I love science – biology in particular. I fell in love with it in high school in my AP Biology class, and then despite the fact that I had decided on a non-scientific career my sophomore year, I continued on in my major all through school, and earned myself a BS in Biology. Which I’m pretty proud of. There aren’t a lot of librarians out there with science degrees, so I’m pretty special. 🙂
Because of my science background and continued love for the field, I like to make sure that some of my reading is in the science/biology arena, and that can range from Packing for Mars to others in that realm. One book I’d had on my list for a while was “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan. In a recent wait for a book to come up on my Overdrive “available” list, I searched through the audiobooks on my wish list until I found one that seemed interesting. It’s always nice to break up a spate of fiction reading with some non-fiction, so this is where I ended up.
Pollan’s book looks at the way humans and plants interact. Not just that, but in the ways that plants have used and manipulated us over the years. How they’ve enhanced and evolved themselves over the years and decades in order to pursue the one goal that all life on this planet shares: to pass on their genes to the next generation. He does this by exploring four different aspects that plants have which have manipulated us over the years. They are sweetness (with the exemplar being the apple), beauty (the tulip), intoxication (marijuana), and control (potato).
I love so many things that I learned. Like how the apples that Johnny Appleseed was growing in the midwest in the early part of the 19th century were more likely for cider than for eating, and how the eating of apples didn’t become “a thing” until the temperance movement and eventually prohibition nearly broke the apple industry since they had focused so much of their production on (hard) cider apples than eating apples.
How tulips don’t directly pass on the displayed physical traits to the next generation, so the beautiful breeds and styles that we see in paintings from the era of Tulip Mania in the Netherlands may never actually be seen in person again. How as quickly as that mania started, it came to a crashing halt even quicker.
How yes, the marijuana that the kids are smoking these days is stronger than it was for the hippies, and how the plants that you see growing in people’s basements under grow lights have been specifically bred to be small and compact, leafy, and to be extra potent. If you’re going to have a limited space for growing, you ought to get the most bang for your buck. As a side note: I feel like I now know more than I should about marijuana, considering I’m not allowed as a government employee to partake.
And finally, the bit that drove me a little crazy – potatoes and control. This book was written in 2001. This was the beginning of public awareness about genetically modified organisms, and Michael Pollan is ridiculous about it. He grows a small crop of GM potatoes from seed provided to him by Monsanto. And then proceeds to not eat them because he thinks … what? I don’t even know. Listen, I’m kind of a scientist, but I’m more of a science librarian, and basic research says that GMOs are safe. If get to the end of this book and are suddenly concerned about eating food whose genome has been modified, then you haven’t been paying attention at all to the rest of this book. We as humans have been modifying the genomes of species FOR MILLENNIA. Corn didn’t used to look like corn. Wheat didn’t look like wheat. Nearly every major crop that we have continued to use over the centuries has been changed to be something that we can use more efficiently. And not only plants but animals. Selective breeding is just genetic modification over the long term.
In spite of my frustration with the GMO-fear-mongering that seems to hang over the last quarter of the book like a cloud, I did enjoy myself reading it. There’s a lot of fascinating historical context for how humans and plants have interacted over the years. Definitely an interesting read…but one that at this point in the future (15 years later) may need to be taken with at least a grain of salt.