Pollan M. 2002. The Botany of Desire. Random House. Toronto, Canada. xxiii – xxv p.
More readings, there’s always more readings for this course. This time, as I sit here in front of my laptop, book in hand and ready to pore over (read as skim), this next set of chapters from Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire” and Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”, I am almost loathe to think of what I could be doing with this time instead of reading these two excerpts. But as I turn to the first page of “The Botany of Desire”, I am pleasantly surprised by this simple line: “What existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any other) garden and the bumblebee’s [role as a pollinator to the flowers surrounding his plot]” (Pollan, XIII).
The question here drew me in to the reading, and I quickly pored over the rest of the introduction. The concept the author reveals probes at a certain cognitive bias that humanity tends to take. We as a species always think human-centrically, with us acting as the subject which acts on the objects of our desire. In this case, Pollan explains this concept using the conventional vernacular surrounding gardening, where “I choose the plants, I pull the weeds, [and] I harvest the crops” (Pollan, XIV). Humanity has become decidedly blinded by our apparent superiority; we no longer consider the fact that we to are subject to the driving forces of nature. As the author plants the potatoes that he apparently “chose” to propagate, could it not be feasible to understand that a coevolutionary phenomenon could also be occurring? That the plant, by the nature of it’s particular collection of traits and attributes, is selecting for humans to plant it? Like the bumblebee, we are moved and modified by evolution (coevolution) to work with plants, and they are moved, changed, by us. It is an unconscious process, as inherent as the bee and the flower selecting for flower colour or the flower selecting for pollinator specificity of the bee. Domestication and selection for certain plants is not so much a function of our human will but also that of the plants becoming better adapted to the environment they reside. Agriculture, humanity’s effort to tame nature and render it malleable to our whims and will, could just as easily be though of as “something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer plants” (Pollan, XXI). We are not separate from the biological processes that drive the living world, we are part of that continuum, and in the following chapters Pollan aims to rekindle our awareness of that fact through the lenses of the sweet apple, the alluring tulip, narcotic cannabis, and the staple potato.
Completely unrelated to the above commentary, I’d like to point out that I loved the comparison of plants to alchemists. “Plants are nature’s alchemists,expert at transforming water, soil and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, let alone manufacture” (Pollan, XIX). The comment brings to light the miraculous abilities that plants possess that we, as lowly humans, do not. We cannot synthesize the building blocks of life from nothing but air and energy. These master chemists are adept at creating these compounds, harnessing them to defend their bodies, seedlings, and space in order to grow and thrive. Alternately, the plants have used their aptitude for alchemy to become more alluring, creating colourful pigments that draw the eye or powerful psychotics that loosen the neural circuitry. It is through these chemical adaptations that plants have made themselves integral to our survival as a human race. Now, through the selection of particular flora (and by extension, their selective powers on us), we have many of the drugs, foods, and materials that were previously unavailable to us, and the plants we use have become some of the most successful organisms on the planet.
Diamond J. 1997. Guns, Germs and Steel: The fates of human societies. Norton. New York, United States. 114-130 p.
“Guns, Germs and Steel” also held my attention better than I anticipated. The chapter in question asks how we as human beings began to domesticate plants? Tt is not as if our nomadic ancestors sat down one day and decided that “you know, that innocuous grass over there would be great to plant so we could eat it”. The process had to start somewhere, and the author nicely summarizes the process from the start of the endeavour; with a great image of human latrines and seeds growing from them.
“Human latrines, like those of arrdvarks, may have been a testing ground for the first unconscious crop breeders” (Diamond, 117). The idea is elegant in its simplicity. As the first humans devoured fruits and seeds that they found favourable, seeds would logically be left in the defecations of our early brethren’s latrines. Later, when the seeds of the plants germinated and flourished in the nutrient rich environ of our refuse, we would reselect their fruits, propagating the cycle over and over. This initial process of selection reveals human’s connection to the selective forces driving organic life. We select the plants that have particular traits that we enjoy, and the plants therefore begin to pressure us to grow more of them. The subsequent movement to an agricultural age accelerated this process. When we selected for particular traits in plants, such as fruit or flesh size, taste, seedlessness, oiliness, or fibre length, (or even the hidden characteristics like germination time, seed coat thickness, reproductive strategy, or dispersal pattern) the plants became more adapted to our lifestyles, and we wanted more of them to feed and clothe ourselves.
Although the author doesn’t touch on this coevolutionary idea, the entire chapter’s review of the domestication of plants does in fact reflect this process. Our unwitting selection for plants that provide us with a balanced diet has caused these plants to become some of the most successful organisms on Earth. Wheat, rice and corn fields flood landscapes where trees once stood tall and majestic on the skyline. Olive orchards and grape vineyards cover vast expanses of land, all due to our hand in selecting these plants and their ability to render us dependent on their nutritive and chemical charms.
The section concludes with a comment on natural selection as seen through Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” This addition within the chapter brings to light the fact that selective processes are not isolated in the ever-ephemeral “wild world” that we as humans try to keep ourselves separate from, but that we are part of that process. The addition of this section concisely concludes the chapter, stating that “the principles of crop development by artificial selection still serve as our most understandable model of the origin of species by natural selection” (Diamond, 130). Agriculture and crop propagation by human hands is as similar to selection as the flower’s colour and the bumblebee, “…beings compelled, as all plants and animals are, to make more of themselves by whatever means trial and error present” (Pollan XXI).