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Michael Pollan – The Botany of Desire

July 30, 2012

78. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan (2001)

Length: 274 pages
Genre: Non-fiction; Microhistory & Science

Started: 14 July 2012
Finished: 19 July 2012

Where did it come from? Sent to me by Jen from Devourer of Books (a long time ago; I’m slow!), in trade for Love Marriage.
Why do I have it? When I discovered I liked non-fiction, especially microhistories, this one got mentioned everywhere.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 18 June 2008.

Are you growing your
plants? Or are they tricking you
into growing them?

Summary: Domestication is not something we do to plants… or at least, it’s not only that. It’s also something the plants do to us. Plants that are able to fulfill human desires (or those that can easily be modified to do so) have an advantage over other plants, since human beings will gladly do the work of spreading these plants’ genes around the world. Pollan takes four plants, that fulfill four desires, as case studies, and gives us a taste of the history – both natural and cultural – of each: apples (for sweetness), tulips (for beauty), marijuana (for intoxication), and potatoes (for control).

Review: This book was not quite was I was expecting – it was a blend of evolutionary theory, microhistory, and cultural musings, rather than any single one of them straight up – but I enjoyed all of the elements, and found their combination interesting. Pollan makes his evolutionary argument almost exclusively in the introduction, and he presents it thoroughly and very clearly. His argument – that the plants are basically using us, the same way they they use bumblebees and other pollinators, to spread their genes – was simultaneously very clever and not that surprising; I’ve read a fair bit about the evolution of domestication, but I’d never thought about it from that angle before… but once he pointed it out, I was like “Oh, obviously.” His language is elegant and accessible to the layperson, and while he does rarely slip into some teleological language, for the most part he’s very scientifically very precise.

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. –p. xxi

I also found the chapters full of history just as fascinating. There’s plenty of good trivia, which is one of the reasons I like microhistories so much – for example, the “flames” of color on the bottom of multicolored tulips? Are actually the symptoms of a viral infection. Pollan occasionally leans on his metaphors a little hard; he’s particularly taken with the dichotomy between Apollonian order and Dionysian wildness, and how it’s embodied in each of the four plants. It’s certainly a relevant point for a book on domestication and desire, but he returns to it so often that it starts to get a little wearing. He also engages in some pretty out-there speculation, most of which is interesting and entirely plausible, but which occasionally had me wishing he’d stick a little closer to the facts. There are also a few places where the book is beginning to show its age a little bit: the neurochemistry of the endocannabinoid system is much better understood now than it was a decade ago, the facts on the drug war are almost certainly out of date, and I’d be interested (and maybe a little terrified) to read an update on the current state of genetically modified plants.

Despite these minor troubles, though, I really did enjoy this book. Pollan’s science is sound, his history is interesting and well-presented, his language is more lyrical than you might expect from your average non-fiction writer, and this book provided quite a lot of food (hah!) for thought. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Definitely recommended for anyone who likes popular science or microhistories (or both!), or for anyone who has ever wondered why some plants but not others make it into our gardens.

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Other Reviews: Adventures in Reading, Devourer of Books, Dogear Diary, Let’s Eat Grandpa! and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
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First Line: The seeds of this book were first planted in my garden – while I was planting seeds, as a matter of fact.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 13: “The tiny, oblate Lady apple, which still shows up in markets at Christmastime, is thought to be one of these.” – flattened at the poles, as a spheroid generated by the revolution of an ellipse about its shorter axis.
  • p. 22: “Like a botanical Zelig, the apple has wormed its way into our image of Eden through the brushwork of Dürer and Cranach and countless others.” – a chameleonlike person who is unusually ubiquitous.
  • p. 25: “In the library on the square is a map of the town made in 1805, the year it was platted.” – plotted or mapped.
  • p. 67: “Every fall my parents would buy mesh bags of these bulbs, assortments of twenty-five or fifty to the bag, and pay me a few pennies per bulb to bury them in the pachysandra.” – any plant of the genus Pachysandra, as the Allegheny spurge or Japanese spurge, the leaves of which grow in a rounded clump, widely used as a ground cover in the U.S.
  • p. 99: “That this charge came at the expense of the beheld suggests that beauty in nature does not necessarily bespeak health, nor necessarily redound to the benefit of the beautiful.” – to have a good or bad effect or result, as to the advantage or disadvantage of a person or thing.
  • p. 101: “For Dumas the black tulip was a synecdoche for tulipomania itself, an indifferent and arbitrary mirror in which a perverse consensus of meaning and value came briefly and disastrously into focus.” – a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special.
  • p. 115: “On the same principle, syncopation enlivens a regular, four-four measure of music, enjambment the stately line of iambic pentameter.” – the running on of the thought from one line, couplet, or stanza to the next without a syntactical break.
  • p. 139: “But whatever the reason, by the end of the twentieth century this plant and its taboo had appreciably changed American life not once but twice: the first time rather mildly, with marijuana’s wide-spread popularity beginning in the sixties, and then again, perhaps more profoundly, in its role as casus belli in the war against drugs.” – an event or political occurrence that brings about a declaration of war.
  • p. 152: “But the reasons cultures give for promoting one plant and forbidding another are remarkably fluid in both time and space; one culture’s panacea is often another culture’s panapathogen (root of all evil); think of the traditional role of alcohol in the Christian West as compared to the Islamic East.” – no dictionary results; I’m pretty sure this is a neologism, but its meaning is pretty clear.
  • p. 174: “…a window (its green muntins framing a boulder with lichens, dozens of trees, hundreds of branches, millions of leaves), and, drawing a soft border around 90 percent of this visual field, the metal frames of my eyeglasses.” – also called sash bar; a bar for holding the edges of window panes within a sash.
  • p. 215: “Potatoes were chthonic, forming their undifferentiated brown tubers unseen beneath the ground, throwing a slovenly flop of vines above.” – of or pertaining to the deities, spirits, and other beings dwelling under the earth.
  • p. 247: “Disease followed on famine: typhus, cholera, and purpura raced unchecked through the weakened population.” – a disease characterized by purple or brownish-red spots on the skin or mucous membranes, caused by the extravasation of blood.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2012 2:57 pm

    I have a feeling this one’s way over my head. I’d be looking up a word on every other page.

    • August 9, 2012 9:31 am

      Kathy – It’s not that bad; Pollan’s writing for the educated public, not for scientists.

  2. August 6, 2012 6:50 am

    So my tomato plants are using me, huh? You’re right, once pointed out it does seem obvious. Sounds interesting. I know a couple of people who might like this, so thanks for the review!

    • August 9, 2012 9:32 am

      Emily – Oh, my tomato plants are totally using me. I spend more time and energy on those damn things…

      • August 12, 2012 12:53 pm

        Same here! They’re so spoiled.

  3. August 13, 2012 5:34 pm

    I am intrigued by this author, but I haven’t read him yet. This does sound interesting.

    • August 16, 2012 4:14 pm

      Kailana – I’m a little bit leery of his other books, since I really, really don’t like people lecturing me about what I eat, however that lecture is packaged. But this one was really good, and no lecturing!


  1. Michael Pollan – Cooked | Fyrefly's Book Blog

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