The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan.
Working in his garden one day, Michael Pollan hit pay dirt in the form of an idea: do plants, he wondered, use humans as much as we use them? While the question is not entirely original, the way Pollan examines this complex coevolution by looking at the natural world from the perspective of plants is unique. The result is a fascinating and engaging look at the true nature of domestication.
In making his point, Pollan focuses on the relationship between humans and four specific plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. He uses the history of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) to illustrate how both the apple's sweetness and its role in the production of alcoholic cider made it appealing to settlers moving west, thus greatly expanding the plant's range. He also explains how human manipulation of the plant has weakened it, so that "modern apples require more pesticide than any other food crop." The tulipomania of 17th-century Holland is a backdrop for his examination of the role the tulip's beauty played in wildly influencing human behavior to both the benefit and detriment of the plant (the markings that made the tulip so attractive to the Dutch were actually caused by a virus). His excellent discussion of the potato combines a history of the plant with a prime example of how biotechnology is changing our relationship to nature. As part of his research, Pollan visited the Monsanto company headquarters and planted some of their NewLeaf brand potatoes in his garden--seeds that had been genetically engineered to produce their own insecticide. Though they worked as advertised, he made some startling discoveries, primarily that the NewLeaf plants themselves are registered as a pesticide by the EPA and that federal law prohibits anyone from reaping more than one crop per seed packet. And in a interesting aside, he explains how a global desire for consistently perfect French fries contributes to both damaging monoculture and the genetic engineering necessary to support it.
Pollan has read widely on the subject and elegantly combines literary, historical, philosophical, and scientific references with engaging anecdotes, giving readers much to ponder while weeding their gardens. --Shawn Carkonen
From Publishers Weekly
Erudite, engaging and highly original, journalist Pollan's fascinating account of four everyday plants and their coevolution with human society challenges traditional views about humans and nature. Using the histories of apples, tulips, potatoes and cannabis to illustrate the complex, reciprocal relationship between humans and the natural world, he shows how these species have successfully exploited human desires to flourish. "It makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees," Pollan writes as he seamlessly weaves little-known facts, historical events and even a few amusing personal anecdotes to tell each species' story. For instance, he describes how the apple's sweetness and the appeal of hard cider enticed settlers to plant orchards throughout the American colonies, vastly expanding the plant's range. He evokes the tulip craze of 17th-century Amsterdam, where the flower's beauty led to a frenzy of speculative trading, and explores the intoxicating appeal of marijuana by talking to scientists, perusing literature and even visiting a modern marijuana garden in Amsterdam. Finally, he considers how the potato plant demonstrates man's age-old desire to control nature, leading to modern agribusiness's experiments with biotechnology. Pollan's clear, elegant style enlivens even his most scientific material, and his wide-ranging references and charming manner do much to support his basic contention that man and nature are and will always be "in this boat together." Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Pollan has an epiphany in his garden: what if the plant species humankind has nurtured over the last 10,000 years benefit as much from us as we do from them? Do humans choose to plant potatoes, or do potatoes attract humans like a flower lures a bee? Ablaze with this transformational vision, Pollan intertwines history, anecdote, and revelation as he investigates the connection between four plants that have thrived under human care--apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes--and the four human desires they satisfy in return: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. In the process, he casts new light on the legend of Johnny Appleseed. Holland's mania for tulips serves as a catalyst for a galvanizing discussion of why we wouldn't exist if flowers hadn't evolved. His refreshingly open-minded consideration of marijuana leads to profound reflections on the workings of the brain and the role psychoactive plants have played in the evolution of religion and culture. And, finally, Pollan ponders the Pandora's box of genetic engineering when he plants a patch of NewLeaf, a beetle-killing potato patented by Monsanto. Pollan's dynamic, intelligent, and intrepid parsing of the wondrous dialogue between plants and humans is positively paradigm-altering. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
From Library Journal
