The Botany of Desire meets Guns, Germs and Steel

Pollan, M. 2002. Introduction: The Human Bumblebee. pg. xiii-xxv in The Botany of Desire: a plant’s-eye view of the world. Random House, New York, New York.

Pollan remarks that in opening his book ‘The Origin of Species’, rather than introducing his new theory immediately – Darwin tried to relate to his audience with a side subject. In this reading Pollan opens in much the same way, in a way that is easily comprehendible to the reader. He opens with the question that crept into his mind when gardening: “what existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s?” The subsequent discussion revolves around answering this question with Pollan nicely concluding and recapping his argument before moving onto the main body of the book.

In our recent reading ‘In Praise of Plants’, Hallé asserts the worthiness of plants; in ‘The Botany of Desire’, Pollan complains of the inferiority that humans hold to the species. As such this introduction to the book focuses on enlightening the reader to the idea of going beyond viewing our relationship with plants as that of a superior-inferior relationship, where we change them to suit our needs but instead to view it as a “coevolutionary relationship” (pg. xiv), which of course it is. Introducing this idea early and in an easy to follow format is important for Pollan, as it will allow him later to introduce the broader subject, “the complex reciprocal relationship between the human and the natural world” (pg. xvi)

Pollan reminds us “design in nature is but a concentration of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose” (pg. xxi), however I can’t help feeling that when he explains the evolution of plants he creates a sense of freewill – I really enjoyed that, such an example includes, “the species that have spent the last ten thousand or so years figuring out how best to feed, heal, clothe, intoxicate, and otherwise delight us have made themselves some of nature’s greatest success stories” (pg. xvi). The imaginative thought of plants having freewill in artificial selection furthers presents the argument of a reciprocal relationship between plants and humans in a new and powerful light.

‘The Human Bumblebee’ is a thoroughly enjoyable read due to Pollan’s captivating writing and non-argumentative style; it is successful in allowing the reader to see plants “as willing partners in an intimate and reciprocal relationship” (pg. xxv). More importantly though Pollan breaks down the barriers of humans self-subscribed separation from nature, one example of this is the image of humans, ‘as one of the newer bees in Darwin’s garden” (pg. xxv).

 

Diamond, J. 1999. Chapter 7: How to make an almond. pg. 114-130 in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Norton, New York, New York.

‘How To Make An Almond’ is one chapter in the much larger story, ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond. The name of the chapter itself is of interest, as how exactly does one make an almond (or any other plant for that matter)? ‘Make’ might be too strong a word, certainly reengineered, but Diamond does have a point, humans certainly did make the almond into the nut we recognize today – humans made it “useful”, at least in our sense of the word. Starting out as a poisonous nut, Diamond asks the puzzling question “how did certain wild plants get turned into crops?” (pg.114), it must have been unwittingly he notes. Following this line Diamond uses this chapter to set out and enlighten the reader about how earlier people turned “poisonous almonds into safe ones without knowing what they were doing”(pg.115). However, the bigger picture of this chapter stretches far beyond that of the almond in search of how major plant species (as we know them today) became “domesticated” by humans?

Plant domestication has been a long journey; today exists the most productive crops in the world’s history – where one farmer can feed a hundred. However we started in humbler beginnings and Diamond takes us on a journey back through time in search of how we got where we are today. According to Diamond, plant domestication arose due to two factors: the first unconscious thought, the second invisible factors. With unconscious thought people simply choose those plant characteristic that they unconsciously noticed as more useful, “such as fruit size, bitterness, fleshiness, and oiliness, and fiber length” (pg.119). The second factor we owe to varying mutations in plants, such as mutations in seed dispersal, germination inhibitors, and reproduction.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read, not only was it informative, fascinating and humorous, but Diamond has the skill of combining all three, an example being, “it may come as a surprise to learn that plant seeds can resist digestions by your gut and nonetheless germinate out of your feces. But any adventurous readers who are not too squeamish can make the test and prove it for themselves. The seeds of many wild plant species actually must pass through an animal’s gut before they can germinate.” (pg.116).

 

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