Plants vs. Artificial Selection

Plants and People Blog

Entry #3 – Guns, Germs, and Steel (Chpt. 7) and the Botany of Desire (introduction).

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York (NY): W.W Norton & Company. 114- 130 P.

Pollan, M. 2001. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s – Eye View of the World. New York (NY): Random House, Inc. xiii- xxv P.


This week I read chapter 7 of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond and the introduction of the Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. The chapter I read out of Guns, Germs, and Steel is about how wild plant species have come to be domesticated throughout history. He explains how humans and even the plants themselves play a vital role in this domestication process. In the introductory pages of The Botany of Desire, Pollan tries to illuminate the relationship between plants and humans and how their histories are intertwined. Pollan also periodically switches the point of the view, so his readers get a plants perspective as well as a human perspective on the topic at hand. Both authors agree that there is an important relationship between humans and plants that should not be underestimated.

I have very mixed feelings about this week’s readings, I love the information given but not the way it was delivered. This was especially true for Guns, Germs, and Steel, I found the subject matter very interesting, especially when he talks about the “invisible” evolutionary changes that made it possible for plant domestication. For example, Diamond explains how some plants such as peas have specialized mechanisms to help with seed dispersal, in this case the pod explodes sending peas in all directions. (pg. 120) However, some peas had mutated genes and did not explode, and it was these peas that were planted and eaten in years to come. (pg. 120) I find it so interesting that humans unknowingly selected against desirable traits for the plant, because it goes against what I have learned about natural selection so far. That is: the most desirable traits that help increase reproductive success, will be propagated through generations. Yet, humans have gone against this and propagated undesirable mutant genes because they benefited our agricultural needs. Now I can sit on my deck on a warm summer afternoon, and snack on grapes without constantly spitting out seed after seed. I think that Diamond did great job of using some good descriptive words like exploding and shattering, it really evokes a strong mental image. (pg.120) I really like how he formatted his paragraphs: he introduces his point, explains his point and then illustrated it with an example.  He does this when he explains the evolutionary advantage of plants attracting animals to disperse their seeds. (pg.116) He explains this concept by showing how a ripe strawberry is a signal to animals that the fruit is not only ripe and sweet, but the seeds are also mature. (pg.116) He chooses examples that are common and wildly know such as the strawberry or a pea pod to help solidify our understanding of the concept. I also likes how clean and linear his writing style is, I find is very easy to follow.

I must say, that out of all the authors we have read so far, I disliked Diamond the most. While I enjoyed the scientific aspect of the book, it lacked a lot of literary elements that I have enjoyed in past readings. For instance, it lacked characters and therefor any backstory, there was almost no dialogue and while his writing was clean, it was not very lyrical or descriptive. He proposes many questions in his writing, which when used sparingly is a very effective tool to get your readers thinking. However, he goes overkill on them, in the first 2 pages of the chapter (pages 114 and 115) he proposes 7 questions. I got very tired of them very quickly and instead of opening my mind to think about it, I just got frustrated and skipped over them.  He tries to inject humor into the text a few times, and it was not done well in my opinion. The entire chapter had such a serious tone that when I got to his attempt at humor it seemed like he was trying too hard. It’s kind of like when you’re a teenager and your dad tries so hard to look cool in front of your friends, but it’s painful to watch. I had that exact same feeling every time Diamond writes about latrines. While Diamond’s writing is very clean and concise, it doesn’t evoke my imagination and is pretty boring to read.

Now onto the Botany of Desire. I did not get to read any of the official chapters of the book, however; I do find the introduction very intriguing. I loved that he’s switching the narrative to the point of view of plants, I think it’s very different and creative. He focuses not only on the human and plant relationship but more on the plants themselves. This change of perspective is a helpful strategy at getting the reader to look at the situation in a different way. As humans, we are always trying to pull the conversation back to us and never consider the other perspective. Pollan defiantly has me shifting my mind set within the first few pages. I love that he is injecting himself and his garden into the story because I think it’s going to make the story very relatable. I think this book has amazing potential for some interesting character development, considering some of the characters are the plants themselves.  He had a great last line of the introduction: “Think of this book as that bee’s mirror.” (pg. xxv) It was very intriguing and made me want to turn the page and find out what he exactly meant by that statement. I did find some of his writing a little choppy and hard to follow. I had to re-read a few passages to understand what he was saying. Other than that I really enjoyed this short introduction to Pollan’s work.

I think both authors did a great job at illustrating how the relationship between plants and humans are intertwined throughout history. Not only how humans have had an effect on plant evolution by artificial selection but how plants have had a role on our evolution as well. I am very excited to see what Pollan does in the Botany of Desire in future weeks.


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