The Botany of Desire Part 1






Back cover

A farmer cultivates genetically modified potatoes so that a customer at McDonald’s can enjoy a long golden french fry. A gardener plants tulip bulbs in the autumn and in the spring has a riotous patch of colour to admire. Two simple examples of how humans act on nature to get what we want. Or are they? What if those potatoes and tulips have evolved to gratify certain human desires so that humans will help them multiply? What if, in other words, these plants are using us just as we use them?

In blending history, memoir and superb science writing, Pollan tells the story of four domesticated species – the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato. All four plants are integral to our everyday lives and Pollan demonstrates how each has thrived by satisfying one of humankind’s most basic desires.

Introduction: The Human Bumblebee

The seeds of this book were first planted in my garden – while I was planting seeds, as a matter of fact. Sowing seed is pleasant, desultory, not terribly challenging work; there’s plenty of space left over for thinking about other things while you’re doing it. On this particular May afternoon, I happened to be sowing rows in the neighborhood of a flowering apple tree that was fairly vibrating with bees. And what I found myself thinking about was this: What existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s?

If this sounds like a laughable comparison, consider what it was I was doing in the garden that afternoon: disseminating the genes of one species and not another, in this case a fingerling potato instead of, let’s say, a leek. Gardeners like me tend to think such choices are our sovereign prerogative: in the space of this garden, I tell myself, I alone determine which species will thrive and which will disappear. I’m in charge here, in other words, and behind me stand other humans still more in charge: the long chain of gardeners and botanists, plant breeders, and, these days, genetic engineers who ‘selected,’ ‘developed,’ or ‘bred’ the particular potato that I decided to plant. Even our grammar makes the terms of this relationship perfectly clear: I choose the plants, I pull the weeds, I harvest the crops. We divide the world into subjects and objects, and here in the garden, as in nature generally, we humans are the subjects.

  • The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom.
  • The ancient relationship between bees and flowers is a classical example of what is know as ‘coevolution’.
  • In a coevolutionary bargain like the one struck by the bee and the apple, the two parties act on each other to advance their individual interests but wind up trading favors: food for the bee, transportation for the apple genes.
  • Matters between me and the spud I was planting, I realized, really aren’t much different; we, too, are partners in a coevolutionary relationship, as indeed we have been ever since the birth of agriculture more than ten thousand years ago.
  • The size and taste of the potato have been selected over countless generations – by Incas and Irishmen, even people like me ordering French fries at McDonald’s.
  • The fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower or the potato taking part in the arrangement.
  • All those plants care about is what every being cares about on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself. The flowers and spuds that manage to do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply.
  • Did I choose to plant the potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? In fact both statements are true. I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalogue.
  • Evolution consists of an infinitude of trivial, unconscious events, and in the evolution of the potato my reading of a particular seed catalogue on a particular January evening counts as one of them.
  • That May afternoon, the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive.
  • All these plants, which I’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves.
  • And that’s when I had the idea: What would happen if we looked at the world beyond the garden this way, regarded our place in nature from the same upside-down perspective?
  • This book attempts to do just that, by telling the story of four familiar plants – the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato – and the human desires that link their destinies to our own.
  • Its broader subject is the complex reciprocal relationship between the human and natural world, which I approach from a somewhat unconventional angle: I take seriously the plant’s point of view.
  • The four plants whose stories this book tells are called domesticated species, leaving the erroneous impression that we’re in charge.
  • 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.
  • There are fifty million dogs in America today, only ten thousand wolves. So what does the dog know about getting along in this world that its wild ancestor doesn’t?
  • The big thing the dog has mastered is us: our needs and desires, our emotions and values, all of which it has folded into its genes as part of a sophisticated strategy for survival.
  • We don’t ordinarily give plants as much credit as animals, but the same would be true of the genetic books of the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato.
  • Every Russet Burbank potato holds within it a treatise about our industrial food chain – and our taste for long, perfectly golden French fries. That’s because we have spent the last few thousand years remaking these species through artificial selection.
  • What is much less obvious, at least to us, is that these plants have, at the same time, been going about the business of remaking us.
  • I call this book The Botany of Desire because it is as much about the human desires that connect us to these plants as it is about the plants themselves.
  • 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. I think of them as the human equivalent of nectar.
  • The four desires I explore are sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. These four plants have something important to teach us about these four desires – that is, about what makes us tick.
  • Plant’s are nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil, and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture.
  • While we were nailing down consciousness and learning to walk on two feet, they were, by the same process of natural selection, inventing photosynthesis (the astonishing trick of converting sunlight into food) and perfecting organic chemistry.
  • Even evolution evolves. About ten thousand years ago with the invention of agriculture, a group of angiosperms refined their 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.
  • These plants hit on a remarkably clever strategy: getting us to move and think for them. Edible grasses incited humans to cut down vast forests to make more room for them; plants so compelling, and useful and tasty they would inspire human being to seed, transport, extol, and even write books about them. This is one of those books.
  • For a great many species today, ‘fitness’ means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force. Artificial selection has moved into a world once ruled exclusively by natural selection.
  • Nature’s success stories from now on are probably going to look a lot more like the apple’s than the panda’s or white leopard’s. This is the world in which we, along with Earth’s other creatures, now must make our uncharted way.
  • Each of the chapters that follows takes the form of a journey that either starts out, stops by, or ends up in my garden but along the way ventures far afield, both in space and historical time.
  • I look at these four species through a variety of lenses: social and natural history, science, journalism, biography, mythology, philosophy, and memoir.


Chapter 1: Desire: Sweetness. Plant: The Apple


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