Read The botany of desire: a plant's-eye view of the world Online

Authors: Michael Pollan

Tags: #General, #Life Sciences, #SCIENCE, #History, #Horticulture, #Plants, #Ecology, #Gardening, #Nature, #Human-plant relationships, #Marijuana, #Life Sciences - Botany, #Cannabis, #Potatoes, #Plants - General, #Botany, #Apples, #Tulips, #Mathematics

The botany of desire: a plant's-eye view of the world

BOOK: The botany of desire: a plant's-eye view of the world
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Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder




Copyright © 2001 by Michael Pollan


All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.


and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Pollan, Michael.

The botany of desire : a plant’s-eye view of the world / Michael Pollan.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references (p. ).

eISBN 1-588-36008-3


1. Human-plant relationships. I. Title.

QK46.5.H85 P66    2001    306.4’5—dc21 00-066479

Random House website address:


Book design by J. K. Lambert

For my parents, who never doubted (or, if they did, never let it show); and my grandfather, with gratitude


I had a great deal of help in the making of this book at every step of the way. My thanks first to all the people who gave so generously of their time and knowledge while I was reporting and researching the project; their names appear in the Sources.

Ever since I started writing books a dozen or so years ago, I’ve had the privilege and even greater pleasure of working with Ann Godoff; indeed, by now I can’t imagine writing a book without the net of her wisdom, trust, and friendship. My literary agent, Amanda Urban, has also been there since the beginning. She knew before anyone else that
The Botany of Desire
was the book I should be writing, and, straight through, her judgment on all matters has been indispensable.

Mark Edmundson has also had a hand in all three of my books, though for no other reason but friendship. He read the manuscript with great care and intelligence, parts of it more than once, and every page he touched he made better. Just as important, though, have been the sympathetic ear and priceless reading suggestions he offered along the way. I’ve been incredibly fortunate, too, to have the gifted editorial eye of Paul Tough, who has gracefully morphed from student to teacher; his suggestions were invaluable. I also owe a large debt of gratitude to Mardi Mellon, at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who generously brought her scientific eye to bear on the manuscript, saving me from all manner of embarrassment; whatever errors remain, however, are mine alone.

My initial forays into the worlds of marijuana-growing and genetically engineered potatoes were sponsored by
The New York Times Magazine
; heartfelt thanks to Gerry Marzorati, Adam Moss, and Jack Rosenthal for their unstinting support and encouragement, as well as to Stephen Mihm for his stellar research assistance. Carol Schneider, Robbin Schiff, Benjamin Dreyer, Alexa Cassanos, and Kate Niedzwiecki have been invaluable allies, as are, always, Jack Hitt, Mark Danner, and Allan Gurganus. Thanks also to Isaac Pollan for his encouragement and, on the bad days, his understanding and comfort.

And finally, to Judith, who really comes first, because without her eye, ear, wisdom, support, patience, encouragement, discernment, foresight, confidence, companionship, judgment, clarity, humor, and love, none of this would ever have gotten done.


Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut
October 2000


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.

But that afternoon in the garden I found myself wondering: What if that grammar is all wrong? What if it’s really nothing more than a self-serving conceit? A bumblebee would probably also 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.

The ancient relationship between bees and flowers is a classic example of what is known as “coevolution.” In a coevolutionary bargain like the one struck by the bee and the apple tree, 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. Consciousness needn’t enter into it on either side, and the traditional distinction between subject and object is meaningless.

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. Like the apple blossom, whose form and scent have been selected by bees over countless generations, the size and taste of the potato have been selected over countless generations by us—by Incas and Irishmen, even by people like me ordering french fries at McDonald’s. Bees and humans alike have their criteria for selection: symmetry and sweetness in the case of the bee; heft and nutritional value in the case of the potato-eating human. 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 this arrangement. All those plants care about is what every being cares about on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself. Through trial and error these plant species have found that the best way to do that is to induce animals—bees or people, it hardly matters—to spread their genes. How? By playing on the animals’ desires, conscious and otherwise. The flowers and spuds that manage to do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply.

So the question arose in my mind that day: Did I choose to plant these 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 catalog. I think it was the tasty-sounding “buttery yellow flesh” that did it. This was a trivial, semiconscious event; it never occurred to me that our catalog encounter was of any evolutionary consequence whatsoever. Yet evolution consists of an infinitude of trivial, unconscious events, and in the evolution of the potato my reading of a particular seed catalog 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, subjects, 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 what we call “domesticated species,” a rather one-sided term—that grammar again—that leaves the erroneous impression that we’re in charge. We automatically think of domestication as something we do to other species, but it makes just as much sense to think of it as something certain plants and animals have done to us, a clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests. 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.

The surprising thing is, we don’t ordinarily regard species like the cow and the potato, the tulip and the dog, as nature’s more extraordinary creatures. Domesticated species don’t command our respect the way their wild cousins often do. Evolution may reward interdependence, but our thinking selves continue to prize self-reliance. The wolf is somehow more impressive to us than the dog.

