The Botany of Desire

by Michael Pollan

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1899

Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire tells the story of four familiar plants—the apple, the tulip, the marijuana plant, and the potato—and the human desires that link their destinies to our own. Its broader subject is the complex reciprocal relationship between the human and natural worlds, as illustrated through the cultural history of plant domestication and gardening. Pollan writes in his introduction that his book is “as much about the human desires that connect us to those plants as it is about the plants themselves.” These human desires, he asserts, “form a part of natural history the same way the hummingbird’s love of red does, or the ant’s taste for the aphid’s honeydew.” His book is both a social history of plant domestication and a natural history of the human desires these plants evolved to gratify. The question Pollan raises is: Who is really in control? Are humans selecting humanly desirable plant traits, or are these plants “tricking” humans into helping them propagate by enticing them with sweetness, beauty, intoxication, or the illusion of control?

In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan inverts the conventional, human-centered view of the world and looks at plant domestication from the plants’ point of view. What is in it for them? Coevolution involves a complex process of adaptation within a mutually beneficial relationship in which each organism receives something in return for a service rendered. The most familiar example of coevolution is the honeybee and the flower, in which the honeybee receives nutritious pollen and nectar in return for cross-pollinating the flower. Human domestication of plants is a special case of coevolution in which humans have selected and bred certain plants for their nutritional, medicinal, or aesthetic value, and plants have responded by expressing, within the range of their genetic variability, new and humanly desirable traits. Plant domestication could not have occurred, however, without a prior innovation in plant evolution, the emergence of angiosperms, or flowering plants, about one hundred million years ago. Instead of scattering their pollen to the wind or using asexual cloning, these plants evolved showy flowers and seeds to disseminate their genes. With flowering plants, Pollan argues, beauty entered the world and made it possible for plants to attract pollinators and seed dispersers on the basis of color, flower appearance, and the food value of their fruit.

About ten thousand years ago, a second innovation in plant evolution appeared known as the agricultural revolution. A group of edible grasses responded to human selection by evolving larger and more nutritious kernels, which in turn encouraged humans to clear land and plant more of them. The concentrated food value from these annual grasses—wheat, rye, barley, oats, and corn—made it possible for them to be harvested, stored, ground, and used as a reliable food source, transforming humans from hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalists. These grains, in turn, found a reliable means of propagation. The first cities and ancient human civilizations emerged in part because of this dependable annual food surplus, which freed a part of the population to become scribes, priests, warriors, or artists. Charles Darwin referred to the sexual revolution among plants that made this possible as “an abominable mystery,” acknowledging that without flowering plants, human civilization would not be here. When Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species (1859), he began his first chapter with a discussion of the history of “artificial selection,” or plant and animal breeding, showing how in selecting from among the wealth of genetic traits to be passed down to future generations, humans are playing a comparable role to natural selection in nature. Perhaps domesticated plants and animals, Pollan muses, are nature’s “success stories.” Humans and nature are not so very different after all.

Pollan chooses four common domesticated plants as illustrations for his intriguing thesis about plant domestication being a reciprocal relationship—the apple tree, the tulip bulb, the marijuana plant, and the potato tuber—and examines the complex cultural history of each. It may be that by responding to the human desire for sweetness, beauty, intoxication, or, in the case of the genetically modified potato, power over nature, plants trick humans into helping to disseminate their genes. The story of plant domestication is a long, complex, reciprocal relationship. Domesticated plants have responded to artificial selection with a variety of new traits, but from a botanical perspective, there is a natural history of the human imagination, beauty, religion, and perhaps even philosophy in the selection of these plant traits.

Pollan uses a revisionist history of the American folklore figure Johnny Appleseed to demonstrate the remarkable success story of the apple tree, a nonnative species imported by early European colonists to America. The apple spread westward with the frontier settlers thanks to the efforts of John Chapman (1774-1845), a kind of “pagan” American folk hero who carried sacks of apple seeds in a canoe down the Ohio River to the frontier and helped to establish new orchards. Pollan refers to Johnny Appleseed as “an American Dionysus,” and explores the rich complexities in his character, including his Swedenborgian mysticism and his unconventional behavior. His apples were grown not to be eaten as fruits, but primarily for their sweetness and their juice, which naturally ferments into hard (alcoholic) cider, the most popular drink on the frontier. It was the promise of alcohol, not fresh eating apples, that Chapman was bringing to the American frontier. Twenty-first century apple trees are propagated asexually by grafting, but by collecting and distributing apple seeds, Johnny Appleseed was promoting the emergence of new varieties of apples through sexual reproduction. An apple tree grown from seed will not resemble its parent tree, but will express entirely new traits.

