Hanson T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. New York (NY): Basic Books. 277 p.
The next book my Plants and People course looked at was The Triumph of Seeds by Thor Hanson. Although only a few chapters were assigned, I was able to discover a whole lot about seeds through the remarkable eyes of Thor himself.
Writing in first person, Thor unravels his primary thoughts about seeds in the introduction as he explains how vitally important they are to humans, and yet how we have overlooked their significance throughout history. Thor uses a quote by George Bernard Shaw to perfectly capture the marvelous power of the seed:
“Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You bury it in the ground, and it explodes into a giant oak! Bury a sheep, and nothing happens but decay.” (Hanson xix).
Thor goes on to explain that this ‘fierce energy’ encapsulated in a seed is not yet thoroughly understood (Hanson 2015). He explains the value of seeds through impressive scientific notions, such as that humans may not have evolved without seeds, or how seed plants now dominate our current flora. For those that do not have a background in botany, Thor lists the many attributes of seeds (such as nourishment, defense mechanisms, and endurance) plain and clear. The sheer importance of seeds thus begins to dawn on the reader.
Throughout the book, Thor attempts to answer the questions surrounding the success of seeds on earth and their influence on humanity, and does so in a charming and witty way through his own personal experiences and reflections (Hanson 2015). For example, he describes his first major seed encounter with that of the almendro (almond) tree while on a graduate study in Central America. Although he studied the seed for quite a while, he noted that he still did not understand seeds in a meaningful way, and therefore consults leading seed biologists, Carol and Jerry Baskin. These two experts are the first of many whom Thor confers with, which adds faces to the scientists shaping this story of seeds. For those of us new to the world of seeds, Carol cutely states that “a seed is a baby plant, in a box, with its lunch” (Hanson 9), and that “some of those babies have eaten all their lunch, some have eaten part of it, and some haven’t even taken a bite” (Hanson 10). The reader goes on to learn much about the beginning stages of seed germination, with the example of the avocado seed. The way Thor explains the cotyledons or the way roots grow during germination by imbibing water, and even his descriptions of his own germinating seeds in the Raccoon Shack, help the reader to follow this magical process in a more informal and effortless way.
Personally, I found the fourth chapter (‘What the Spike Moss Knows’), the most intriguing of the three chapters I read (Hanson 2015). Thor attempts to discern when exactly seed plants began to dominate, or “the moment of triumph for the seeds” (Hanson 56), by visiting an archaeological dig in New Mexico with Bill DiMichele, a Smithsonian paleontologist. When I glanced at Thor’s picture of someone holding up a big fossil, I was amazed at what the paleontologists could infer from the vague imprint. It was also kind of shocking that Thor was with this group of people who believed in an entirely different hypothesis as to how the seed plants exploded in dominance over the spore plants. These people were looking for evidence to support a major theory, one that might also relate to our understanding of animals, bacteria, and other environmental changes in that time period. This part of the book also illustrated how much we do not yet know of the evolution of plants by highlighting the problems associated with the fossil record, such as preservation bias. Or another realization of how little is known of seed fossils occurs when Thor asks Bill what plant is on a fossil and Bill replies, “you’re best off just calling them winged seeds” (Hanson 60). But with the new knowledge he gathers from the paleontologists, Thor begins to better formulate the prevalence of seed plants and some of their major evolutionary adaptations – like how being in a dry area upland makes sense for spore plants to evolve seeds. I think that this chapter was really important in piecing some of the seed puzzle together.
The next chapter focused on Mendel and the history of genetics (Hanson 2015). Since I am familiar with Mendel’s story, the chapter was not as informative as the others. However, Thor still writes in his story-like manner, entrancing the reader with a tale and not a history speech.
So far, I thought The Triumph of Seeds was an interesting read because it was filled with Thor’s creative writing, personal experiences, illustrations and pictures, and occasional humorous thoughts. I especially liked when Thor began the book by introducing us to his young son and his fascination with seeds – I too now ‘heed’ the seeds!