Artificial Selection of Plants & People

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. W. W. Norton & Company: New York.

Pollan, M. 2001. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. Random House: New York.

In an introduction to The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan starts with a premise: perhaps it is not us (humans) who have solely shaped plants over hundreds and thousands of years, but also plants who have acted to shape us. For many people, myself included, this notion is rather strange, as it shatters our belief as a human species of being in control, reducing us to be little more influential than an insect. Further, for many of us, it changes our whole notion of what a plant is. Of course we have a basic understanding that plants are alive, but seldom would we think of a plant as having a voluntary, active role. And, seldom do we consider that what we choose to eat on a daily basis – the seeds and fruits we consume – could possibly be shaping the plants that produce these foods, and likewise shaping our own genes. In other words, we have been programmed to think of ourselves as subjects and  plants as mere objects, but could this be wrong?
Pollan begins his discussion with some very simple, yet vivid, imagery: lazily sowing seeds in the garden, lost in one’s thoughts. Remarking the sounds and smells of nature; in this case, buzzing bees and sweet fruit. I know that I can relate to this image he has conjured. I’ve often thought of the act of planting seeds as almost too easy, intuitive even, once I got past the initial doubts of my own skill. For a short time I agonized over getting the rows straight, making them deep enough but not too deep, and determining exactly how many seeds I should sprinkle. But even when my work was clumsy and the soil was relatively poor, things grew. As simple as that, a seed would sprout into a seedling, and several weeks later I would have dark green spinach, curly kale, or the tiny beginnings of cucumbers, fat, unripened  tomatoes, the flowers of squash, or up-reaching tendrils of pea plants that would eventually gain pods. Perhaps, I speculate now, this is because nature, or plants more specifically, has selected me (or us) to disperse these seeds. In a way, almost no other act could be so natural. Even as we believe we are rarely associated with plants except for when our hands are in the dirt, deliberately spreading seeds & coaxing them to life, I think it is truer that plants are intertwined with us in a way beyond our imaginations, so vital for everything we need and, as Pollan stresses, desire. Aha, yes, we desire the products of plants. Pollan makes the argument that this is because they have readily adapted to offer us our desires (eg. beauty, nutrition, intoxication), so that we can fulfill for them their destiny of reproduction and expansion. I appreciate Pollan’s injection of humor, as he says, “I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its naughty charms in the pages of a seed catalog”, and reinforces this with “the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue were no longer quite so innocent” (p. xv).

Another image that stuck with me is that of the dog and the wolf. Pollan posits that relative to a domestic dog the wolf seems much more “impressive” to humans, but it is the dog that has been able to readily adapt and survive in a world increasingly governed by human activity, by learning “our needs and desires, our emotions and values, all of which it has folded into its genes” (p. xvi-xvii). He also argues that this is quite similar in plants.

Secondly, in Chapter 7 (“How to Make an Almond”) of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, this idea of the way plants have changed in response to human consumption becomes fleshed out. Diamond begins with a description of domestication from a “plant’s point of view”, outlining how seed dispersal and artificial selection probably first began, mostly accidentally, and both in ways that can be readily seen (eg. picking the biggest, juiciest berries) as well as in ways that are more subtle and unconscious; serendipitous, even (eg. picking and eating the pea pods that don’t pop open and release their peas). He ends with a developmental view of ancient cultures and the crops they domesticated as they became more skilled and purposeful in their agricultural endeavors. I found Diamond’s writing to be a bit more matter-of-fact, with less character and plot development than the other creative non-fiction pieces we have been reading thus far (which could be due to starting with the seventh chapter), but that being said, this book read smoothly, easily, and intriguingly. His word choices certainly evoke the senses; I could taste the wild strawberries and blueberries,“oily” olives, and the crunchy, bitter acorns.

Something that I remarked as I pored over the table of “Examples of Early Major Crop Types around the Ancient World” (p. 126-127) that Diamond includes, which displays cereal grains and legumes (pulses) as the predominant and integral food sources for the human diet, is that it differs greatly from the Americanized and fast-food diet of many people in today’s times, in which animal proteins are often viewed as a staple, while legumes (with the exception of a few) are not largely consumed. Cereal grains do remain widely important, although not in the same ways that our ancient ancestors used them. Breads, bagels, cookies, cakes, muffins, pastas, instant oatmeal, and so on, typically consist of highly processed wheat, corn derivatives (ie. high-fructose corn syrup) and many additional additives.

For me this comes back to a familiar question: how have we so much lost touch with our deeply-ingrained, mutual relationship to plants (the organisms largely responsible for feeding and clothing us)? Will we ever get it back?

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