Plants are important to us for many reasons. Pollan, an editor and contributor to Harper's and the New York Times Magazine and author of Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, muses on our complex relationships with them, using the examples of the apple, the tulip, the marijuana plant, and the potato. He weaves disparate threads from personal, scientific, literary, historical, and philosophical sources into an intriguing and somehow coherent narrative. Thus, he portrays Johnny Appleseed as an important force in adapting apple trees to a foreign climate but also a Dionysian figure purveying alcohol to settlers; tulips as ideals of beauty that brought about disaster to a Turkish sultan and Dutch investors; marijuana as a much desired drug related to a natural brain chemical that helps us forget as well as a bonanza for scientific cultivators; and the potato, a crop once vilified as un-Christian, as the cause of the Irish famine and finally an example of the dangers of modern chemical-intense, genetically modified agriculture. These essays will appeal to those with a wide range of interests. Recommended for all types of libraries. [For more on the tulip, see Anna Pavord's The Tulip (LJ 3/1/99) and Mike Dash's Tuplipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused (LJ 3/1/00). Ed.] Marit S. Taylor, Auraria Lib., Denver. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
In 1637, one Dutchman paid as much for a single tulip bulb as the going price of a town house in Amsterdam. Three and a half centuries later, Amsterdam is once again the mecca for people who care passionately about one particular plant — thought this time the obsessions revolves around the intoxicating effects of marijuana rather than the visual beauty of the tulip. How could flowers, of all things, become such objects of desire that they can drive men to financial ruin?
In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that the answer lies at the heart of the intimately reciprocal relationship between people and plants. In telling the stories of four familiar plant species that are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, Pollan illustrates how they evolved to satisfy humankinds’s most basic yearnings — and by doing so made themselves indispensable. For, just as we’ve benefited from these plants, the plants, in the grand co-evolutionary scheme that Pollan evokes so brilliantly, have done well by us. The sweetness of apples, for example, induced the early Americans to spread the species, giving the tree a whole new continent in which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom?
Weaving fascinating anecdotes and accessible science into gorgeous prose, Pollan takes us on an absorbing journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature.
From the Back Cover
"I find this book to be inspirational — curiosity and gentleness of spirit forming genius."
— Richard Ford
"Michael Pollan is a sensualist and a wonderful, funny storyteller. He is so engaging that his profound environmental messages are effortlessly communicated. He makes you fall in love with Nature."
— Alice Waters
“This book is as crisp as an October apple, as juicy as an August tomato, as long-awaited as the first flower of spring,. Michael Pollan has conceived a new and powerful understanding of who we are, and how we stand in relation to everything else—and the stories he tells to prove the point make the world seem a richer place.”
— Bill McKibben, author of Long Distance and The End of Nature
“No one else writes about the human environment quite like Michael Pollan: we can be grateful indeed that one of our wittiest writers about nature is also one of our wisest. In The Botany of Desire, Pollan makes a persuasive case that the plants we might be tempted to see as having been most domesticated by humanity are in fact also those that have been most effective in domesticating us. It is a stunning insight, and no one will come away from this book without having their ideas of nature stretched and challenged.”
— William Cronon, editor of Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature
"A fascinating and disturbing account of man's strange relationship with plants and plant science. Michael Pollan inspires one to rethink basic attitudes. Beautifully written, it is as compelling as a detective thriller."
— Penelope Hobhouse, author of On Gardening
"Like Tracy Kidder, Michael Pollan is a writer to immerse in. He's informed and amusing, with a natural sort of voice that spools on inventively beyond expectations into a controlled but productive and intriguing obsessiveness (whether on Johnny Appleseed or marijuana). A fine book."
— Edward Hoagland, author of Compass Points
"Anyone who has ever made personal contact with an apple, spud, tulip, or marijuana bud should read this book and be astonished at the eternal tango of men and plants, choreographed with wit, daring, and humanity by this botanist of desire who knows equally the power of plants and of words."
— Betty Fussell, author of My Kitchen Wars
"Not since Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch have I been held so spellbound by a book. Using only four plants, The Botany of Desire succeeds in illuminating the radiant force of evolution. Remarkable."
— Daniel J. Hinkley, author of The Explorer's Garden
"It is a rare pleasure to read a book of ideas so graceful and witty that it makes you smile—at times even laugh out loud—with delight as it challenges you to rethink important issues."
