Vegetation Domestication

Diamond, J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies. 1999. New York (NY). Norton Paperback. p. 114-130.

Pollan, M. The Botany of Desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. 2002. Toronto (ON). Random House Trade Paperbacks. p.xiii-xxv.

This week’s freewrite is based on parts of two books that were written with the central idea of domestication of plants in mind. Initially, I didn’t think too much into how much plants have changed over time. However, after reading these two books, I can no longer look at my afternoon sandwich the same way. The wheat in my bread was selected for its useful seeds instead of its leaves, while the lettuce in between the bread was chosen because of its deliciously fresh leaves while its seeds were dismissed as negligable. While eating my well-selected sandwich, I find myself analyzing the introduction of “The Botany of Desire” and how Michael Pollan suggests that not only did humans choose to sow plants based on their desires, but also that plants had a part in making humans select them to sow. This intriguing concept was further embedded in my mind while considering chapter seven of Jared Diamond’s book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, which similarly proposed that plants have evolved and have been changed based on human needs and the plants inconspicuous dependance on animals.

Having eaten plants my whole life, I found myself experiencing feelings of disappointment for never having considered how much of an impact humans and animals alike have had on the plants we eat today. I’ve always known that modern humans selected for the largest seeds and the most beautiful flowers, but I never considered how our ancestors would have had such an impact as to changing toxic plants into some of the most commonly eaten nuts today. I guess it just shows how small of a world I think I live in. These two books were eye-opening for me, as it seems all the plant inspired books I have been reading are. Michael Pollan states that we think of ourselves as the sole reason for the domestification of plants, however, this is untrue. It is not only the humans that have domesticated the plants, but also the plants that have domesticated us. “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.” (page xvi, BOD) Jared Diamond cemented the same idea that plants used us as a means of doing what they were unable to do themselves. Plants manipulated us into doing their dirty work by attracting us to them. Initially, this was a hard concept for me to grasp as I could not imagine a plant staying up all night devising a strategy for tricking me into dispersing its seeds. However, Jared Diamond used a simple yet elegant example that allowed me to understand immediately. “When strawberry seeds are still young and not yet ready to be planted, the surrounding fruit is green, sour, and hard. When the seeds finally mature, the berries turn red, sweet, and tender.” (page 116, GGS) Although natural selection still played the major role in these resulting changes, plants and animals both contributed to the flourishing success of plants today.

I personally enjoyed both these books, however, I found myself more intrigued by the writing of Michael Pollan. This may have to do with the fact that I read the introduction of his book versus chapter seven of Jared Diamond’s book. What captivated me in “The Botany of Desire” was the beautiful descriptions that consumed all the senses. “Likewise, every Russet Burbank potato hold within it a treatise about our industrial food chain- and our taste for long, perfectly golden french fries.” (page xvii, BOD) How can you read that sentence and not have your mouth watering for delicious fries? Personally, I was ready to put down my book, drive to the nearest fast food restaurant and continue reading with my book in one hand and a handful of fries in the other. “My premise is that these human desires form a part of natural history in the same way the hummingbird’s love of red does, or the ant’s taste for the aphid’s honeydew.”(page xvii, BOD) “Through the process of coevolution human ideas find their way into natural facts: the contours of a tulip’s petals, say, or the precise tang of a Jonagold apple.” (page xviii, BOD) Although I can’t explain why, these two sentences had me feeling that particularly happy and romantic feeling when you see a perfectly red rose. Similar to his descriptions, I was also very intrigued by the comparisons Michael Pollan used. “For a long time now, the Man in these stories has gazed at Nature across a gulf of awe or mystery or shame. Even when the tenor of these narratives changes, as it has over time, the gulf remains.” (page xxv, BOD)

Although I found “The Botany of Desire” to be very interesting, I was slightly disappointed with the lack of dialogue. Although Michael Pollan did bring in characters such as Charles Darwin and Johnny Appleseed, there was no dialogue which I had found myself really enjoying from previous books. Michael Pollan also touches on the negative impact of humans on the natural world and although it is an important and crucial fact of our lives, I found myself feeling guilty for thinking we are the greatest species and remorseful for the effects we have had on Earth. “Yet plants have been evolving much, much longer that we have, have been inventing new strategies for survival and perfecting their designs for so long that to say that one of us is more ‘advanced’ really depends on how you define that term, on what ‘advances’ you value.” (page xix, BOD) “We are shaping the evolutionary weather in ways Darwin could never have foreseen; indeed, even the weather itself is in some sense an artifact now, its temperatures and storms the reflection of our actions.” (page xxii, BOD)

The aspect I enjoyed most about “Guns, Germs, and Steels” was the way it forced me to question things I would have never thought about before. “For example, how did they turn poisonous almonds into safe ones without knowing what they were doing?” (page 115, GGS) This sentence caused me to stop reading and think about how our ancestors would have known that a plant was edible or toxic without having someone sacrifice themselves for the group. I had previously read the novel “The Clan of the Cave Bear” written by Jean M. Auel which described the story of how cave-women would test plants by nibbling a small amount and waiting to see if the vegetation had an bitter taste or tingling feeling in their mouths before spitting the plant out. Another concept Jared Diamond mentioned that made me stop and think was the idea of seedless fruit. Although he later explained how we obtain such fruit, I was completely and utterly confused as to how humans would have ever gone about finding a seedless fruit.

Throughout the introduction in “The Botany of Desire” and chapter seven of “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, I found myself agreeing with the concept that not only did humans select for the most desirable traits in plants, but also the plants domesticated us to provide a means of dispersion and variability. It is well known that the traits that allow a species to produce more offspring are the traits and characteristics that will be passed down to the next generation and so on. The domestication of plants today started when our ancestors chose to eat and sow the biggest, most delicious plants that appealed to their desires. The domestication of plants was not only selected for the visible traits, explains Jared Diamond, but also non-visible traits that make those plants, and their seeds and fruits, more accessible. It is not only the animals that select the most desirable plants, but also the plants that select for the desires of the animals.

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