intro to Michael Pollan’s “Botany of Desire”

Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire was the centerpiece of our class this semester. The intro follows (sorry the formatting is wonky). Here’s a link to a pdf: michaelpollan.com/wordpress/wp-content/…/botany_of_desire_excerpt.pdf

THE BOTANY OF DESIRE: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World
by MICHAEL POLLAN
2002 Random House Trade Paperback Edition
Copyright © 2001 by Michael Pollan
The seeds of this book were first planted in my garden—while I
was planting seeds, as a matter of fact. Sowing seed is pleasant,
desultory, not terribly challenging work; there’s plenty of space
left over for thinking about other things while you’re doing it.On
this particular May afternoon, I happened to be sowing rows in
the neighborhood ofa flowering apple tree that was fairly vibrat-
ing with bees.And what I found myself thinking about was this:
What existential difference is there between the human being’s
role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s?

If this sounds like a laughable comparison,consider what it was
I was doing in the garden that afternoon:disseminating the genes
ofone species and not another,in this case a fingerling potato in-
stead of, let’s say, a leek. Gardeners like me tend to think such
choices are our sovereign prerogative: in the space ofthis garden,
I tell myself,I alone determine which species will thrive and which
will disappear.I’m in charge here,in other words,and behind me
stand other humans still more in charge: the long chain of gar-
deners and botanists,plant breeders,and,these days,genetic engi-
neers who “selected,”“developed,”or “bred”the particular potato
that I decided to plant.Even our grammar makes the terms ofthis
relationship perfectly clear: I choose the plants, I pull the weeds, I
harvest the crops. We divide the world into subjects and objects,
and here in the garden,as in nature generally,we humans are the
subjects.

But that afternoon in the garden I found myself wondering:
What if that grammar is all wrong? What if it’s really nothing
more than a self-serving conceit? A bumblebee would probably
also regard himself as a subject in the garden and the bloom he’s
plundering for its drop of nectar as an object. But we know that
this is just a failure ofhis imagination.The truth ofthe matter is
that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its
pollen from blossom to blossom.

The ancient relationship between bees and flowers is a classic
example of what is known as “coevolution.”In a coevolutionary
bargain like the one struck by the bee and the apple tree,the two
parties act on each other to advance their individual interests but
wind up trading favors: food for the bee, transportation for the
apple genes. Consciousness needn’t enter into it on either side,
and the traditional distinction between subject and object is
meaningless.

Matters between me and the spud I was planting, I realized,
really aren’t much different;we,too,are partners in a coevolution-
ary relationship, as indeed we have been ever since the birth of
agriculture more than ten thousand years ago.Like the apple blos-
som,whose form and scent have been selected by bees over count-
less generations,the size and taste ofthe potato have been selected
over countless generations by us—by Incas and Irishmen,even by
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people like me ordering french fries at McDonald’s.Bees and hu-
mans alike have their criteria for selection: symmetry and sweet-
ness in the case ofthe bee;heft and nutritional value in the case of
the potato-eating human. The fact that one of us has evolved to
become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference
whatsoever to the flower or the potato taking part in this arrange-
ment.All those plants care about is what every being cares about
on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself.
Through trial and error these plant species have found that the
best way to do that is to induce animals—bees or people,it hardly
matters—to spread their genes. How? By playing on the animals’
desires, conscious and otherwise. The flowers and spuds that
manage to do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruit-
ful and multiply.

So the question arose in my mind that day: Did I choose to
plant these potatoes,or did the potato make me do it? In fact,both
statements are true.I can remember the exact moment that spud
seduced me,showing offits knobby charms in the pages ofa seed
catalog. I think it was the tasty-sounding “buttery yellow flesh”
that did it. This was a trivial, semiconscious event; it never oc-
curred to me that our catalog encounter was of any evolutionary
consequence whatsoever.Yet evolution consists ofan infinitude of
trivial,unconscious events,and in the evolution ofthe potato my
reading of a particular seed catalog on a particular January eve-
ning counts as one ofthem.

