Plants and us

Even the buzz of high-octane Amsterdam weed (consumed, of course, in the name of botanical research) can’t justify Michael Pollan’s repetitive and wandering discussion of the plant world’s influence over humans in his new book The Botany of Desire. Pollan’s stated goal is to illustrate the way plants have promoted their own evolution by adapting to the development of four basic human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control. Instead, he is much more successful in demonstrating the unexpected way beautifully functional things flower from an essential mix of manure and fertile soil.

What we’re left with is a collection of interesting anecdotes and a thesis without foundation. If plants can use humans to further their own ends, shouldn’t humans (especially authors) be able to use scientific theory to further their own ends?

Well, could’ve, should’ve, would’ve …

One has to wonder why Botany has received such acclaim from the publishing world. Pollan, an editor and contributor to Harper’s, plays it too fast and loose with the Darwinisms and never really advances his premise “that these human desires form a part of natural history.” His theory of “co-evolution” amounts to little more than a novel treatment of symbiosis. Of course, plants benefit from humans and humans from plants, but Pollan leaves out the arc of revelation—the main course. His repeated observation that humankind’s ascent to “the most powerful evolutionary force” in the ecosystem is a special case of “artificial selection,” is like a mediocre tuna casserole—no matter how many times it’s served, it is still tuna casserole.

“Plants are nature’s alchemists,” according to Pollan. “While we were nailing down consciousness and learning to walk on two feet, they were, by the same process of natural selection, inventing photosynthesis (the astonishing trick of converting sunlight into food) and perfecting organic chemistry.” So much for Bio 101. In spite of his failed ambitions in the arena of evolutionary biology, the book invites the reader to embrace and identify with a delightfully counterintuitive appreciation of humankind’s place in the food chain.

In his essay on “sweetness” we learn that Johnny Appleseed’s heroic contribution to America’s manifest destiny probably had much less to do with agriculture than alcohol. Apples grown from Johnny’s seeds were used primarily to make hard cider, a staple of the frontier diet prior to prohibition.

Pollan’s essay on “control” features the potato in a starring role as a Monsanto-manufactured, genetically altered Frankenfood. In his essay on “beauty” Pollan recounts Holland’s tulip mania. In reading about desire for “intoxication,” we learn that the escalation of the war on drugs has fostered increasingly potent pot by forcing growers to manipulate reproduction through vigilant control of an artificial environment.

Pollan provides a fascinating discussion of the 1992 discovery that the human brain manufactures its own form of THC and that the body contains an entire network of cannabinoid receptors that modulate pain, appetite and short-term memory. The discovery of high concentrations of cannabinoid receptors in the uterus, suggests that anandamide (the body’s homegrown cannabis) not only dulls the pain of childbirth, but may help women forget the trauma later.

Most important, Pollan considers marijuana’s evolutionary allure to be its ability to help humans abandon rather than retain sensory input. “By disabling our moment-by-moment memory cannabinoids open a space for something nearer to direct experience,” he writes. “Memory is the enemy of wonder.”

“If there is one thing I hope people get from the book,” Pollan says, “it’s that we are not spectators of nature.” As a collection of anecdotes, rather than a theoretical treatise, The Botany of Desire succeeds.