The Botany Of Desire Summary

Michael Pollan

The Botany Of Desire

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The Botany Of Desire Summary

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The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World is a 2001 work of nonfiction by journalist Michael Pollan. He writes of four types of human desire by way of comparison with the growing, breeding, and genetic engineering of plants. The four pairs of connections he presents are: the tulip and beauty, marijuana and intoxication, the apple and sweetness, and the potato and control. Among the supporting materials he presents is the story of John (Johnny Appleseed) Chapman, research involving marijuana hybrids, and the problems that can occur when limits are placed on agriculture—such as Ireland’s reliance on one breed of potato, which made it a victim of the fungus leading to the Irish Potato Famine whilenations that did not subscribe to monoculture farming were unaffected. While the book is usually considered a nature text, the underlying premise is that the four plants considered have shaped human evolution no less than humans have shaped that of plants, in a synergetic process of co-evolution.

The opening chapter of The Botany of Desire centers around the apple tree and the edible fruit it produces. It considers the Malusdomestica species and its ancient predecessor Malusseiversii.  The background of the apple plant is discussed and then, in more depth, the significance of the apple in human civilization. The introduction of the apple is told largely through references to the life of Johnny Appleseed. The apple is said to have been important because it helped satisfy the human desire for sweetness.

The next chapter looks at the one hundred species of tulips that make up the Tulipa genus.   Although the text does not delve deeply into the theory of evolution on the level of the genus, it looks at the co-evolution of the plant and of humans. The tulip became a common garden flower in Europe, particularly in Holland, in the early 1600s. After this is discussed, the focus shifts to Turkey one hundred years later. The tulip’s role in supporting human evolution is attributed to its ability to sate the human desire for beauty.

The book’s third chapter considers marijuana. It takes into account Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and various hybrids. Further materials cited in the chapter are related to other psychoactive drugs, and the entire class is thought of as an evolutionary unit. As with the tulip studies, the text does not talk very much about complex theories of the evolution of hybrids and multiple species. Instead, it tells the history of the marijuana plant and emphasizes the history of marijuana as a drug. Contemporary methods of growing the drug and the implications of it on a sociological level are discussed. Also included is an argument against the criminalization of marijuana and of similar psychoactive drugs. Pollan explains that the potency of marijuana was increased as a result of the ongoing war against drugs. The plant became stronger when breeders were forced to grow indoors and combine Afghan and Mexican types. He adds that part of the attraction marijuana holds is that is shuts the mind down rather than turning it on.Marijuana’s impact on human evolution is attributed to its ability to satisfy the desire for intoxication.

The final and most accessible chapter of the text looks at Solanumtuberosum, or the potato. A thorough history of the potato is given, ranging geographically from the Andes, to Ireland, to Idaho in the United States. Topics covered include the impact of the potato on different cultures and the modern techniques of farming that have affected the crop over the years. A significant portion of the chapter is devoted to the NewLeaf potato, which is a genetically engineered product of the Monsanto Corporation.The NewLeaf was introduced by Monsanto in 1995 and was its first genetically modified crop. It was designed to survive attacks by the Colorado beetle.  A market for the product did not develop to any significant level and it was discontinued in 2001.The potato, Pollan asserts, has had its impact on the development of the human race because it can satisfy the human desire for control.

Michael Pollan gives copious examples of how humans and domestic plants have developed reciprocal relationships. The New York Times writes of the book, “Pollan is nothing if not a Dionysian writer: he doesn’t just walk us through this material, he swoons and pirouettes his way through it, scattering ideas like so many seeds. Never content to let simple statements stand, he splits them open with interjections…garlands them in qualifiers and dependent clauses. The effect can be rich and allusive…or merely over determined.”