Who’s In Charge? Plants or People?

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

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

Both Botany of Desire, and Guns, Germs, and Steel, are informative books that talk about plants and their interactions with humans. Botany of Desire emphasizes the idea of the plants immense influence on animals, rather than the other way around. Guns, Germs, and Steel uses more of a historical approach in order to convey our relationship with plants over time.

Diamond’s writing style was very informative, yet bland during some points. I found myself really wanting to engage in his ideas, but struggled with his words. Although his chapter took me some time to read due to our differences in literacy preferences, I appreciate his book and all the facts it had to offer. Just as in Triumph of Seeds, I was relived to see some figures and tables in Diamond’s novel.

Diamond delves on the idea of domestication and how ancient species became domesticated and turned into crops. He talks about the reasons why humans chose to domesticate species, and what influenced those decisions such as sweetness, size, fleshiness, fibre length, etc.

Guns, Germs, and Steel explains how many of the crops we have today are due to mutant seeds. Much of the time, wild plants produce fruit and vegetables that are not big enough for us, not sweet enough, not soft enough. But, once in a blue moon a mutant seed may deliver the perfect tasting plant that we happened to stumble upon and cherish the seeds. This would be the first step to domestication. I thought this was very interesting because I never realized how many wild plants were dangerous to us, such as the almond.

Diamond also mentions how humans have spent a lifetime to perfect agriculture and crop growth. It is now a science. He says how universities have departments devoted to the genetics of crops such as apples and grapes, and even wine. Send me there, please!

I found Pollan’s writing very fluent and captivating. His words were mesmerizing and I was thoroughly impressed with his ability to convey his idea so beautifully. He used so many great examples to get his ideas across, which is very helpful to a new botanist. I found myself easily explaining his introduction chapter to my peers(who were very impressed by my new found knowledge). I am very excited to read more of Botany of Desire, as Pollan takes us on a journey using social history, natural history, science, journalism, biography, mythology, philosophy, memoir.

Pollen’s main topic in his introduction is the notion, who is in charge? Plants or People? He has this amazing idea that plants are very conscious in their decisions to make us animals want to pick them and plant them. Just as humans, plants are interested in making copies of itself and allowing its species to be abundant during future generations. I have never thought of it in this light; I was quite blown away by the idea. I recently realized how many aspects of our lives that plants rule, but now thinking that maybe it is because they are the driving force, not us? It was interesting but almost eerie when Pollan said that plants are “the species that have spent the last ten thousand or so years figuring out how best to feed, heal, clothe, intoxicate, and otherwise delight us have made themselves some of nature’s greatest success stories” BOD pg xvi.

Pollan also touches on the topic of domestication of species. We humans often find such beauty and mystery in wild species, yet we forget to marvel at the impressive domesticated species who have somehow managed to lure us into coevolving with them and allowed them to be abundantly populated. Pollan has a great example of this when he says, “the wolf is somehow more impressive to us than the dog” BOD pg xvi. This is so true! People! Get it together!

Another fact I found intriguing was when Pollan mentioned how the domestication of plant species over history can tell us about the people living at that time. The values they cherished, what they desired. He puts it perfectly when he says, “it has something to tell us about that age’s idea of beauty.”BOD pg xvii.

Botany of Desire sparked another notion that humans are so quick to take credit for most complex species. We think we are superior due to our ability to communicate, make tools and our sense of consciousness. Plants are extremely advanced based on their own standards. Pollan explains it as “plants are so unlike people that it’s very difficult for us to appreciate fully their complexity and sophistication”BOD pg xix.

Both Botany of Desire, and Guns, Germs, and Steel were intriguing and eye opening. I greatly look forward to reading more of both novels, and immersing myself in the world of plants and animals, and how we coexist on this planet that we call home.

“For a great many species today “fitness” means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force”

-Botany of Desire, Page xxii

-Anisha Parekh

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