The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollen

Posted: June 19, 2010 in Book Notes
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The Human Bumblebee

  • Coevolution – two parties act on each other to advance their individual interests but wind up trading favors. E.g. Bee and apple tree: food for the bee, transportation for the apple genes.
  • Though we self-importantly regard domestication as something people have done to plants, it is at the same time a strategy by which the plants have exploited us and our desires to advance their own interests.
    • All these plants, which I’d regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realize, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do thing for them they couldn’t do for themselves.
    • We are prone to overestimate our own agency in nature – Our grammar might teach us to divide the world into active subjects and passive objects, but in a coevolutionary relationship every subject is also an object, every object a subject.
    • We give ourselves altogether too much credit in our dealings with other species…it takes two to perform that particular dance of domestication…plenty of plants and animals have elected to sit it out. (E.g. Oak tree)
  • Evolution may reward interdependence, but our thinking selves continue to prize self-reliance. (The wolf is somehow more impressive than the dog)
  • After ten thousand years of coevolution, genes are rich archives of cultural as well as natural information.
  • Plants are nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil, and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture.
  • The great existential fact of plant life: immobility.
    • Why plants make chemicals to both repel and attract other species.
  • Evolution doesn’t depend on will or intention to work; it is, almost by definition, an unconscious, unwilled process.
    • 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.
  • All of nature is now in the process of being domesticated – of coming, or finding itself, under the (somehow leaky) roof of civilization.
    • Even the wild now depends on civilization for its survival.
    • For a great many species today, “fitness” means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force.
  • We have to understand our place in the world in the fullness of its complexity and ambiguity.
  • Dionysian vs. Apollonian

Desire: Sweetness  Plant: Apple

  • Anyone who wants edible apples plants grafted trees (ancient cloning technique), for the fruit of seedling apples is almost always inedible.
  • Every seed in the apple contains the genetic instructions for a completely new and different apple tree, one that, if planted, would bear only the most glancing resemblance to its parents.
  • In effect, the apple, like the settlers themselves, had to forsake its former domestic life and return to the wild before it could be reborn as an American.
  • The word sweetness denoted a reality commensurate with human desire: it stood for fulfillment.
  • Sweetness has proved to be a force in evolution.
  • Alcohol is the other great beneficence of sugar: it is made by encouraging certain yeasts to dine on the sugars manufactured in plants. (Fermentation converts the glucose in plants into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide.)
  • The vast apple diversity has been winnowed down to the small handful of varieties that can pass through the needle’s eye of our narrow conceptions of sweetness and beauty.
    • Industry got together and decided that it would be wise to simplify that market by planting and promoting only a small handful of brand name varieties. That market had no use for the immense variety of the 19th century apply embodied.
  • In the wild a plant and its pests are continually coevolving, in a dance of resistance and conquest that can have no ultimate victor.
    • The problem is that apple trees no longer reproduce sexually, as they do when they are grown from seed, and sex is nature’s way of creating fresh genetic combinations. At the same time the viruses, bacteria, fungi, and insects keep very much at it, reproducing sexually and continuing to evolve until eventually they hit on the precise genetic combination that alls them to overcome whatever resistance the apples may have once possessed…so not people have to come to the apple tree’s rescue.
  • To domesticate another species is to bring it under culture’s roof, but when people rely on too few genes for too long, a plant loses its ability to get along on its own, outdoors.
    • Human artifice took dominion everywhere ordering the slovenly wilderness around it like a light in the darkness.

Desire: Beauty  Plant: The Tulip

  • All the useless beauty is impossible to justify on cost-benefit grounds.
  • Incredibly, there were no flowers in Eden – or, more likely, the flowers were weeded out of Eden when Genesis was written down.
  • Maybe the love of flowers is a predilection all people share, but it’s one that cannot itself flower until conditions are ripe – until there are lots of flowers around and enough leisure to stop and smell them.
  • There may or may not be a correlation between the beautiful and the good, but there probably is one between beauty and health.
    • In our own species too, ideals of beauty often correlates with health: when lack of food was what usually killed people, people judged body fat to be a thing of beauty.
  • The colors and shapes of the flowers are a precise record of what bees find attractive.
  • By contrast, the rose, the orchid, and the tulip are capable of prodigies, reinventing themselves again and again to suit every change in the aesthetic or political weather.
    • For a flower the path to world domination passes through humanity’s ever-shifting ideals of beauty.
  • Very often traits that commend plants and animals to people render them less fit for life in the wild.
  • Shame seems to be the going price for achievement, particularly the achievement of knowledge or beauty.
  • The tulip was a thing of beauty, no more, no less.
  • Black, like white, is a blankness onto which any and all desire (or fear) may be projected.
  • Tulipomania
    • The greater fool theory – although by any conventional measure it is folly to pay thousands for  a tulip bulb (or for that matter an internet stock) as long as there is an even greater fool out there willing to pay even more, doing so is the most logical thing in the world.
  • Great art is born when Apollonian form and Dionysian ecstasy are held in balance, when our dreams of order and abandon come together.
  • The desires of other creatures became paramount in the evolution of plants – gratifying those desires resulted in more offspring.
  • By producing sugars and proteins to entice animals to disperse their seed, the angiosperms multiplies the world’s supply of food energy, making possible the rise of large warm-blooded mammals.
    • With the advent of flower, whole new levels of complexity come into the world: more interdependence, more information, more communication, more experimentation.
    • Without flowers, we would not be.

