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...
(The entire section is 1899 words.)