Book – The Botany of Desire

© 2001 Random House
© 2001 Random House

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.

Semper Augustus
Semper Augustus

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.

Details: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, first published 2001 by Random House.  (There’s also a PBS documentary based on the book from 2009, which I think I’ll need to watch)

2 Comment

  1. Nicole says: Reply

    I’m with you on the GMOs. Interesting question: When someone with some authority, like Pollen, get GMOs so wrong, or adopts an attitude that is so anti-science, does it make you question the veracity of everything else they have to say? Does it reduce the amount of respect you have for that person?

    Obviously, everyone is wrong about something, and we shouldn’t judge others too harshly; I would hate to be forever reminded about things I once thought were true, or attitudes I used to have on certain topics. But I often find my opinions of people forever marred by something like this, as if there is a constant asterisk by their names anytime they pop up in my brain. Like, “ImportantPerson says or thinks this very important thought* (*but they believe vaccines cause autism, so..) or something like that. How do you react to things like Pollen’s position on GMOs?

    1. maggie says: Reply

      I’d known about his fairly harsh views on GMOs for a while – I think I’d heard him on NPR years ago and scoffed at someone so simultaneously self-righteous in his own ideas, and also skeptical towards science. So I’d actually put off reading this book for a while. But I did go into it with a grain of salt regarding those GMO views, mostly because I was more interested in the rest of what he had to say. I think with someone like Pollan it’s possible to separate the good ideas from those that are harmful. And while he’s super wrong about GMOs, avoiding them isn’t going to hurt anyone the way that being vocally anti-Vax (or “pro-safe-vaccine”, which is total BS) could affect the health and safety of those in their local communities. So to sum that up: if their illogical/wrong view will harm the community, the person as a whole is to be avoided. If they’re misguided about something that harms no one but themselves…eh.

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