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. In "The botany of desire", Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires: sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulop, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind's most basic yearnings. And just as we've benefited from these plants, the plants have also benefited at least as much from their association with us. So who is really domesticating whom?
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.
"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.
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.
“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)
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.
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.
First out is The Apple. Here we get to follow Johnny Appleseed, and Pollan describes how he planted literally millions of apple seeds, even though apples grown from seeds almost invariably end up inedible. (In this case it didn't really matter, as the apples almost exclusively ended up as cider or applejack.) This wild rearrangement of the apple genome did however result in quite a few successful apple varieties that have since been spread all over the world.
Next he talks about the Dutch tulip craze. Not as well covered as in Charles Mackays 'Madness of Crowds', but looking more at the Tulip genome.
He than talks about Cannabis, and how it has evolved. Specifically when it was driven underground in the US in the 1980's there was huge improvement in yield as well as 'farming' practices. Apparently there are a few American strains that now dominate the world market. He puts forth an interesting idea of psychoactive drugs as mutagens for memes, and shows how all cultures (except eskimos) use them in varying amounts.
The last section is about Potato, specifically genetically modified potato, such as Monsanto's 'New Leaf', containing a gene conferring resistance to potato beetle. He goes to visit some professional potato farmers, to see how it works in practice, and in the end comes down quite firmly against industrial agriculture in general. (Although he doesn't suggest any alternative way of feeding the planet...)
Intermeshed in the story is a continuous mapping of everything along the axis of 'Apollonian' vs 'Dionysian', i.e. order vs confusion. An interesting idea, but it gets a bit too much...
The main message is that monoculture is inherently bad, and that wild propagation provides a necessary genetic diversity, whereas monoculture sets the scene for disasters such as the Irish potato famine.