— Mark Kurlansky, author of The Basque History of the World
About the Author
Michael Pollan is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine as well as a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine. He is the author of two prizewinning books: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education and A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder. Pollan lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.
The sections about cannabis and the potato are best, August 27, 2001
Reviewer: Rex Babiera (see more about me) from Los Angeles, CA United States
Pollan writes about the co-evolution of plants and humans. We think we may be manipulating plants by breeding and selecting for certain traits, but Pollan tries to make the point that these traits that so please humans are part of a very clever evolutionary strategy. Pollan looks at four plants: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. The sections about cannabis and the potato are best, as there is some interesting discussion about the nature of consciousness-altering chemicals and genetic engineering, respectively. In fact, the potato section is a nice companion to Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. Unfortunately, Pollan neither makes convincing arguments nor reveals anything extraordinary about our relationship with these plants. Too often, he digresses with philosophical talk about the difference between the worship of Dionysus and Apollo. If you're wondering what that has to do with plants, that's my point.
Pollan should be named "Pollen", August 18, 2001
Reviewer: John Englisby from Lawrenceville, Georgia United States
What John Chapman (a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed) did with a boatload of seed, Michael Pollan has done with a bookfull of provacative thoughts. He speaks of "meme" as a unit of memorable cultural change - his book takes us there. This is a very fast read, well written well and pulling the reader to the next page, the next section (there are four). It is also bravely written - addressing the "don't look, don't find" attitude that abounds in a society that takes things for granted. You will talk about this book and recommend it to others. I remember Michael Pollan as Michael "Pollen" because of his "seeding" impact to attitude and thought.
Plants Modify Humans, August 8, 2001
Reviewer: Rob Hardy (see more about me) from Columbus, Mississippi USA
Michael Pollan likes bees, and mentions them frequently in _The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World_ (Random House). "A bumblebee would probably... regard himself as a subject in the garden and the bloom he's plundering for its drop of nectar as an object. But we know that this is just a failure of his imagination. The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom." His thesis in his book is that plants have not manipulated just bees, but humans as well in the ten thousand years since agriculture started. If we have a success with a plant, it is just as true to say that the plant is having a success with us. We may have learned plenty, but the plants have learned as well: make a flashier flower, a tastier tuber and those humans will do just what you want. Pollan examines apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes and finds that we are serving them well.
Apples we grow for sweetness, and sweetness surrounds our image of Johnny Appleseed, but Pollan shows that this strange character was not delivering apple orchards to the pioneers as much as he was delivering the alcoholic beverage cider, and incidentally he was making preserves of wild apple trees. Tulips we grow for beauty, and it is a beauty that has driven people wild. Pollan reviews the story of the Tulipomania of seventeenth century Holland, and shows that by what Darwin called "artificial selection," humans chose tulips that looked fancier, and tulips got fancier in order to be chosen. Marijuana we grow for intoxication, and Pollan admires what has happened with it: "_This_ was what the best gardeners of my generation had been doing all these years: they had been underground, perfecting cannabis." The government has boosted the potency of marijuana by forcing growing inside, where even carbon dioxide can be forced into the plants. The strangest and most troubling of the four stories is the potato, which we grow as a staple crop. Pollan got hold of the New Leaf potato from Monsanto, genetically engineered to have a toxin throughout the plant that kills beetles. The problem is that the toxin is behaving differently from natural toxins. Bees take it in pollen to other plants, and we know that monarch butterflies die when they eat milkweed dusted with pollen with the toxin in it; will this happen in the field? Pollan's potatoes grow into fine specimens, needing less worry and care than his other potatoes, but they fail as a harvest; he can't make himself eat them.
Pollan is an avid gardener and writes about these plants, all of which he has himself raised at one time or other, with an enjoyable wit and clarity. There is plenty of science packed into his chapters, as well as amusing personal stories and cautionary tales. Most important, his lesson of how plants are not just objects for our manipulation but are linked in pushing us along as we push them provides a vital evolutionary lesson.