That May afternoon,the garden suddenly appeared before me
in a whole new light,the manifold delights it offered to the eye and
nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive.All these
plants,which I’d always regarded as the objects ofmy desire,were
also,I realized,subjects,acting on me,getting me to do things for
them they couldn’t do for themselves.
And that’s when I had the idea: What would happen if we
looked at the world beyond the garden this way, regarded our
place in nature from the same upside-down perspective?
This book attempts to do just that, by telling the story of four
familiar plants—the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato—
and the human desires that link their destinies to our own. Its
broader subject is the complex reciprocal relationship between the
human and natural world, which I approach from a somewhat
unconventional angle:I take seriously the plant’s point ofview.
The four plants whose stories this book tells are what we call
“domesticated species,”a rather one-sided term—that grammar
again—that leaves the erroneous impression that we’re in charge.
We automatically think of domestication as something we do to
other species, but it makes just as much sense to think of it as
something certain plants and animals have done to us, a clever
evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests. The
species that have spent the last ten thousand or so years figuring
out how best to feed,heal,clothe,intoxicate,and otherwise delight
us have made themselves some ofnature’s greatest success stories.
The surprising thing is, we don’t ordinarily regard species like
the cow and the potato,the tulip and the dog,as nature’s more ex-
traordinary creatures. Domesticated species don’t command our
respect the way their wild cousins often do.Evolution may reward
interdependence, but our thinking selves continue to prize self-
reliance.The wolfis somehow more impressive to us than the dog.
Yet there are fifty million dogs in America today,only ten thou-
sand wolves. So what does the dog know about getting along in
this world that its wild ancestor doesn’t? The big thing the dog
knows about—the subject it has mastered in the ten thousand
years it has been evolving at our side—is us:our needs and desires,
our emotions and values,all ofwhich it has folded into its genes as
part ofa sophisticated strategy for survival.Ifyou could read the
genome ofthe dog like a book,you would learn a great deal about
who we are and what makes us tick. We don’t ordinarily give
plants as much credit as animals, but the same would be true of
the genetic books ofthe apple,the tulip,cannabis,and the potato.
We could read volumes about ourselves in their pages,in the inge-
nious sets of instructions they’ve developed for turning people
into bees.

After ten thousand years of coevolution, their genes are rich
archives of cultural as well as natural information. The DNA of
that tulip there, the ivory one with the petals attenuated like
sabers,contains detailed instructions on how best to catch the eye
not of a bee but of an Ottoman Turk; it has something to tell us
about that age’s idea of beauty. Likewise, every Russet Burbank
potato holds within it a treatise about our industrial food chain—
and our taste for long,perfectly golden french fries.That’s because
we have spent the last few thousand years remaking these species
through artificial selection,transforming a tiny,toxic root node into
a fat, nourishing potato and a short, unprepossessing wildflower
into a tall,ravishing tulip.What is much less obvious,at least to us,
is that these plants have, at the same time, been going about the
business ofremaking us.

I call this book The Botany of Desirebecause it is as much about
the human desires that connect us to these plants as it is about the
plants themselves.My premise is that these human desires form a
part ofnatural history in the same way the hummingbird’s love of
red does, or the ant’s taste for the aphid’s honeydew. I think of
them as the human equivalent of nectar. So while the book ex-
plores the social history of these plants, weaving them into our
story,it is at the same time a natural history ofthe four human de-
sires these plants evolved to stir and gratify.

I’m interested not only in how the potato altered the course of
European history or how cannabis helped fire the romantic revo-
lution in the West,but also in the way notions in the minds ofmen
and women transformed the appearance,taste,and mental effects
ofthese plants.Through the process ofcoevolution human ideas
find their way into natural facts: the contours of a tulip’s petals,
say,or the precise tang ofa Jonagold apple.