The wild apple tree was originally native to a mountainous region of Kazakhstan, where sixty-foot-tall trees still grow on the rugged slopes and produce a wide variety of fruits. Pollan speculates that traders on the Silk Route, which passes through the region, were first attracted to the wild tree for its fruit. By selecting the most edible fruits and discarding the cores, they gradually spread the cultivation of the fruit into the Mediterranean region and Europe. Johnny Appleseed was merely extending the apple tree’s domain into the New World.

The story of the tulip is a fascinating account of beauty and greed that, in the sixteenth century, brought an obscure bulb from the Ottoman Empire to Holland and, for a brief period of time, made it the focus of a speculative financial frenzy that has become the classical economic model for a “financial bubble” and for the “greater fool” theory of speculative pricing. How did a somber Calvinist culture, the wealthiest nation in Europe, temporarily go mad in speculating over flower bulbs? Never before or since has one flower so dominated a nation’s economy as the tulip did in Holland from 1634 to 1637. By the time the speculative bubble had peaked, a single bulb ofSemper Augustus, a delicately feathered red-and-white tulip, sold for ten thousand guilders, as much as a fine town house on the canals of Amsterdam. Dutch merchants even established trading markets called “colleges” at local taverns, where speculators could trade in bulbs like trading in stocks or commodities, by posting prices on a chalkboard that was passed from buyer to seller.

Holland is a flat country largely reclaimed from swamps and marshes, and land is scarce, so the Dutch tend to create miniature, jewel-like gardens in which these prize tulips were the centerpieces. The Dutch were also attracted to the color streaking in solid bulbs, which was caused by a virus that also reduced the size and number of the bulbs, making them more valuable as commodities. At the time, the Dutch were the wealthiest nation in Europe, and tulip speculation may have served both as a conduit for surplus wealth and as an acceptable form of luxury spending for a Calvinist culture.

Pollan employs the theme of the human quest for beauty in the tulip to explore the human psychological conflict between the Apollonian (rationalism, clarity, and order) and the Dionysian (emotional, sensual, ecstatic) drives. For him, the tulip is an Apollonian flower, with its clean, symmetrical lines and lack of scent. The human relationship to nature is ambivalent, Pollan claims, because it is torn between a desire for nature to be tamed and domesticated, and an admiration and even desire for nature’s wild and disorderly side. This dichotomy can be symbolized in terms of the garden and wilderness.

Pollan’s third chapter, on the human desire for intoxication, deals with the cultural history of marijuana cultivation, especially after the criminalization of possession or use of the plant in the United States in the 1980’s forced growers indoors. Through growers’ cross-breeding ofCannabis sativa and Cannabis indica, the resulting hybrid has become much more potent and more tolerant of indoor growing under lights. Pollan’s research takes him back to Amsterdam, this time to interview pot growers about the new hybrid varieties of sinsemilla (unpollinated female flowers) and their higher tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels.

In this chapter, Pollan takes his readers on a “magical mystery tour” of the cultural history of psychoactive plants, pointing out that virtually every culture that could grow them used at least one such substance, among them the peyote cactus, psychedelic mushrooms, the ergot fungus, the fermented grape and barley, and cannabis. However, the question remains as to the purpose of their use, from an evolutionary perspective. Pollan suggests that a natural history of religion would show that “the human experience of the divine has deep roots in psychoactive plants and fungi.” Neuroscience researchers have recently discovered that the brain has its own cannabinoid network and receptors, which may help humans forget some of their pain and misery. The THC in cannabis mimics the actions of the brain’s own cannabinoids. These neurochemicals enable the brain to forget painful memories, which is almost as important as remembering, considering the volume of sensory information absorbed. By suppressing memory, scientists infer, these cannabinoids restore the immediacy of direct experience.

Pollan’s last chapter deals with the ethical and social implications of Monsanto’s genetic engineering of the potato to create a new, patented variety, Newleaf, with genetic resistance to insects. Pollan grew some of these new potatoes in his Connecticut garden, but had reservations about serving them at a town picnic without informing his neighbors. Genetic engineering completely changes the rules of plant domestication, since for the first time humans can create variability, rather than select for it. Genes from different species can be combined in ways that would never occur through sexual reproduction in nature. Humans for the first time have the power to take direct control of evolution, a disconcerting prospect.

The Botany of Desire is a fascinating book in its scope and range of interests. The philosophical range and depth of his work makes Michael Pollan one of the most interesting American gardening writers. He encourages his readers to view gardening as more than a mere pastime, but as an important meeting ground for humans and nature, for the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of human nature. In viewing the history of plant domestication from the plants’ perspective, he broadens and enriches our understanding of the natural world.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (April 15, 2001): 1515.

Library Journal 126 (May 1, 2001): 124.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (June 3, 2001): 13.

The New Yorker 77 (June 11, 2001): 89.

Publishers Weekly 248 (April 9, 2001): 59.

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