|The Paula Gordon Show|
Without flowers, humans would not be and we owe our existence to them, says Michael Pollan. Flowers' food energy, stored in seeds and fruits, allowed mammals to get big and human's brains to get bigger. Mr. Pollan takes a plant's eye view, mindful that humans are part of nature, not apart from it.
Human desire is a simple fact of natural history, he says. Flowers are an excellent example. They spent their first 90 million years on earth evolving to gratify the desires of pollinators -- bees and moths. Suddenly, 10,000 years ago, they refined their strategy, gratifying the desires of people who could travel all over the world, use their tools and big brains to disturb the soil and trade with each other, respond when plants modified their looks. Think tulips in Holland. Or Johnny Appleseed/John Chapman in America. Mr. Pollan elaborates on these stories and more in his recent book The Botany of Desire. It presents a series of graphic reminders that evolution is not over and humans are not at some kind of evolutionary pinnacle.
Today, monocultures are a growing threat, Mr. Pollan reports. We're all implicated in the monoculture story, he says, because our cultural ideals are what drive monoculture. One common experience -- we want our french fries to be perfect and fast food outlets want us to buy their fries. So they buy only Russet Burbanks from farmers who grow Russets and none of the 2,500 other varieties of potatoes in the world. Remember the Irish Potato Famine? If we all eat the same thing, coast to coast and around the world, we're going to plant the same thing all around the world. Mr. Pollan is convinced that cultural diversity and biological diversity go hand in hand.
What we do ... matters. And we all have wonderful ways to vote, Mr. Pollan says, ecologically and evolutionarily. We all make important little evolutionary decisions at the grocery store or when we place our order at a restaurant. We drive what's going on at the farm with our purchasing decisions. We can choose to eat this and not buy that. Yes, we can choose blue or gold potatoes and avoid the One Beautiful Fry. Monocultures are products of the marketplace and agriculture, Mr. Pollan says, not nature.
Some humility is in order
on our part, Mr. Pollan counsels. The human genome with 35,000 genes puts
us somewhere between the round worm (20 to 25,000 genes) and rice (50,000
genes). (He considers this as profound a blow to our sense of our specialness
as when Copernicus showed us the earth isn't the center of the solar system.)
And it wasn't all that long ago, he reminds us, that we gave up our extremely
successful hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Our co-evolution with plants didn't
stop with nutrition. Or apples that are red. Plants continue to gratify
other desires, too -- from the relief of pain to a longing for transcendence.
And, of course, they gratify our desire for beauty.
Michael Pollan tells
and Bill Russell
about the pleasure he takes in writing books, with examples from all three.
He gives credit to George Plimpton and to Henry David Thoreau for quite
Just like every other
species, we're part of nature, which has deep importance, says Mr. Pollan,
deflating both the ideas that humans are outside of evolution or at its
pinnacle. He picks examples from supermarkets to restaurant menus to stress
the the importance of human desires as a fact in natural history. Domestication
was not a human invention, he says, it was a dance between many different
species. He elaborates, going back to our hunter-gatherer past. He compares
the genetic complexity of species and suggests that we are dupes -- however
unwittingly -- to grasses. He elaborates.
Plants have essentially
evolved to gratify our desires, says Mr. Pollan, including our desire
for beauty. He looks at this from the plants' point of view, then considers
various kinds of consciousness. He admires plants' phenomenal organic
chemistry achievements, and gives examples of chemical acts of genius
where there is clear communication between species. He compares the genomes
of roundworms, humans and rice. Humans need to learn to be humble in the
face of all living creatures many of whom have been evolving a great deal
longer than we have, he says, citing the 100 million years of flowering
plants. He explains why humans owe our existence to flowers.
Mr. Pollan declares Johnny
Appleseed (John Chapman) the Dionysus of the frontier, bringing alcohol
and vinegar to the American frontier along with opportunities for apples
to create themselves anew. Mr. Pollan fills in other historical gaps,
drawing on his own experience in describing what "good habitat"
is for the human animal. Returning to Johnny Appleseed, Mr. Pollan assures
us that monoculture of any kind is decidedly not nature's plan, only that
of the marketplace and agriculture. Citing the Irish potato famine, where
the Inca's 2,500 different varieties were reduced to one, Mr. Pollan argues
strongly for both genetic and cultural diversity.
Our increasing dependence
on monocultures threaten both cultural and biological diversity, worldwide,
Mr. Pollan worries. We all make little evolutionary decisions in the market,
he says. Mr. Pollan elaborates on what he thinks was really going on in
the Garden of Eden story, and puts it in the context of pre-Christian
and pre-Jewish religions. All human cultures (except Eskimos) have used
plants to change human consciousness, he assures us, then traces use of
coffee, tea and tobacco into the present. He compares how differently
cultures treat drugs. He then shows how critical "forgetting"
is to humans, and reports relevant research, across species.
We flatter ourselves
to think we stand outside of nature, says Mr. Pollan. He addresses transcendence,
with examples from Coleridge to Plato. He suggests how mind altering drugs
act like mutations within culture.
We thoroughly enjoyed Michael Pollan's light touch as well
as his mind-expanding ideas. We appreciate his insightful warnings about
the perils of monocultures of all kinds. We are