Hope this wakes us all up!, July 31, 2001
Reviewer: feministhomemakers.com from Houston, TX USA
Pollan's book thrilled me with it's history of apples and humans, tulips and humans, and marijuana and humans; it has horrified and stunned me with its history of potatos and humans.
I have never been so repulsed as when I read Pollan's description of what it was like for him to plant Monsanto's NewLeaf potato--their instructions on their bag of seed potatoes! I was truly shocked! They certainly do not feature those instructions in their many TV ads! If people really knew what this corporation was moving toward, they would rebel en mass. Instead, Monsanto fills TV commercials with syrupy ads trying to make biotechnology seem like a lifesaver. They neglect to say how all their food will come with those instructions not to copy (that is, not plant any seed from the new plants that will grow from this one-time authorization to plant under their license) on pain of breaking federal law. Food that can't be copied? Boy, if it makes people mad that they can't share a good computer disk with a friend, the way they can share a book, think how mad people would be if they knew eventually we won't be able to share the seeds of our food with ourselves or anyone else! This is really scary! Only if we all refuse to buy biotech food that contains intellectual property rights will we ever be able to keep alive at least the HOPE of being able to grow our own food year after year from our own seed if we ever need to.
This book opened up my eyes. I knew biotechnology was iffy, and that there were concerns, but the bare, bald, cold financial intent to gain total control over our food supply so that we can never again choose the seeds from the food we eat and grow them on our own if we want, I hadn't realized. With the assistance of our government and intellectual property rights lawyers, their naked insult to our "non-corporate" individual/tribal/indigenous integrity is overwhelming to consider. And to think that the organic farmer is struggling, successfully, amid this horror but without the overwhelming support of all of us! If we were all just to give the organic experience the support it needs, the biotech food industry would surely fail in its attempt to remake our food into such a slavish and grotesque reality.
This was an interesting book I originally bought for my son (the chapter on marijuana I knew he would like) but I happened to read it myself first and was awestruck with its information.
A charming read., July 27, 2001
Reviewer: FinancialNeedsdotcom (see more about me) from USA
What do human's and bee's have in common? Do humans choose to plant potatoes or do potatoes attract humans like a flower lures bees? This engaging and highly original book challenges traditional views about humans and nature. Using the histories of apples, tulips, potatoes and cannabis to illustrate the complex relationships between humans and the natural world, the book shows how these species have successfully exploited human desires to flourish. The book explains that man and nature are and will always be "in this boat together" because humankind's nurturing over the last 10,000 years benefits as much from us as we do from them.
Good Pop Science, July 24, 2001
Reviewer: neilathotep (see more about me) from Santa Clara, CA United States
Although this book deals with come scientific issues, it does so in a very accesible manner. The basic topics presented are how and why certain plants have been domesticated by man. The twist is that the why covers not only the why from the human point of view, but also that of the plants. As the book points out, not all plants are willing to be domesticated (the common example for this is the oak tree), but those that are have generally enjoyed an abundance unknown by other plants.
Four case studies are presented, with each of them illustrating a different reason for man's domestication of plant species, and a particular species that represents this desire. I found the first (Desire: Sweetness;Species: Apple) and last (Desire:Control;Species: Potato) to be the most interesting in the book. The last one in particular raises some important issues and tough questions regarding genetically modified food.
Like candy, sweet without substance., July 23, 2001
Reviewer: ruthalice (see more about me) from Portland, OR USA
Botany of Desire is to good evolutionary biology and natural history writing what Curious George is to Gorillas in the Mist.
The stars Michael Pollan gets are for his lyrical writing, for making me think a little more deeply about a few plants for a couple of hours. He gets no stars for the natural history or for substance. This was an essentially substanceless book. A few funny anecdotes strung together without interior logic or any constancy of theme.
What's his main thesis? He wants us to consider that plants evolved in order to attract our participation in their propogation. Well, that's pretty ho-hum since it's standard evolutionary theory. Of course, we as humans have a greater effect than the bees do, but the selfish plant gene is operating under the same restraints whether its seeking a human or an apian propogator. So, he has no truly novel concept to deliver. Nor is it novel to suggest that plants shaped human evolution. This reciprocity of effect is old news.
