The botany of desire : a plant's-eye view of the world

by Michael Pollan

Hardcover, 2001

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Random House, cop. 2001.

Description

An Idaho farmer cultivates Russet Burbank potatoes so that a customer at a McDonald's half a world away can enjoy a long, golden french fry. A gardener plants tulip bulbs in the fall and, come spring, has a riotous patch of color to admire. Two straightforward examples of how humans act on nature to get what we want. Or are they? What if those potatoes and tulips have evolved to gratify certain human desires so that humans will help them multiply? What if, in other words, these plants are using us just as we use them? Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and in the process spreads the flowers' genes far and wide. What Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates in The Botany of Desire is that people and domesticated plant species have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship, a relationship that is just as common and essential to the way nature works. In this utterly original narrative that blends history, memoir, and the best science writing, Pollan tells the story of four domesticated species-the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato-from the point of view of the plants. All four species are deeply woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, and Pollan illustrates how each has evolved a survival strategy based on satisfying one of humankind's most basic desires. The apple gratifies our taste for sweetness; the tulip attracts us with its beauty; marijuana offers intoxication; and the genetically modified potato gives us a sense of control over nature. And just as we've benefited from these plants, the plants, in the grand coevolutionary scheme that Pollan so brilliantly evokes, have done remarkably well by us. Take the apple, for example. In nineteenth-century America, frontier dwellers far from the trading posts of the East lacked a source of sweetness in their diet-and sugar with which to make alcohol. So when a man named John Chapman (a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed) floated down the Ohio River with bushels of apple seeds in his canoe, the settlers seized on the opportunity to grow the fruit on their new land. The pioneers' desire for sweetness was satisfied-and the apple was given a whole new continent on which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom? Weaving fascinating anecdote and accessible science in gorgeous prose, Pollan takes the reader on an absorbing journey through the landscape of botany and desire. It is a journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature. In 1637, one Dutchman paid as much for a single tulip bulb as the going price of a town house in Amsterdam. Three & a half centuries later, Amsterdam is once again the mecca for people who care passionately about one particular plant-though this time the obsession revolves around the intoxicating effects of marijuana rather than the visual beauty of the tulip. How could flowers, of all things, become such objects of desire that they drive men to financial ruin? In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that the answer lies at the heart of the intimately reciprocal relationship between people & plants. In telling the stories of four familiar plant species that are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, Pollan illustrates how they evolved to satisfy humankind's most basic yearnings-& by doing so made themselves indispensable. For, just as we've benefited from these plants, the plants, in the grand co-evolutionary scheme that Pollan evokes so brilliantly, have done well by us. The sweetness of apples, for example, induced the early Americans to spread the species, giving the tree a whole new continent in which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom? Weaving fascinating anecdotes & accessible science into gorgeous prose, Pollan takes us on an absorbing journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature.… (more)

Media reviews

In other words, human desire shapes the plants that then shape human desire. In displaying for us, in his graceful and literate way, the intricacies of the mechanisms involved, Mr. Pollan shines a light on our own nature as well as on our implication in the natural world.
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It's an absorbing subject, and Pollan, like his hero, brings a clutch of quirky talents to the task of exploring it. He has a wide-ranging intellect, an eager grasp of evolutionary biology and a subversive streak that helps him root out some wonderfully counterintuitive points. His prose both shimmers and snaps, and he has a knack for finding perfect quotes in the oddest places (George Eliot is somehow made to speak for the sense-attenuating value of a good high). Best of all, Pollan really loves plants.

User reviews

LibraryThing member seanpmurray
Pollan's mixed salad of history, anecdote, and light science is nutritous brain food. More importantly, it goes down easy. The prose is florid (but never fragrant) and the content never fails to raise an eyebrow or upset a preconceived notion. A quick and worthwhile read.
LibraryThing member fyrefly98
Summary: Domestication is not something we do to plants... or at least, it's not only that. It's also something the plants do to us. Plants that are able to fulfill human desires (or those that can easily be modified to do so) have an advantage over other plants, since human beings will gladly do the work of spreading these plants' genes around the world. Pollan takes four plants, that fulfill four desires, as case studies, and gives us a taste of the history - both natural and cultural - of each: apples (for sweetness), tulips (for beauty), marijuana (for intoxication), and potatoes (for control).

