Plants vs. Humans – Who really has control?

Pollan, M. 2002. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York, NY. pg. xiii-xxv.

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Norton & Company, New York, NY. pg. 114-130.

I currently sit at my kitchen table, being astonished by all of the information and concepts that have been introduced to me for the first time while reading these two books. I did not know that I would be putting as much thought as I am into this, and I’m still not sure whether to argue against the issue of who really controls who when it comes to artificial selection and domestication. 

Both of these books are all about the cultivation of plants from their wild ancestors. I started with reading Pollan’s interesting introduction to his book, and that is what really got me thinking about this new concept of who controls who. Initially, he starts off by describing how most people would, naturally, think that they are in control of what they plant in their garden, and what specifically they want to grow: “I’m in charge here…I choose the plants, I pull the weeds, I harvest the crops” (pg. xiv). Of course, this is what I’ve thought my entire life, even when I planted seeds with my mother in our small backyard garden back home in Northern BC. When the vegetables popped out of the brown soil, so green and lively, I was so very excited that the seeds in which I planted and took care of were alive and well. Little did I know, those plants were taking advantage of my ability to move them around, or more specifically, move their progeny around.  As Pollan puts it, “the flower has manipulated the bee into hauling it’s pollen from blossom to blossom” (pg. xiv).

An amazing thing that I think Pollan points out in his book is how plants play on animals’ desires, conscious, and otherwise, especially ones that are fruitful. They stay unripe, bitter, and bland until they are ready to disperse their seeds – then, they become ripe, sweet, and colourful to attract the animals that will move for them, which is an incredibly remarkable strategy. It is a strategy I’ve never considered before: plants ripen in order for their seed dispersal and thus boosting their reproductive success. This entire concept has not been obvious to me, and I’m assuming not many other people think about plants controlling us as well.

I’m stupefied.

Pollan also brings up a good point when he states “it has become much harder, in the past century, to tell where the garden leaves and pure nature begins” (pg. xxii). Humans have been shaping plants via artificial selection for decades, influencing their growth and produce, so that almost all of what we eat these days are not at all what the plants’ wild ancestors would have looked like. It really is amazing to think about, especially when you haven’t put much thought into it before.

Artificial selection is a very popular approach, and is what Diamond really focuses on in his book. Like Pollan, he focuses on the cultivation of plants, but he gives many more examples and scenarios that make you think. He mentions unconscious criteria, which is a fascinating and new idea for me. Before, it never crossed my mind how I preferred larger fruit and vegetables over smaller ones. But of course, it is my unconscious criteria that prefers this, as well as sweetness, fleshy/seedless fruits, and oily seeds. What drives this preference is the fact that our early ancestors cultivated and domesticated the plants that met this criteria. As well, Diamond mentions how we selected not only for all of this, but for “invisible features like seed dispersal mechanisms, germination inhibition, and reproductive biology” (pg. 122), all of which help us in obtaining more high quality plants. He gives the examples of sunflower seeds, peas, pumpkins, oranges, grapes, bananas, watermelons, strawberries – the list is almost endless. It really shows you how much of an impact domestication and artificial selection has had on plants to benefit us.

Overall, as I mentioned, I am astonished by these two authors and books. If it wasn’t for these readings, I would not have even considered how plants control us, and as a result, how artificial selection/domestication has come about. I think the main idea is to plant an idea in peoples’ minds about who really controls who – do plants control people, or do people control plants? It’s an interesting argument. I may have disagreed with the theory that plants control people, but after considering what facts both Pollan and Diamond have brought up, my stand on the matter is changed. After all, “plants have been going about the business of remaking us” (pg. xvii)

 

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