Desire: Intoxication  Plant: Marijuana (Cannabis Sativa x Indica)

  • There are plants that manufacture molecules with the power to change the subjective experience of reality we call consciousness.
  • How does one tell dangerous plants from the ones that merely nourishes? Taste is the first tip-off. Plants that don’t wish to be eaten often manufacture bitter-tasting alkaloids.
  • Most of the ingenuity of plants – that is, most of the work of a billion years of evolutionary trial and error – has been applied to learning (or rather, inventing) the arts of biochemistry, at which plants excel beyond all human imagining.
    • Even now a large part of human knowledge about making medicines come directly from plants.
  • The all-out victory of one species over another is often Pyrrhic. That’s because a powerful, death-dealing toxin can exert such a strong selective pressure for resistance in its target population that it is quickly rendered ineffective.
    • A better strategy may be to repel, disable, or confound.
  • By trial and error animals figure out – sometimes over eons, sometimes over a single lifetime – which plants to eat and which forbidden.
  • Gardeners are alchemists – transforming the dross of compost (and water and sunlight) into substance of rare value and beauty and power.
  • Certainly marijuana’s close identification with the counterculture made it an attractive target.
  • Cannabis Cup [November in Netherland]
  • To succeed in North America, cannabis had to do two things: it had to prove it could gratify a human desire so brilliantly that people would take extraordinary risks to cultivate it, and it had to find the right combination of genes to adapt to a most peculiar and thoroughly artificial new environment.
  • …utterly failing to notice as their world would shrank to the dimensions of a fevered dream.
  • The desire to alter one’s experience of consciousness may be universal.
    • Consciousness changing as a basic human activity (work by Andrew Weil)
    • Even young children seek out altered states of awareness. They will spin until violently dizzy (thereby producing visual hallucinations), deliberately hyperventilate, throttle one another to the point of fainting, inhale any fumes they can find, and, on a daily basis, seek out the rush of energy supplied by processed sugar (sugar being the child’s plant drug of choice)
  • Historians can explain these shifts much better than scientists can, since they usually have less to do with the intrinsic nature of the various molecules involved than with the powers that cultures ascribe to them and the changing needs of those cultures.
  • All these plants are, at least potentially, mental tools; people who know to use them properly may be able to cope with everyday life better than those who don’t.
    • Tobacco smoking and coffee became socially acceptable because they aided in industrialization’s reorientation of the human organism to the primacy of mental labor.
  • Promoting certain plant drugs and forbidding other may just be something cultures do as a way of defining themselves or reinforcing their cohesion.
    • Culture tend to be more wary of these pants, and for good reason: they pose a threat to the smooth workings of the social order.
  • Psychoactive plants are bridges between the worlds of matter and spirit or, to update vocabulary, chemistry and consciousness.
    • Opium would give a philosopher an inner eye and power of intuition for the vision and mysteries of our human nature.
  • In the same way the human desire for beauty and sweetness introduced into the world a new survival strategy for the plants that could gratify it, the human hunger for transcendence created new opportunities for another group of plants. (entheogenic plant)
  • Meme are a culture’s building blocks, passed down from brain to brain in a Darwinian process that leads, by trial and error, to cultural innovation and progress.
    • Culture at any given moment is the “meme pool” in which we all swim – or rather, that swims through us.
    • Shifts in perception and breaks in mental habit they provoke are among the methods, and models, we have of imaginatively transforming mental and cultural givens – for mutating our inherited memes.
  • Allen Ginsberg suggested that the negative feelings marijuana sometimes provokes, such as anxiety, fear, and paranoia, are traceable to the effect on consciousness not of the narcotic but of the law.
  • Cannabis can’t reliably be used to change one’s mood, only to intensify it.
  • We assume that there is some sort of cause-and-effect relationship between molecule and mind, but what it is no one really knows.
    • Cannabis does not itself create but merely triggers the mental state that we identify as “being high.” The very same mental state, minus the “physiological noise” of the drug itself, can be triggered in other ways, such as meditation or breathing exercises.
  • Consciousness is precisely the frontier where our materialistic understanding of the brain stops.
  • The human cannabinoid system is the brain’s own drug for coping with the human condition.
    • Cannabinoid receptors shows up in vast numbers all over the brain…except the brain stem, which regulates involuntary functions such as circulation and respiration. This might explain the remarkably low toxicity of cannabis and the fact that no one is known to have ever died from an overdose.
    • The sensation of pain is one the hardest to summon from memory.
  • It is hard to conceive of a domesticated plant more plastic than cannabis, a single species answering to two such different desire, the first more or less spiritual in nature (marijuana) and the other, quite literally, material (hemp).
  • Our mental health depends on a mechanism for editing the moment-by-moment ocean of sensory data flowing into our consciousness down to a manageable trickle of noticed and remembered.
  • We spend altogether too much of our energy laboring in the shadows of the past – under the stultifying weight of convention, precedent, received wisdom, and neurosis.

Desire: Control  Plant: Potato

[To be continued]

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