A wild boar and domestic pigs from Darwin's The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication
In 2001, Michael Pollan authored a fine popular science book called The Botany of Desire
. The work provides an interesting and insightful short history into four of the most common plants in our world: the tulip, marijuana, the apple and the potato. For each of these plants, we learn something of their origin, how they are grown today, and the path they've taken to become so utterly ubiquitous.
There are fascinating tales hidden under each leaf. Apples, as it turns out, do not "come true" from seed, and must be reproduced from grafted cuttings. As a result, every Red Delicious apple you've ever crunched into is a clone from a tree that popped up in Madison County, Iowa, some time in the middle of the 19th century. And if you were to plant the seeds from that apple, exactly none of them would look or taste like a Red Delicious. Instead you'd get apples of different colors and sizes, almost all of them just short of inedible.
The story behind each plant is so interesting that it's easy to miss Pollan's primary point. The subtitle of the book is A Plant's-Eye View of the World and that's just what he intended to do in the work: flip the way in which we usually understand the selective pressures behind domesticated plants on its human-centric head. Rather than looking at how we make plants into what we want, Pollan projects things in starkly different terms. How have some plants, by offering something that we desire (beauty, intoxication, sweetness, and sustenance in the canonical four), persuaded humans to remove them from their original, limited niches and turn them into worldwide champions? We usually look on it as people adapting plants to their needs. Pollan looks at it as plants enlisting humans to play the role of rather large bees.
It's similar to the argument that many authors have made about dogs versus wolves. Wolves, the ancestor of all domesticated dogs, are beautifully adapted predators—in a world open to creatures which need to roam long distances without being shot, blocked by fences, or flattened by automobiles. A few tens of thousands of years ago, a small group of wolves became uniquely fixated on the behavior of human beings. Currently, there are something on the order of 550 million dogs on planet Earth. There are perhaps a quarter of a million wolves. We may think that we've manipulated characteristics of a predator that was a threat (to our livestock if not ourselves) and turned them into helpmates and companions. You can look at it that way, or you can say that a few minor modifications were required to turn humans into a vector for spreading wolves around the planet.
But if it's valid to look at the relationship between people and plants, or people and animals, as being driven from either end ... how about the relationship between people and technology?
Head below the fold to find out.