Review: This book was not quite was I was expecting - it was a blend of evolutionary theory, microhistory, and cultural musings, rather than any single one of them straight up - but I enjoyed all of the elements, and found their combination interesting. Pollan makes his evolutionary argument almost exclusively in the introduction, and he presents it thoroughly and very clearly. His argument - that the plants are basically using us, the same way they they use bumblebees and other pollinators, to spread their genes - was simultaneously very clever and not that surprising; I've read a fair bit about the evolution of domestication, but I'd never thought about it from that angle before... but once he pointed it out, I was like "Oh, obviously." His language is elegant and accessible to the layperson, and while he does rarely slip into some teleological language, for the most part he's very scientifically very precise.

I also found the chapters full of history just as fascinating. There's plenty of good trivia, which is one of the reasons I like microhistories so much - for example, the "flames" of color on the bottom of multicolored tulips? Are actually the symptoms of a viral infection. Pollan occasionally leans on his metaphors a little hard; he's particularly taken with the dichotomy between Apollonian order and Dionysian wildness, and how it's embodied in each of the four plants. It's certainly a relevant point for a book on domestication and desire, but he returns to it so often that it starts to get a little wearing. He also engages in some pretty out-there speculation, most of which is interesting and entirely plausible, but which occasionally had me wishing he'd stick a little closer to the facts. There are also a few places where the book is beginning to show its age a little bit: the neurochemistry of the endocannabinoid system is much better understood now than it was a decade ago, the facts on the drug war are almost certainly out of date, and I'd be interested (and maybe a little terrified) to read an update on the current state of genetically modified plants.

Despite these minor troubles, though, I really did enjoy this book. Pollan's science is sound, his history is interesting and well-presented, his language is more lyrical than you might expect from your average non-fiction writer, and this book provided quite a lot of food (hah!) for thought. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Definitely recommended for anyone who likes popular science or microhistories (or both!), or for anyone who has ever wondered why some plants but not others make it into our gardens.
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LibraryThing member Clif
This is an enjoyable book that wanders back and forth through the subjects of botany, history, and literary philosophy. An example of the later is quoted below:

"For look into a flower, and what do you see? Into the very heart of nature's double nature--that is, the contending energies of creation and dissolution, the spring toward complex form and the tidal pull away from it. Apollo and Dionysus were names the Greeks gave to these two faces of nature, and nowhere in nature is their contest as plain or as poignant as it is in the beauty of a flower and its rapid passing. There, the achievement of order against all odds and its blithe abandonment. There, the perfection of art and the blind flux of nature. There, somehow, both transcendence and necessity. Could that be it--right there, in a flower--the meaning of life?"

By the time a reader has finished this book they'll know more about apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes than ever before. And along the way perhaps the reader will have picked up a slightly enhanced understanding the interaction of humans and plant life. And as indicated in the quote above, they will be introduced to the author's possible insight into the meaning of life. Every topic in this book was subjected to the Apollo vs. Dionysus analysis somewhere along the line.

In the section on marijuana the author provides a detailed description of what it means in terms of neurochemistry to be high on marijuana. This information was new to me. I got the impression this subject has not been fully researched and there still remains some speculation in the descriptions. He did make the definitive statement that nobody has ever died from an overdose of THC (active ingredient in marijuana). That certainly cannot be said for alcohol. So why is alcohol legal and marijuana outlawed? They both can pose a danger to society if misused, but one is publicly advertised with the caveat, "Please drink responsibly." The other is a crime to possess or use. Surely there's no rational basis for this difference.

The last section on the potato came down pretty hard on genetically engineered plants. I am not as emotionally opposed to this science as some appear to be. I'm in favor of asking questions and looking for problems that may arise. But I'm willing to eat genetically engineered food in the meantime. I figure that if we wait to be absolutely sure of no adverse consequences before using advances in science, all scientific and technological advances will cease.

My hat is off to Michael Pollan for being able to write an interesting narrative around rather ordinary topics. He has the skills of a talented story teller to combine historical and scientific facts with tales of his own personal adventures and interviews with other people. I had to give the book five stars because, quite frankly, I found it to be an enjoyable and interesting book.… (more)
LibraryThing member edwinbcn
I am no friend of Richard Dawkin's "selfish gene' theory, and therefore have very little sympathy for the idea postulated by Michael Pollan in the opening essay of this book that apples manipulate humans. The essay is a good medium to put forward thought provoking ideas, and provoking ideas can be very interesting, but that does not mean they are necessarily true. Besides, as Pollan adopts this idea from Dawkin,it can hardly be considered a novelty.

Nonetheless, Pollan has a lot to say, and has written four very interesting essays, about four plants, three of which, at least, are all very well known to readers. The histories Pollan chooses to describe in relation to each are very interesting, and stick in the mind, for example the story of Johnny Appleseed and American Frontier history.

