We all know that, as humans, we tend to separate ourselves from nature. We believe that we were given consciousness not as a gift, but as a right, and that this right allows us to control and manipulate the world around us – especially the world of plants. Through agriculture, we have demonstrated an impressive control over plants. Well, what if someone said, “Hey wait a sec, I think the plants are actually controlling us..” – what!???
This week I read the introduction of The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, and chapter 7 of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.
Pollan M. 2001. The botany of desire. Toronto (ON): Random House of Canada Limited. 271 p.
Diamond J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel. New York (NY): W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 480 p.
Both the chapters I read from the two books revealed similar content in that they both revolved around a plant’s perspective of the world. I may have been biased since I read The Botany of Desire first, but I found Pollan’s writing to be a bit more interesting and thought provoking than Diamond’s in Guns, Germs, and Steel.
I found that by writing in first person, Pollan came across light-hearted and humorous whilst simultaneously delivering the shock of the plant perspective to the reader. He begins with a rather innocent metaphor which likens humans to bumblebees as he claims, “What existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s?” (Pollan xiii). He then goes on to explain the egocentric attitude of humans towards shaping the earth, that we tend to believe we are the ones controlling plant species so that they may better serve us. Pollan even reveals that this superiority is apparent in our language and grammar as he states that “we divide the world into subjects and objects, and here in the garden, as in nature generally, we humans are the subjects” (Pollan xiv). And there I was thinking, oh yeah we do think that! Pollan thus gently opens the reader’s mind, shifting our view to that of the plant’s. He reminds us that “evolution consists of trivial, unconscious events” (Pollan xv) and that “the fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference” (p. xv) – meaning that although humans are conscious beings, we are still ultimately co-evolving with plants. Pollan then leads us to the big eye-opener – that by appealing to certain human desires, plants have ingeniously allowed humans to multiply their genes for them. This kind of reminded me of one of Newton’s laws of motion, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – that’s kind of like co-evolution, and I had been completely ignoring the plant’s part. This concept was especially reinforced when Pollan stated that “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 xxi).
I also really loved how Pollan stated the goal of his book was for the reader to realign his/her point of view amongst nature instead of apart from it, as we tend to think of nature as “something that only happens outside” (Pollan xxiv). I can honestly say that I am definitely guilty of these thoughts, as I have just realized that I am near my mom’s jade plant, sitting on a mahogany chair, staring at a book of paper and munching on pistachios.
Pollan even ends the introduction exceptionally by stating that “seeing these plants instead as willing partners in an intimate and reciprocal relationship with us means looking at ourselves a little differently too: as the objects of other species’ designs and desires, as one of the newer bees in Darwin’s garden – ingenious, sometimes reckless, and remarkably unself-conscious” (Pollan xxv).
In chapter 7 of Guns, Germs, and Steel, I noticed that Diamond’s writing came across interesting, yet written in a more practical sense than the heartfelt writing of Pollan. Diamond brings up several compelling concepts, such as exploring the true meaning of ‘domestication’ and reversing natural selection through examples of larger berry sizes and oak trees. Of Diamond’s wittiest (and almost shocking) remarks, my favorite was that “human latrines, like those of aardvarks, may have been a testing ground of the first unconscious crop breeders” (Diamond 117). The provocative sentence left me thinking, that’s pretty gross but makes so much sense. I found this chapter to be quite informative, as it analyzed the true origin of agriculture through human history, and probed the fundamental questions that many of us have always overlooked.
I also noted how both authors wrote about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species near the end of the chapters. Diamond and Pollan both bring up the artificial selection that Darwin begins his book with, as Darwin wrote of plants before writing of animals because he reckoned that it would be more accepting to the masses. Pollan connected the world of Darwin to that of ours today when he stated that “the crisp conceptual line that divided artificial from natural selection has blurred” (Pollan xxii). I think that both authors will delve into this notion further throughout subsequent chapters, which leaves me excited to read more.