The Botany of Desire

Last month PBS aired a two hour special on The Botany of Desire by science writer, Michael
Pollan. Pollan set out to explore how four particular plants have evolved to
satisfy human desires: the apple, which evolved to satisfy our desire for
sweetness; the tulip, our desire for beauty; the cannabis (marijuana plant),
our desire for intoxication; and the potato, our desire for control.

The documentary shows beautifully how over time man has
cultivated, cross-bred, and aided the transfer of these plants from one native
environment to another. What’s odd is that Pollan talks about the plants as if
they’re the ones in control while all these things are going on. For example,
the apple’s existential predicament, Pollan says, was that it was stuck in one
place. So the apple evolved to appeal to mammals so they wouldn’t be stuck
there, and that’s how they got people to bring them to America.

For the tulip, which Pollan says has no practical value, “the
really ingenious ones are the ones that figure out ways to reengage us every
generation.” They do this by reproducing themselves in different colors so we
won’t get bored with them.

The unique feature of the cannabis plant lay in its ability
to make chemical molecules that have the power to alter one’s mental state.
“Cannabis recognized that this was the path to world domination.”

The potato? Pollan didn’t ascribe as much intelligence to
the pedestrian potato. It evolved, he says, to gratify our desire for control because
we can grow huge amounts of it.

To be fair, Pollan shows genuine, contagious wonder at the
fascinating subjects of his study, and he does admit at the end of the show
that he’s engaging in a bit of anthropomorphism. His conclusion was a fairly
accurate summary of the power of nature. “Nature is stronger than any of our
designs, and nature resists our controls.” I wouldn’t argue that point.

But what struck me as odd was that all the ingenuity and
industriousness was ascribed to the plants, not to the people who were cultivating,
growing, researching, cross-breeding, or transporting them. And it was the plants
that had plans, will, and intentions. The people were merely objects for plants
to manipulate.

Different. Plus, for me, I couldn’t help but think that
potatoes satisfy a desire for food more than a desire for control.



2 thoughts on “The Botany of Desire

  1. Yes, I’m going to agree that the cultivation of potatoes has more to do with their rapid factory-like reproduction, easy storage and re-plantability, all with a focus on *not starving to death*… they also require minimal preparation (no milling, etc)
    Garlic is similar, which has been cultivated for God-only-knows how long:
    I have had it sprout in the refrigerator before. Must remind it of its Siberian homeland…!

  2. Early examples of plant taxonomy occur in the Rigveda, that divides plants into V?ska (tree), Osadhi (herbs useful to humans) and Virudha (creepers), which are then further subdivided. The Atharvaveda divides plants into eight classes, Visakha (spreading branches), Manjari (leaves with long clusters), Sthambini (bushy plants), Prastanavati (which expands); Ekas?nga (those with monopodial growth), Pratanavati (creeping plants), Amsumati (with many stalks), and Kandini (plants with knotty joints). The Taittiriya Samhita classifies the plant kingdom into v?ksa, vana and druma (trees), visakha (shrubs with spreading branches), sasa (herbs), amsumali (a spreading or deliquescent plant), vratati (climber), stambini (bushy plant), pratanavati (creeper), and alasala (those spreading on the ground).

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