The four desires I explore here are sweetness,broadly defined,in
the story ofthe apple;beautyin the tulip’s;intoxicationin the story
ofcannabis;and controlin the story ofthe potato—specifically,in
the story ofa genetically altered potato I grew in my garden to see
where the ancient arts ofdomestication may now be headed.These
four plants have something important to teach us about these four
desires—that is, about what makes us tick. For instance, I don’t
think we can begin to understand beauty’s gravitational pull with-
out first understanding the flower,since it was the flower that first
ushered the idea of beauty into the world the moment, long ago,
when floral attraction emerged as an evolutionary strategy.By the
same token, intoxication is a human desire we might never have
cultivated had it not been for a handful of plants that manage to
manufacture chemicals with the precise molecular key needed to
unlock the mechanisms in our brain governing pleasure,memory,
and maybe even transcendence.

Domestication is about a whole lot more than fat tubers and
docile sheep; the offspring of the ancient marriage of plants and
people are far stranger and more marvelous than we realize.There
is a natural history ofthe human imagination,ofbeauty,religion,
and possibly philosophy too. One of my aims in this book is to
shed some light on the part in that history these ordinary plants
have played.

Plants are so unlike people that it’s very difficult for us to appreci-
ate fully their complexity and sophistication.Yet plants have been
evolving much, much longer than we have, have been inventing
new strategies for survival and perfecting their designs for so long
that to say that one ofus is the more “advanced”really depends on
how you define that term, on what “advances”you value. Natu-
rally we value abilities such as consciousness, toolmaking, and
language, if only because these have been the destinations of our
own evolutionary journey thus far. Plants have traveled all that
distance and then some—they’ve just traveled in a different direc-
tion.

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. 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 chem-
istry.As it turns out,many ofthe plants’discoveries in chemistry
and physics have served us well.From plants come chemical com-
pounds that nourish and heal and poison and delight the senses,
others that rouse and put to sleep and intoxicate, and a few
with the astounding power to alter consciousness—even to plant
dreams in the brains ofawake humans.

Why would they go to all this trouble? Why should plants
bother to devise the recipes for so many complex molecules and
then expend the energy needed to manufacture them? One im-

portant reason is defense. A great many of the chemicals plants
produce are designed,by natural selection,to compel other crea-
tures to leave them alone: deadly poisons, foul flavors, toxins to
confound the minds of predators. But many other of the sub-
stances plants make have exactly the opposite effect, drawing
other creatures to them by stirring and gratifying their desires.
The same great existential fact ofplant life explains why plants
make chemicals to both repel and attract other species:immobil-
ity.The one big thing plants can’t do is move,or,to be more pre-
cise,locomote.Plants can’t escape the creatures that prey on them;
they also can’t change location or extend their range without help.
And so about a hundred million years ago plants stumbled on a
way—actually a few thousand different ways—of getting animals
to carry them,and their genes,here and there.This was the evolu-
tionary watershed associated with the advent of the angiosperms,
an extraordinary new class ofplants that made showy flowers and
formed large seeds that other species were induced to disseminate.
Plants began evolving burrs that attach to animal fur like Velcro,
flowers that seduce honeybees in order to powder their thighs with
pollen,and acorns that squirrels obligingly taxi from one forest to
another,bury,and then,just often enough,forget to eat.
Even evolution evolves. About ten thousand years ago the
world witnessed a second flowering of plant diversity that we
would come to call, somewhat self-centeredly, “the invention of
agriculture.”A group of angiosperms refined their basic put-the-
animals-to-work strategy to take advantage ofone particular ani-
mal that had evolved not only to move freely around the earth,but
to think and trade complicated thoughts.These plants hit on a re-
markably clever strategy: getting us to move and think for them.
Now came edible grasses (such as wheat and corn) that incited
humans to cut down vast forests to make more room for them;
flowers whose beauty would transfix whole cultures; plants so

compelling and useful and tasty they would inspire human beings
to seed,transport,extol,and even write books about them.This is
one ofthose books.