In Pollan's description of his first-hand experience planting Monsanto GM potatoes, it is shocking to learn that these spuds come with a licence, almost like software, spelling out in detail what one may and may not do with those potatoes.

I was surprised by the profoundly interesting essay written on marijuana, the longest essay by far, which may betray Pollan's personal interest in this herb.

Very interesting, and very well-written.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
If this man is going to write about plants and desire, he should change his name to Pollen. Seriously, this is a lyrically written and well-thought out meditation on plants and their relationship to humans. Do we domesticate plants or do they domesticate us? Pollan’s thesis is that plants have selected qualities that appeal to humans as their way of propagating their species, with much success. While Pollan calls this “a plant’s-eye vie of the world,” it is more of a biography of certain species and ruminations on his experiences with them. It explores four themes through the stories of four plants: sweetness / apple, beauty / tulip, intoxication / marijuana, and control / potato. Each chapter also tells the story of an historical event related to the plant from interesting perspectives: Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman cultivating apple trees on the American frontier, tulipmania in Holland, the War on Drugs causing an upsurge in underground cannabis cultivation (also in Amsterdam), and comparison and contrast of the Irish potato blight with current day genetic engineering of potatoes. This book is fascinating and well written and certainly thought provoking.

“All these plants, which I’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves.” (p. xv)

“. . . nature is not only to be found ‘out there’; it is also ‘in here,’ in the apple and the potato, in the garden and the kitchen, even in the brain of a man beholding the beauty of a tulip or inhaling the smoke from a burning cannabis flower. My wager is that when we can find nature in these sorts of places as readily as we now find it in the wild, we’ll have traveled a considerable distance toward understanding our place in the world in the fullness of its complexity and ambiguity.” (p. xxiv)

“. . . there are relatively few things in nature whose beauty people haven’t had to invent. Sunrise, the plumage of birds, the human face and form, and flowers . . . Mountains were ugly until just a few centuries ago . . . forests were the “hideous” haunts of Satan until the Romantics rehabilitated them.” (p. 66)

The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins, term of memes (a unit of memorable cultural information). (p. 148)

“. . . forgetting is vastly underrated as a mental operation – indeed, that it is a mental operation, rather than, as I’d always assumed, strictly the breakdown of one . . . forgetting is also one of the most important things healthy brains do, almost as important as remembering. Think how quickly the sheer volume and multitude of sensory information we receive every waking minute would overwhelm our consciousness if we couldn’t quickly forget a great deal more of it than we remember.” (p. 160)

“In addition to energy in the form of carbohydrates, potatoes supplied considerable amounts of protein and vitamins B and C; all that was missing was vitamin A, and that a bit of milk could make up. (So it turns out that mashed potatoes are not only the ultimate comfort food but all a body really needs.) (p. 200-01)

“To shrink the sheer diversity of life, as the grafters and monoculturists and genetic engineers would do, is to shrink evolution’s possibilities, which is to say, the future open to all of us.” (p. 244)
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LibraryThing member micronoclast
I really enjoyed this book, which is essentially the history of three plants, based on Pollan's conceit that these plants are manipulating humans to ensure their continued survival. It's a little like reading John McPhee's book Oranges, but with an agenda of sorts.
LibraryThing member NativeRoses
Just changed my mind -- one of my next books will be The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan. He looks at how humans fill their desire for sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control through domesticated plants such as apples, tulips, pot (cannabis), and potatoes.

What does this have to do with Desiring God?

i haven't read the book yet, but i have heard that Pollan sees Johnny Appleseed (Chapman) as a wild, paradoxical figure who drew no divide between the natural world and the divine, and who transformed the everyday landscape into the mystical and the ecstatic. Pollan compares Chapman to Dionysus (the god who taught the Greeks to make wine) who is the exact opposite of Apollo (the god of clear boundaries, order, and control over nature).

The greeks believed beauty was the offspring of the opposing tendencies of Apollo and Dionysus. Pollan said "the tulip is that rare figure of Apollonian beauty in a horticultural pantheon mainly presided over by Dionysus," and "color breaks . . . can perhaps best be understood as an explosive outbreak of the Dionysian in the too-strict Apollonian world of the tulip -- and the Dutch bourgeoisie."

Pollan traces the evolution of flowers to a time before the Greeks and their gods though. Apparently, flowers and fruits appeared during the Cretaceoous period, and enlisted animals in a coevolutionary contract -- transportation in exchange for nutrition. Beauty became a survival strategy as plants with bigger, more fragrant, brighter blossoms were able to thrive.

