to light the importance of seeds, and our ability to manipulate them and cross-pollinate between plants selectively. This form of selective breeding is important, as it is the basis on which all crop plants of this day have been created by man.