So am I suggesting that the plants made me do it? Only in the
sense that the flower “makes”the bee pay it a visit.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 ofthemselves by what-
ever means trial and error present.Sometimes an adaptive trait is so
clever it appears purposeful:the ant that “cultivates”its own gardens
ofedible fungus,for instance,or the pitcher plant that “convinces”a
fly it’s a piece ofrotting meat.But such traits are clever only in retro-
spect.Design in nature is but a concatenation ofaccidents,culled by
natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem
a miracle ofpurpose.

By the same token,we’re prone to overestimate our own agency
in nature.Many ofthe activities humans like to think they under-
take for their own good purposes—inventing agriculture,outlaw-
ing certain plants, writing books in praise of others—are mere
contingencies as far as nature is concerned.Our desires are simply
more grist for evolution’s mill, no different from a change in the
weather: a peril for some species, an opportunity for others. 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.That’s why it makes
just as much sense to think ofagriculture as something the grasses
did to people as a way to conquer the trees.

When Charles Darwin was writing The Origin ofSpecies,deciding
how best to spring his outlandish idea ofnatural selection on the
world, he settled on a curious rhetorical strategy. Rather than

open the book with an account ofhis new theory,he began with a
side subject he judged people (and perhaps English gardeners in
particular) would have an easier time getting their heads around.
Darwin devoted the first chapter ofThe Origin ofSpeciesto a spe-
cial case ofnatural selection called “artificial selection”—his term
for the process by which domesticated species come into the
world.Darwin was using the word artificialnot as in fakebut as in
artifact: a thing reflecting human will.There’s nothing fake about
a hybrid rose or a butter pear,a cocker spaniel or a show pigeon.
These were a few of the domesticated species Darwin wrote
about in his opening chapter,demonstrating how in each case the
species proposes a wealth of variation from which humans then
select the traits that will be passed down to future generations.In
the special realm ofdomestication,Darwin explained,human de-
sire (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) plays the same role
that blind nature does everywhere else,determining what consti-
tutes “fitness”and thereby leading,over time,to the emergence of
new forms oflife.The evolutionary rules are the same (“modifica-
tion by descent”),but Darwin understood that they’d be easier to
follow in the story ofthe tea rose than the sea turtle,in the setting
ofthe garden than the Galápagos.

In the years since Darwin published The Origin of Species, the
crisp conceptual line that divided artificial from natural selection
has blurred.Whereas once humankind exerted its will in the rela-
tively small arena of artificial selection (the arena I think of,
metaphorically, as a garden) and nature held sway everywhere
else, today the force of our presence is felt everywhere. It has be-
come much harder, in the past century, to tell where the garden
leaves offand pure nature begins.We are shaping the evolutionary
weather in ways Darwin could never have foreseen; indeed, even
the weather itselfis in some sense an artifact now,its temperatures
and storms the reflection ofour actions.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.
Artificial selection has become a much more important chapter in
natural history as it has moved into the space once ruled exclu-
sively by natural selection.