Yet 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 knows about—the subject it has mastered in the ten thousand years it has been evolving at our side—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. If you could read the genome of the dog like a book, you would learn a great deal about who we are and what makes us tick. 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. We could read volumes about ourselves in their pages, in the ingenious sets of instructions they’ve developed for turning people into bees.

After ten thousand years of coevolution, their genes are rich archives of cultural as well as natural information. The DNA of that tulip there, the ivory one with the petals attenuated like sabers, contains detailed instructions on how best to catch the eye not of a bee but of an Ottoman Turk; it has something to tell us about that age’s idea of beauty. Likewise, 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, transforming a tiny, toxic root node into a fat, nourishing potato and a short, unprepossessing wildflower into a tall, ravishing tulip. 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. So while the book explores the social history of these plants, weaving them into our story, it is at the same time a natural history of the four human desires these plants evolved to stir and gratify.

I’m interested not only in how the potato altered the course of European history or how cannabis helped fire the romantic revolution in the West, but also in the way notions in the minds of men and women transformed the appearance, taste, and mental effects of these plants. Through the process of coevolution human ideas find their way into natural facts: the contours of a tulip’s petals, say, or the precise tang of a Jonagold apple.

The four desires I explore here are
, broadly defined, in the story of the apple;
in the tulip’s;
in the story of cannabis; and
in the story of the potato—specifically, in the story of a genetically altered potato I grew in my garden to see where the ancient arts of domestication may now be headed. These four plants have something important to teach us about these four desires—that is, about what makes us tick. For instance, I don’t think we can begin to understand beauty’s gravitational pull without first understanding the flower, since it was the flower that first ushered the idea of beauty into the world the moment, long ago, when floral attraction emerged as an evolutionary strategy. By the same token, intoxication is a human desire we might never have cultivated had it not been for a handful of plants that manage to manufacture chemicals with the precise molecular key needed to unlock the mechanisms in our brain governing pleasure, memory, and maybe even transcendence.

Domestication is about a whole lot more than fat tubers and docile sheep; the offspring of the ancient marriage of plants and people are far stranger and more marvelous than we realize. There is a natural history of the human imagination, of beauty, religion, and possibly philosophy too. One of my aims in this book is to shed some light on the part in that history these ordinary plants have played.

• • •

Plants are so unlike people that it’s very difficult for us to appreciate fully their complexity and sophistication. Yet plants have been evolving much, much longer than we have, have been inventing new strategies for survival and perfecting their designs for so long that to say that one of us is the more “advanced” really depends on how you define that term, on what “advances” you value. Naturally we value abilities such as consciousness, toolmaking, and language, if only because these have been the destinations of our own evolutionary journey thus far. Plants have traveled all that distance and then some—they’ve just traveled in a different direction.

Plants 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. As it turns out, many of the plants’ discoveries in chemistry and physics have served us well. From plants come chemical compounds that nourish and heal and poison and delight the senses, others that rouse and put to sleep and intoxicate, and a few with the astounding power to alter consciousness—even to plant dreams in the brains of awake humans.

Why would they go to all this trouble? Why should plants bother to devise the recipes for so many complex molecules and then expend the energy needed to manufacture them? One important reason is defense. A great many of the chemicals plants produce are designed, by natural selection, to compel other creatures to leave them alone: deadly poisons, foul flavors, toxins to confound the minds of predators. But many other of the substances plants make have exactly the opposite effect, drawing other creatures to them by stirring and gratifying their desires.

The same great existential fact of plant life explains why plants make chemicals to both repel and attract other species: immobility. The one big thing plants can’t do is move, or, to be more precise, locomote. Plants can’t escape the creatures that prey on them; they also can’t change location or extend their range without help.

And so about a hundred million years ago plants stumbled on a way—actually a few thousand different ways—of getting animals to carry them, and their genes, here and there. This was the evolutionary watershed associated with the advent of the angiosperms, an extraordinary new class of plants that made showy flowers and formed large seeds that other species were induced to disseminate. Plants began evolving burrs that attach to animal fur like Velcro, flowers that seduce honeybees in order to powder their thighs with pollen, and acorns that squirrels obligingly taxi from one forest to another, bury, and then, just often enough, forget to eat.

Even evolution evolves. About ten thousand years ago the world witnessed a second flowering of plant diversity that we would come to call, somewhat self-centeredly, “the invention of agriculture.” A group of angiosperms refined their basic 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. Now came edible grasses (such as wheat and corn) that incited humans to cut down vast forests to make more room for them; flowers whose beauty would transfix whole cultures; plants so compelling and useful and tasty they would inspire human beings to seed, transport, extol, and even write books about them. This is one of those books.

So am I suggesting that the plants made me do it? Only in the sense that the flower “makes” the bee pay it a visit. Evolution doesn’t depend on will or intention to work; it is, almost by definition, an unconscious, unwilled process. All it requires are beings compelled, as all plants and animals are, to make more of themselves by whatever means trial and error present. Sometimes an adaptive trait is so clever it appears purposeful: the ant that “cultivates” its own gardens of edible fungus, for instance, or the pitcher plant that “convinces” a fly it’s a piece of rotting meat. But such traits are clever only in retrospect. Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose.

BOOK: The botany of desire: a plant's-eye view of the world
12.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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