Pollan, M. (2001). The botany of desire : a plant’s eye view of the world. New York : Random House, c2001. xiii-xxv
Diamond, J. M. (2003). Guns, germs, and steel : the fates of human societies. New York : W.W. Norton, c1999.Chapter 7
The first passage I read was the introduction ‘The Human Bumblebee’ from The Botany of Desire, Pollan uses poetic language that captivates his readers. On the first page he asks a question that takes the whole book to answer, “What existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s?” (xiii) It took me a moment to think about this before continuing to read, I realized humans have had a huge role in determining what plants grow where through agriculture and our daily activities. Then when I continued to read, “The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom.”(xiv) I thought this was a funny way of putting this fact, and made me think maybe the flower has done the same to us, just as he says, “Did I choose to plant these potatoes or did the potato make me do it?.” (xv)
Pollans book discusses four plants that relate to human desires, apples, tulips, potatoes and cannabis, related to sweetness, beauty, control and intoxication. (xviii) I like how he calls plants “nature’s alchemists” (xix), as we were evolving as humans, plants were evolving complex chemical reactions to convert light into food. I really like how Pollan talks from the plants perspective, “A group of angiosperms refined their basic put-the-animals to-work strategy to take advantage of one particular animal that had evolved not only to move freely around the earth, but to think and trade complicated thoughts.”(xx) I love this quote because it puts into perspective how smart it was for plants to evolve to please us because of how much we do for them in return.
I also loved Pollan’s interpretation of evolution, “Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose.”(xi) All of these random mutations that have occurred throughout history, has brought us to a place where plants and people are so compatible it seems as though it was on purpose. Something Pollan discusses that really spoke to me is our disconnect to nature; we think it is something so separate from us when we just neglect to notice it. “It has become much harder, in the past century, to tell where the garden leaves off and pure nature begins.”(xxii) We assume there will always be food available or plant-based materials, when really we have interfered so much with nature that even the weather has been modified. I look forward to reading the rest of this book to become more aware of the relationship we have with plants and the relationship they have with us.
Close to the end of the Pollan’s introduction he starts capitalizing Man and Nature, “These are the stories, the, about Man and Nature.” I think he does this to symbolize how both man and nature play ‘God’, we have created our own destinies by interfering with each other.
In Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel I read chapter 7 ‘How to make an almond’. In this chapter he discusses the domestication of plants, and the ways in which this was either easy or difficult for ancient farmers. Diamond says there are certain traits that people prefer, therefore they became criteria for farmers, such as bitterness (undesirable), size (highest reward for the least energetic expenditure), fleshy or seedy fruit, oily seeds and longer fibres. Only those plants that fit these criteria would move onto the next generation, creating sweeter or larger/ more desirable offspring over the generations. The selection for these more desirable plants would have been done unconsciously, “The cycle of sow/grow/harvest/sow would have selected immediately and unconsciously for the mutants.” (121) The mutants being ones that lack thick seed coats or other inhibitors of germination. He also discusses how we have taken evolution of plants to the opposite of its original function by creating seedless fruits.
I like how Diamond says, “Lettuce was selected for luxuriant leaves at the expense of seeds or fruit; wheat and sunflowers, for seeds at the expense of lease; and squash for fruit at the expense of leaves.” I like this quote because it shows the trade-offs, these plants have underdeveloped parts because we have artificially selected them to have over-developed the parts we desire. I like how Diamond relates back to ancient farmers, where agriculture and artificial selection originates. He talks about the stages these ancient farmers went through to develop the “ancient staples” (128) that are still staples today.
Pollan and Diamond discuss similar topics, such as how the immobility of plants has led them to evolve different tactics of dispersal, protection and sex. Pollan on page xx says “The same great existential fact of plant life explains why plants make chemicals to both repel and attract other species: immobility.” and Diamond on page 115 says “Young animals disperse by walking or flying, but plants don’t have that option so they must somehow hitchhike.” Although they touch on similar topics, they both have a different way of approaching these subjects. I think The Botany of Desire was easier and more enjoyable to read because Pollan has a more poetic and humorous way of delivering information from the plants perspective aswell as ours. Whereas Diamond has a more factual way of writing, discussing historical aspects and from more of a human perspective. Overall I did enjoy the content and writing style of The Botany of Desire more than Guns, Germs and Steel.