Artificial Selection: People controlling plants or co-evolution?

Pollan, M. 2001. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Randon House Trade Paperbacks, New York, New York.

Micheal Pollan, discusses in his book, “The Botany of Desire,” traits that plants have evolved to satisfy the desires of humans. The four desires that Pollan chose to write on are, “sweetness, broadly defined, in the story of the apple; beauty in the tulip’s; intoxication in the story of cannabis; and control in the story of the potato” as seen on page xvii. The chapters of this book are split accordingly to these four desires. So far, I have only read the introduction titled, “The Human Bumblebee.”

Pollan is a very successful journalist, as told in his bibliography, and this becomes quite noticeable as he starts to tell his story. It is apparent he is a curious thinker and willing to explore new ideas. On page xv he asked himself, “Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potatoes make me do it?” He continues through the introduction of this book to question who is really in control, the plants or the people? Although humans have played a major role in deciding which plants are successful and which ones are not, one could also argue that the plants that are most successful are so because they have evolved to satisfy humans. As he describes on page xxiii, “…in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force…” perhaps the most successful plants are so because of their ability to have evolved to meet human needs, not because humans have cultivated them to meet our needs. So who is in control?

I enjoyed Pollan’s ability to give importance to plants by making the reader believe that plants have been as aware of their evolutionary advances as humans are. For example, on page xix he says, “While we were nailing down consciousness and learning to walk on two feet, they were, by the same process of natural selection, inventing photosynthesis… and perfecting organic chemistry.” I really liked this sentence because it reminds us that plants are no less evolved or complex than us because they can’t think and walk. Plants can do amazing things that humans still cannot replicate in the lab with the efficiency that plants do. On page xv he writes about how the plants that are able to use animals’ desires are the ones that are able to multiply. Again, he is able to make the feel reader as if the plants are using the animals for their own benefit, not the other way around as it is most commonly believed.

So who is in control, the plants or the people? It depends who you ask. Of course humans are going to say that we are the ones that decide which plants thrive and which ones don’t, so we must be. However, Pollan provides the argument in his book that perhaps it is the plants that actually have the upper-hand on us.

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, New York.

Diamond’s, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” is a non-fiction book that describes how (in Chapter 7: How to Make an Almond) agriculture and domestication of crops has affected human history.

The writing style between Diamond and Pollan is quite different. As I read Diamond’s book I felt no connection to him whatsoever, especially since I read this book right after reading Pollan’s book in which I felt like a person was talking to me. This contrasts to Diamond’s book to which I felt like I was reading to myself. This could be due to their differences in occupation. Pollan is a journalist whereas Diamond is a scientist specializing in the area of physiology. As a scientist, I personally know a lot of the writing is meant to be very factual and unbiased which is how I felt “Guns, Germs and Steel” was written. Although the writing is full of very interesting information, I found it more difficult to get into this book compared to “The Botany of Desire.”

For example, I noticed that in both books the chapter on artificial selection in Darwin’s book, “On the Origin of Species” was brought up. Pollan discusses artificial selection on page xxii as, “…the process by which domesticated species come into the world. Darwin using the word artificial not as in fake but as in artifact: a thing reflecting human will. There’s nothing fake about a hybrid rose or a butter pear…” Whereas Diamond discussing the same topic on page 130 sounds like, “His first chapter is instead a lengthy account of how our domesticated plants and animals arose through artificial selection by humans. Rather than discussing the Galapagos Island birds that we usually associate with him…” If I didn’t know which passage was written by a journalist and which was written by a scientist I think I would be able to make a pretty confident guess.

Although both books discussed very similar topics and even brought up the same chapter on artificial selection from Darwin’s book, Pollan’s writing was much more pleasurable to read. I found Diamond’s writing to be too factual and because of that I wasn’t able to connect with the same level of passion and enthusiasm on the topic as I was with Pollan’s book.

Artificial Selection: People controlling plants or co-evolution?

One thought on “Artificial Selection: People controlling plants or co-evolution?

  1. Sam says:

    I liked that you talked about Pollan’s background in the beginning of your blog post, that was really clever I wouldn’t have thought to do that. I also noticed how Pollan personified plants, it made them more relatable and easier to see their evolutionary achievements as different, but equal to those of animals. I liked how you asked the question “So who is in control?” as the last sentence of your introduction and then answered in in the final paragraph before you started to compare Pollan to Diamond it wrapped up your argument in the previous paragraphs nicely. Really great writing.


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