Hanson, T. 2015. The triumph of seeds: How grains, nuts, kernals, pulses & pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history. New York: Basic Books.
To start this post I’d like to share a little bit about myself, which you will understand the relevance of in just a moment:
I have to admit that I felt slightly (okay, incredibly) intimidated when I attended my first Plants and People lecture and realized that I was mostly accompanied by seasoned plant biology students and science students from adjacent disciplines. What had I been thinking signing up for a third year Biology course as a Psychology major who has merely dabbled in vegetable and herb gardening?! Not only has the sole science lab of my university career been identifying rocks, but prior to this course I had not taken a class covering any aspect of plant biology since Science 10 – in French (which is probably why I tend to want to throw an accent on the “e” in meiosis). In my last years of high school I opted only to take Biology 12 (Human Biology), and participated in a 3-month exchange program to Trois Rivieres in lieu of Biology 11 (the kind of course that you just can’t catch up on half-way through the semester), without any idea that one day five years down the road I would be impacted by this decision. So here we are! Good thing I enjoy a challenge ;). And all of this is to say, thank goodness for the gem that is Hanson’s The Triumph of Seeds!
I am not quite sure what I expected as I began to delve in to this book, but after reading only the first chapter I felt that my eyes had been opened to a whole new world – the world of plants! Hanson seems to have humbleness about him, and this allows his to write in a way that comes across as natural and easy to understand, even as the concepts he describes become increasingly complex. In tandem with his personal stories, each new concept builds upon itself and discriminates itself from other concepts in a logical manner, constructing a clearer picture in my mind of what exactly a plant is, how plants reproduce, and how they have evolved in their means of reproduction over millions and millions of years. A good example of this is in his discussion of what the Carboniferous is thought to have looked like; Hanson uses dialogue of Bill DiMichele (as well as opinions of other paleontologists), and rich imagery, to paint this picture:
“It should be called the Coniferous!” he burst out during one of our conversations. “The evidence now really suggests coal was a minor element.”
Once Bill’s team began questioning conventional wisdom, they started seeing compelling signs of a hidden flora, a community of conifers and other seed plants that lived uphill from the swamps. Though it probably only covered all but the wettest places, this forest left almost no trace of itself behind – just the occasional leaves and branches washed down from above.
“There’s a problem with terrestrial plants,” he explained. “They don’t preserve well in place.” (p. 59-60).
I’d also like to comment on Hanson’s depiction of his relationship with his son, Noah. The anecdotes that he provides of Noah make him a relatable human being, and also make the material much more meaningful (and therefore easier to remember) than would be the case with a heavily-worded textbook. I think it is genius how he uses his own experience with parenting to mirror that of a plant caring for its seed. I will not soon forget the metaphor of wrapping a naked child in a “big fluffy towel” as “the same evolutionary drive [that] led one line of gymnosperms to wrap their naked seeds, folding up the underlying leaf to enclose the developing egg” (p. 67).
Another aspect of Hanson’s writing that I admire is the way he is able to tie each new concept or story in to the larger theme that he is trying to get across – the theme that reappears over and over again – that the advent of the seed has been for nature and for humans, completely triumphant, and for scientists, a little bit mysterious.
He describes how seeds are triumphant in their physical characteristics that have slowly evolved over time, giving way to angiosperms. And angiosperms in particular have been pivotal in nourishing the human species, and in the development of agriculture and other technologies that followed: “without the ability to manipulate pollination and save the result as a durable seed, it’s hard to imagine our ancestors ever succeeding in agriculture” (p. 69).
The latter bit of seeds being mysterious, as expressed in the final sentence of Chapter 5, “exactly how a seed can lie dormant for years or even centuries before germinating is a fundamental mystery that scientists are only beginning to understand” (p. 80), plays in to another underlying theme of this book: that there are so many incredible things about nature (whether it be evolution, genetics, and so on) that we are still on the road to understanding. I think this is important in our “Age of Information”, as many people may get the sense that all of the greatest secrets, especially in terms of the natural world, have already been discovered, or that we have already established all of the basic mechanisms that there are to know. In reality, with the world being so diversified and complex, it is unlikely that there is a chance of this happening anytime soon.