Good natural history doesn't have to deliver something new. Many successful natural history books take solid, long-known ideas and put them across to the public in an effective, way. However, Pollan doesn't do that either. In fact, he merely collects a few observations, speculations and his own personal circumperambulations of, about and around a plant and tosses them into the hopper. His chapter on marijuana was so incoherant I began to think it was deliberate - an exemplar of marijuana's effect.
This bricolage of a book is pretty to listen to, but lacking much of value to say. A bon bon, a froth and frosting, lacking any substance. In other words, Pollan doesn't have much to say, but he does say it rather well.
From Louis Zukofsky to Michael Pollan, July 22, 2001
Reviewer: Scott D. Bentley (see more about me) from Oakland, CA United States
This book is stunning! Imagine that the end of the chapter on the apple made me slightly weepy. Mr. Pollan can write! This book is seemingly researched with care. The approach is inventive, the tone often funny, the descriptions lyrical. It seemed to me that Mr. Pollan somewhat loses sight of his thesis in the last chapter on the potato, but the information therein makes up for this slight glitch. Too, at first I struggled with the many personifications that pepper this book, which seem to indicate an anthropocentric assumption at the heart of the text. But in the end, it seems to me that Pollan is arguing for a kind of up-dated Objectivist philospohy, rather like the one developed by the poet Louis Zukofsky, a philosphy that we would as a culture do well to revisit. This is a very compelling book. I intend to teach it in some of my upcoming courses.
A good, but questionable, effort, July 22, 2001
Reviewer: cdnadell (see more about me) from Harrison, New York United States
Pollan's The Botany of Desire is certainly a fascinating book, and I would say that it is also a valuable read, but not for its scientific accuracy or integrity. One must immediately suspect the validity of Pollan's argument (that the plants we have domesticated have taken as much advantage of us as we have of them), for the author is not a scientist but a journalist, and we all know that journalists tend to glorify and exaggerate. Though skeptical throughout, I did thoroughly enjoy this book for the author's fluid writing, good sense of humor, and solid attempts and evolutionary insight.
Pollan claims that that the plants we domesticate have evolved to please our senses and thus encourage us to grow them in vast amounts, in effect, helping them to propagate. At first, this is a very attractive idea, but with further thought it does not hold up. Are people and the plants they grow commercially really in an obligate mutualistic relationship? Well, the plants rely on us, but we could certainly get along without them. Yes, apple trees did first have to get our attention before we would start growing them voluntarily, but we have artificially selected the apples that you and I eat today. Those huge Granny Smiths and Red and Golden Delicious you see at the grocery are not wild type species in the least bit. They are as much a designed piece of technology as is a finely tuned engine, and the orchard in which they grow is not really different from a factory. These domesticated species would never have flourished in a primitive environment, and they are totally defenseless to pests and other threats without the aid of their inventors, us. What difference does this make? We are still producing large numbers of them; isn't that all that counts? Well, you could always say that we are propagating the apples, potatoes, cannabis, whatever, but we produce them on our terms, not theirs. We artificially select the characters we want, and then we clone them by vegetative methods. The plants were not and are not evolving to please us; they are being manipulated to please us.
Now that I have griped, I must return to the positive aspects of this book, for they abound as well. I had not really thought about plants the way Pollan presents in here, and I must thank him for opening my eyes in this respect. Although I don't agree with him, I derived great value in following his thought process about domesticated plants. For this reason, I would recommend this book rather strongly.
Enlightening, July 21, 2001
Reviewer: A reader from Troy, New York USA
"The Botany of Desire" is just the book we need at the moment as we face such difficult issues as genetic engineering, cloning, and stem cell research. With admirable objectivity, Pollan shows the impact of technology on the survival of four plants - the apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato, and the impact also of capitalism on their modern forms. Remarkably, this book was recommended by a priest during last week's sermon. He didn't elaborate, except to call it "fascinating." It is certainly that.