Pollan, M. 2001 Botany of Desire, xiii-xxv. Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York; Diamond, J. 1999, Guns, Germs, and Steel The Fates of Human Societies, Ch. 7 W.W. Norton & Company, New York
I remember thinking when I was a child and I found wild plants: “Why does this celery not taste like celery?”, “Why are these strawberries so small?”, “Why the hell do the flowers on this wild rosebush pale in comparison to the gigantic horticultural monsters we see at weddings and funerals?”. Not long afterwards, I read about artificial selection in school, and it all became clear after that. Humans love things that are pleasant to their senses. This is what drives us to create variations of living organisms that barely resemble the wild predecessor the came before. The two books discussed in this entry not only describe some of the different artificially selected plants we have “developed”, but when, how, and why they were “developed”. Were humans even the driving force that developed these different varieties, or were the plants creating these varieties to drive the humans to spread their genes?
“Botany of Desire” so far, seems to be a constant clever metaphor that humans are bees collecting the product of plants, and then spreading their genes. Humans have been using plants to their advantage for a very long time, as illustrated by these two books. Not only are plants used by humans as food, but they are also used in our shelter, fuel, medicine/drugs, textiles, and tools (the list goes on). With all of these uses for plants that humans have, comes an increased demand to have them accessible with optimal phenotypes, which allow humans to make the most of the “domesticated” species.
The interactions between plants and people, in my opinion, is a constant developmental product of coevolution between the two parties. Simply put, humans sow seeds in order to produce something that can be used by them, however the plants sowed by the humans are continuously changing their phenotypes to increase the chance that humans will plant their offspring, therefore increasing the individual plant’s fitness. The book, of course, discusses plant cognition and state of awareness. This is where the question that Pollan asks originates: “Who is domesticating whom?” Like him, I believe it’s a bit of both.
The process of natural selection is all about offspring. If an individual cannot produce viable, fertile offspring, then that individual is less fit than others that can. A great example of this case is mentioned in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”: seedless fruit. Since the fruit produces no seed, the plant is unable to reproduce, therefore it is deemed as a less fit individual. This is not so good for the plant, however do humans really care about this? Of course not! People in today’s society just seem to want the optimal product without any “defects” (seeds in this case), created by the natural process of the wild that could inhibit the pleasure of eating the fruit.
I really like how Pollan used four plants that I think all of us can identify with: apple, tulip, marijuana, and the potato. The four plants split the book up into nice, clearly defined chapters, that relate to the different desires humans have that are satisfied by the different plants (apple = sweetness, tulip = beauty, marijuana = intoxication, and potato = control).
A passage that really caught my attention were the second and third paragraphs on page xix of “Botany of Desire”. I really love these paragraphs because of how much I love to study the various products of plants and the processes that create them. The entire passage really captures the reader’s attention, in my opinion, and makes the reader think about how cool plants really are! It is incredible that plants are able to produce such amazing compounds from “water, soil, and sunlight”. My favourite line in the two books so far is the line that precedes these paragraphs: “Plants have travelled all that distance and then some—they’ve just traveled in a different direction”. I love organic chemistry.