Pollan, M. 2001 Botany of Desire, pg. 3-58, 183-238. Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York
The first chapter of this book that I read for this entry was all about the apple. The chapter starts with the American tale of Johnny Appleseed, a man that travelled from place to place scattering apple seeds wherever he went. The apple – a very highly prized fruit in modern society was also very prized in previous decades: “Sugar was a rarity in eighteenth-century America” (pg. 16). This statement introduces the idea of why we are discussing the apple in the first place. With only the rare occasion of finding a beehive to obtain one of the things that we are geared towards starting at birth (the sense of sweetness), sweeter apples were a welcome crop to Americans, and of course it isn’t as simple as people creating new breeds of apples to satisfy their cravings, it’s the apples themselves that are creating them. Apple seeds naturally contain a small amount of cyanide, possibly to deter predators from destroying the seeds while consuming the fruit. The apple trees continue to make the flesh sweeter and sweeter and the seeds more bitter, in hopes that the predator will eat the fruit and spit out the offspring unharmed. This is yet another example of how plants have enslaved other organisms to spread their genes.
Here I go again talking about plants as if this was a conscious choice rather than a product of natural selection…
Back home on my ranch, I can think of 8 different apple trees that produce edible fruit. They are all of distinguishable types, including Golden Delicious, Macintosh, and Red Delicious, however there are two trees that just don’t match any of the typical variations (that I know of). One of these trees produces very small fruit, yellow in colour, with the brightest blood-coloured crimson streaks I have ever seen on a fruit. The other is a wacky one, producing overly enlarged fruits that outweigh any apple I’ve every held in my hands. The flesh is spongy and bland. The outer waxy coating on the skin is so thick that the apples appear grey when they fully mature, to a size where all of the branches bow at an unnatural curve due to the fruit load. Pollan’s book makes me think of this tree when he mentions that many apple trees planted by seed are very different from their parents. Maybe this bland fruit was a product of one of the random seeds my family planted long long ago, but since the tree is situated at the bottom of the steep hill where the rest of the orchard is located, I think that it was created when an apple from one of the other trees rolled down the hill and spread seeds that germinated into this monster.
In another chapter I read, Pollan discusses the potato, a vegetable that I can recall my father growing only once. Pollan chooses this vegetable for this chapter (control) since he was granted the opportunity to grow one of Monsanto’s genetic misfits: the “NewLeaf” potato. This vegetable is one of the examples of why I used to be a dedicated anti-GMO advocate (my conversion to pro-GMO will not be discussed here). This plant is a nasty one. Who in their right mind would knowingly grow a plant that contains the genes encoded in every cell (most importantly the pollen) to produce a Bt toxin, originally inserted to liquify the insides of the potato’s number one enemy: “the Colorado potato beetle” (pg. 187)? Maybe some people think that this is a good idea. Maybe they would grow and eat these things in their own gardens, however would I? Hell no! I prefer my body’s cells to remain the way they currently are: intact.
As I read through the book, one line really hit it home for me. That was when Pollan quotes the wonderful Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life: ‘”Man does not create variability.” Now he does’ (pg. 196). This really summed up the chapter nicely into one nice statement. It reminds me of what the scientists before us understood and thought to be true, and I can’t help but wonder if that is the way that Darwin preferred our biological world, that is, untouched and unharmed by man. It makes me wonder if he’s constantly rolling in his grave to this day for what we have done: created variability that “favours” us as a species, rather than the planet as a whole. The selfishness of man knows no boundaries.