In this book, Michael Pollan presents the argument that four plants have shaped human evolution to the same extent that humans have shaped those plants’ evolution. In each chapter he discusses a particular plant, beginning with the apple, and how it formed a symbiotic and co-evolutionary relationship with humans. Each plant is said to have exerted a decisive impact on human evolution because it satisfies a basic need and desire for Homo sapiens. For instance, the apple satisfies the human desire for sweetness, and cannabis satisfies the primal instinct of intoxication. The book demonstrates that humans have manipulated plants through agriculture and cultivation, and at the same time, human behavior has been modified by the pursuit of different attributes that plants provide. Much of modern agriculture’s techniques have been developed for the purpose of f domesticating species such as apples and tulips. On the converse side, while Pollan uses the term co-evolution, there are no examples of how human evolution has actually been influenced by plants and changed their path. Undoubtedly, plants are selected to suit human needs, and Homo sapiens benefit greatly from them, but it is difficult to see how we have evolved as a result of the beauty of a tulip, or the sweetness of an apple. Our relationship with plants seems more symbiotic than co-evolutionary in my opinion. I see the relationship as intertwined and reciprocal but not on the evolutionary level perhaps. The strongest argument presented by Pollan is that humans have manipulated plants, and while it may not have been his initial intent, this point is presented very strongly throughout the book: “So the flowers begot us, their greatest admirers. In time human desire entered into the natural history of the flower, and the flower did what it has always done: made itself still more beautiful in the eyes of this animal, folding into its very being even the most improbable of our notions and tropes. Now came roses that resembled aroused nymphs, tulip petals in the shape of daggers, peonies bearing the scent of women. We in turn did our part, multiplying the flowers beyond reason… (Pollan 109, 2001)”
Overall, this book seems more like personal philosophy on growing and gardening rather than a quantitative analysis on plant and human evolution. The author has a lot of firsthand gardening experience, and has grown a variety of crops, including the aforementioned marijuana plant. This has allowed Michael Pollan to think about the natural world and the microcosm of the garden in itself. While it does not explain how a red delicious apple or a beautiful tulip influence human brain evolution, it does analyze why humans grow plants, and how certain beneficial traits are selected for as a result of innate desires. It should not be taken as a concrete study, but rather a personal memoir that is elevated by informal observation, and historical overview. Furthermore, numerous social issues such as the criminalization of cannabis, and the inherent threat of genetically engineered food are presented throughout the book. A naturally occurring pesticide is engineered into the genes of Monsanto’s NewLeaf potatoes, and while this provides a potential solution to hunger, there are countless side effects. On a social scale, Pollan mentions how farmer’s rights are detracted from as a result of bioengineered foods. In this regard, his informal tone allows his opinions to be more accessible, and potentially less radical, particularly when discussing social and political issues of national importance such as these. Overall, I found the book very accessible, and while it may not have answered every question for me, it proved to be an interesting view of the complex, mutualistic relationship between plants and humans. It is undoubtedly reciprocal, and we are in fact part of a larger scheme of nature rather than above it. Pollan does a wonderful job intertwining personal experience, historical data, and highlighting key socioeconomic issues throughout the United States. He shows that our relationship with nature is not merely human-directed artificial selection, but rather symbiotic and interwoven.
Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World. New York: Random House, 2001