Considering that we are part-and-parcel of the natural world, going beyond the book i'm looking forward to thinking about:
* why Jews and Christians historically discouraged devotion to flowers
* Christianity's current acceptance of symbolic flowers
* our juxtaposition of flowers with decadence, death, and/or evil (such as Charles Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal)
* the meaning of "beauty by design" and why symmetry is important
* quotes such as: "mutations that nature would have rejected out of hand in the wild sometimes prove to be brilliant adaptations in an environment shaped by human desire" and "For a flower the path to world domination passes through humanity's ever-shifting ideals of beauty."
* the intersection between our desire for beauty (including God's beauty) with a more corrupt desire for conspicuous display (as seen in flower gardens or the Chinese tradition of bound feet)
* whether or not beauty existed before flowers
* Pollans' statement that "without flowers, we would not be"
* how plants that help us alter our consciousness became sacraments as they answered our human desire for transcendence by disabling our moment-by-moment memory and freeing us to sense things as though for the first time and revel in its wonderment
* while it's understandable that pot is taboo because of its ability to severe links between actions and consequences, unleash inhibitions, and encourage indolence, it's also interesting to consider that it's also opposed to the idea that the self and society stand apart from nature, rather than having transcendence tripped by molecules flowing through the brain, nor that some of our brightest cultural ideas were born from drug use
* whether our attempt to control nature and wilderness are a form of hubris that ultimately cut us off from experiencing God?

Anyway, i'm looking forward to this read.
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LibraryThing member mbowen
michael pollan is the man i want my son to follow. he has singlehandedly for me turned science back into the direction of biology and away from math and technology. if that sounds oxymoronic it is perhaps because we so easily associated math and technology directly with hardware and the entire skew the cold war has had on american science. when i grew up, thinking about science and brains meant thinking about rockets, space, nuclear engergy, electrical, civil and mechanical engineering. the holy grail of understanding stood at the level of maxwells equations and the high priests of all were the theoretical physicists. other scientific minds like watson, crick and darwin were lesser lights whose duty was to inspire elementary-level battle against religious fundamentalists. but there was no way that studying plants could rival studying steel. pollan introduces the possibility for 4H to become more popular than the computer club, the botany of desire is the manifesto.

over the past ten years, computer geeks like me have only stopped to turn our heads toward the natural world for the occasional publication. jared diamond's guns germs and steel has been about as far as most of us have been willing to follow that path. but 'the botany of desire' has ignited a curiousity about the natural world i haven't felt since the first time i followed jacques and his sons out on the calypso. talking with dolphins and chimps has only generated a vocabulary of a few hundred words with a few dozen researchers at most, but pollan illumniates a dialog between plants and humans that goes back dozens of generations in hundreds of ways around the world. distilling it down to tulips, apples, cannibis and potatoes, pollans smoothly scientific and philosophical narrative has generated a kernel of interest that could easily go in dozens of directions. each has gotten me eager to get my hands dirty.

as i look back, i find it is pollan who has singly nabbed me in this regard. i can still recall the fascination i had with his april 1997 article in harper's magazine 'opium made easy'. as well, his recent new york time's magazine article 'this steer's life' grabbed me out of complacency. for me, he has become the james glick of the natural world. yet everything he speaks of is so much more personal. it's easy to speculate about what cellular technology might do, and so much of our admiration of scientific discovery has much to do with futurism. pollan, however uses scientific discipline to investigate what already is, which forces us to apply our minds to problems and opportunities that already exist rather than to the accelleration of anticipation on what might be if only. yes, bluetooth wireless might allow me to do x y and z in tomorrows world, but there are potatoes and apples in the market today which represent an extraordinarily complex mix (or lack thereof) of genetic science. that i can exercise intellectual judgement over this matter today excites me much more that the possibility that i might be a smart consumer tomorrow. even better, that i might become a gardener today and that there is a fight over 'open source' seeds today is far more appealing than parallel matters in software. i am what i think but even more what i eat. pollan give me so many new ways to think about what i eat.

the botany of desire is delightfully entangled in human emotions as the title suggests. there is more than science here to contemplate. there is an entire cognitive history to contemplate. in this regard, pollan becomes a medium after borges as he introduces the reader into the contingent memesphere of plants whose influence changes human destiny - a hidden world suddenly made visible. how is any boy observing a flower bound to act in the flower's interest like a bee? the flower makes us feel. the flower makes us think. the flower makes us pick it. suddenly i understand the conflict i have when my daughter picks the random dandelion to blow its seeds. it's a weed i say, but who can resist it? and in the end i let her blow. i pluck daisys and check the fidelity of my love, i cannot resist looking for the lucky clover. we have coevolved to do so and our present is the the result of the irresistable attractions of humans and plants.