That space,which is the one we often call “the wild,”was never
quite as innocent of our influence as we like to think; the Mo-
hawks and Delawares had left their marks on the Ohio wilderness
long before John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) showed up
and began planting apple trees.Yet even the dream ofsuch a space
has become hard to sustain in a time of global warming, ozone
holes,and technologies that allow us to modify life at the genetic
level—one ofthe wild’s last redoubts.Partly by default,partly by
design,all ofnature is now in the process ofbeing domesticated—
of coming, or finding itself, under the (somewhat leaky) roof of
civilization.Indeed,even the wild now depends on civilization for
its survival.
Nature’s success stories from now on are probably going to
look a lot more like the apple’s than the panda’s or white leopard’s.
Ifthose last two species have a future,it will be because ofhuman
desire; strangely enough, their survival now depends on what
amounts to a form of artificial selection. This is the world in
which we,along with Earth’s other creatures,now must make our
uncharted way.
This book takes place in that world; consider it a set of dis-
patches from Darwin’s ever-expanding garden of artificial selec-
tion. Its main characters are four of that world’s success stories.
The dogs,cats,and horses ofthe plant world,these domesticated
species are familiar to everyone,so deeply woven into the fabric of
our everyday lives that we scarcely think of them as “species”or
parts of“nature”at all.But why is that? I suspect it’s at least partly
the fault of the word.“Domestic”implies that these species have
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come in or been brought under civilization’s roof, which is true
enough;yet the house-y metaphor encourages us to think that by
doing so they have,like us,somehow leftnature,as ifnature were
something that only happens outside.
This is simply another failure ofimagination:nature is not only
to be found “out there”; it is also “in here,”in the apple and the
potato,in the garden and the kitchen,even in the brain ofa man
beholding the beauty of a tulip or inhaling the smoke from a
burning cannabis flower. My wager is that when we can find na-
ture in these sorts ofplaces as readily as we now find it in the wild,
we’ll have traveled a considerable distance toward understanding
our place in the world in the fullness ofits complexity and ambi-
guity.
I’ve chosen the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato for
several logical-sounding reasons. One is that they represent four
important classes ofdomesticated plants (a fruit,a flower,a drug
plant, and a staple food).Also, having grown these four plants at
one time or another in my own garden, I’m on fairly intimate
terms with them.But the real reason I chose these plants and not
another four is simpler than that:they have great stories to tell.
Each of the chapters that follows takes the form of a journey
that either starts out,stops by,or ends up in my garden but along
the way ventures far afield, both in space and historical time: to
seventeenth-century Amsterdam,where,for a brief,perverse mo-
ment, the tulip became more precious than gold; to a corporate
campus in St. Louis, where genetic engineers are reinventing the
potato; and back to Amsterdam, where another, far less lovely
flower has made itself,again,more precious than gold.I also travel
to potato farms in Idaho;follow my species’passion for intoxicat-
ing plants down through history and into contemporary neuro-
science;and paddle a canoe down a river in central Ohio in search
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ofthe real Johnny Appleseed.Hoping to render our relationships
with these four species in all their complexity, I look at them, by
turns, through a variety of lenses: social and natural history, sci-
ence,journalism,biography,mythology,philosophy,and memoir.
These are stories, then, about Man and Nature. We’ve been
telling ourselves such stories forever, as a way of making sense of
what we call our “relationship to nature”—to borrow that curi-
ous,revealing phrase.(What other species can even be said to have
a “relationship”to nature?) For a long time now,the Man in these
stories has gazed at Nature across a gulf of awe or mystery or
shame.Even when the tenor ofthese narratives changes,as it has
over time, the gulf remains. There’s the old heroic story, where
Man is at war with Nature; the romantic version, where Man
merges spiritually with Nature (usually with some help from the
pathetic fallacy); and, more recently, the environmental morality
tale,in which Nature pays Man back for his transgressions,usually
in the coin ofdisaster—three different narratives (at least),yet all
of them share a premise we know to be false but can’t seem to
shake:that we somehow stand outside,or apart from,nature.
This book tells a different kind ofstory about Man and Nature,
one that aims to put us back in the great reciprocal web that is life
on Earth.My hope is that by the time you close its covers,things
outside (and inside) will look a little different, so that when you
see an apple tree across a road or a tulip across a table,it won’t ap-
pear quite so alien,so Other.Seeing these plants instead as willing
partners in an intimate and reciprocal relationship with us means
looking at ourselves a little differently,too:as the objects ofother
species’designs and desires,as one ofthe newer bees in Darwin’s
garden—ingenious, sometimes reckless, and remarkably unself-
conscious.Think ofthis book as that bee’s mirror.
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3 thoughts on “intro to Michael Pollan’s “Botany of Desire”

  1. I really liked this intro and I actually put it into my ranked annotated bibliography and a chapter that helped me this semester. I was really intrigued by the connections that Michael Pollan made because I had never thought of it before.

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