there is much more than an engrossing read here. for me, a world has been offered and i eagerly anticipate engagement. by the way, the bibliography points to multiple dimensions of new knowledge. do not miss this book. it is crucial.
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LibraryThing member raptorrunner
Do plants transform themselves according to their use by humans, or are we transforming *them* ????
LibraryThing member Cygnus555
Outstanding. I have yet to see a Michael Pollan book that isn't endlessly interesting. This was my introduction to Michael... It's a good place to start on your journey of changing the way you see the world and eat.
LibraryThing member Yllom
Do we choose what to plant in our gardens? Or do the plants choose us? Learn about four common plants and the human desires they inspire: the apple and sweetness; the tulip and beauty; marijuana and intoxication; and the potato and control. Pollan weaves an interesting tale with observations from philosophy, natural history, botany, and his own gardening experience.… (more)
LibraryThing member tgraettinger
The first of the Pollan books that I've read, borrowed from a friend. Inspired my interest in heirloom apples, and just planted two varieties this week (with 10 more ordered). Loved it.
LibraryThing member kpasternack02
Changed my perspective on plants, evolution, the food change...fascinating. The last chapter on Desire/Control: The Potato was exceptionally interesting - and fear-inspiring.
LibraryThing member Hera
A truly inspiring book. I particularly liked the section on cannabis growing. I'm not sure his central thesis - that plants shape us to their will through being desirable to humans - can be proven but I thought it was delightful. Of interest to anyone who gardens.
LibraryThing member suziam48
I never laughed so hard -- while learning so much!
LibraryThing member dr_zirk
Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire follows an intriguing premise, and even if he ends up not really developing that premise, his chapters on marijuana and the potato are highly thought-provoking. The earlier chapters on apples and tulips are considerably less interesting, largely because Pollan simply has less to say about those crops that is either original or stimulating. But his ruminations on monoculture (the potato) and mental freedom (marijuana) are well-written, thoroughly engaging, and generally spot-on in their conclusions: the book is a worthy read for the contents of the last two chapters alone.… (more)
LibraryThing member nopressure1
An in-depth look at four plants – apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes, and how these plants have effected humans AND history.
LibraryThing member isetziol
Although slow in a few spots, this is a fine book. It's a fascinating look at our relationship (co-evolution) with four plants: apple, tulip, pot, and potato.
LibraryThing member ChiaraBeth
I LOVED this book; it made me a Michael Pollan fan for life. Through it, he totally convinced me that it is the plants that are curing, tending to, and raising us, rather than the other way around. He gives plants a mind and motivation of their own (mainly that of reproduction) and shatters a couple of misconceptions along the way as well. My personal favorite myth busting? The story of Johnny Appleseed. His true biopic has no place in the shelves of a Disney library...… (more)
LibraryThing member RachelAnne1
I will never look at a potatoe the sam way again...
LibraryThing member rohwyn
It's hard for a book about evolutionary biology to be entertaining, but this one really is. The prose is brilliant, the humor is wry, and you get the impression the author spends a lot of time in his garden, both in frustration and awe.
LibraryThing member ShiraC
I love this book, but I have no idea how to characterize it. It contains a social history of four plants: the apple, the tulip, the potato, and marijuana. The underlying thesis is that each of these plants has shaped US as much as we have shaped them. I used this as a text in my homeschooled daughter's science curriculum and recommend it highly.… (more)
LibraryThing member plenilune
A fascinating read about the interactions between humans and four plants: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. Personally, I most enjoyed the sections about the tulip and the potato, and learned a lot from the section on marijuana on how things have changed in the law even just in my lifetime. Although the history of the apple in America was interesting (I didn't know that it was primarily drunk rather than eaten before prohibition), I felt that it was a bit repetitive; it could've said what it needed to say in about 2/3 as many words. But I am glad I continued through the whole book-- as someone with Irish ancestry, the historical parts of the potato section were especially interesting.… (more)
LibraryThing member GlennBell
I really liked this book. The author provides interesting facts and provides a fresh perspective. He sometimes gets a bit off topic with Johnny Appleseed, but still very interesting. The bit on the potatoe leaves me with a desire to eat more organic food.
LibraryThing member mykl-s
The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan (2002)

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