Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Review #1-The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book made me think, taught me many new things from genetics to history, yet he somehow managed to keep it light enough to make me laugh. Thinking, learning, and laughing - a great combination! He focuses on four plants that he cleverly connected to four basic human desires: sweetness-apple, beauty-tulip, intoxication-marijuana, and control-potato. He divides the book into sections with each section covering one desire and one plant. This arrangement made it easy to read and understand. He did seem to not have a great opinion of God which bothered me, but I didn’t take away from the rating just because we may not share the same religious beliefs.


The apple was one of the few things that was sweet to eat when white sugar was not easily obtainable. He gives the history of Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) and his role in establishing the apple firmly in American life. I learned more about his life as well as apple genetics. Two apple facts: First, the seeds contain a small amount of cyanide causing the bitter taste if you accidentally bite into one. It is thought that this is a defense mechanism to keep animals from eating the seeds. Second, is that every seed in every apple contains completely different genetics. Just as humans are heterozygous-no two alike, so are apples. Every single apple would only have resemblances of the parent tree producing completely different apples. The reason we have apple families-Gala, for example, is because of grafting. If not for that, once the Gala tree died we would never have that kind of apple again.


Great information about the tulip and its Dutch history. He also tells about a virus that instead of making the plant wither and become unsightly, it made the colors vibrant and beautiful. While making the tulip more beautiful on the outside, it weakened the plant. After a couple hundred years this certain breed of tulip eventually died…basically killed for its deadly beauty (hmmm, they say beauty is only skin deep)


The most interesting thing about this section was the research being done on the brain in relation to THC. Two researchers discovered a specific receptor for THC in the brain leading to the discovery of a new brain network. Cannabinoid receptors show up all over the brain, but were specifically clustered in the areas responsible for the mind altering effects of marijuana…cerebral cortex (higher order thought), hippocampus (memory), basal ganglia (movement), and amygdala (emotions). Now neuroscientists are working to find out exactly how the cannabinoid network works and why we should have one in the first place. When the author asked the female researcher what she thought the purpose of the network could be she referred to direct and indirect effects such as pain relief, loss of short term memory, sedation, and mild cognitive impairment. The explanation for this? “ All of which is exactly what Adam and Eve would want after being thrown our of Eden. You couldn’t design a more perfect drug for getting Eve through the pain of childbirth or helping Adam endure a life of physical toil.” She noted that cannabinoid receptors have been found in the uterus…this may not only dull pain, but also help women forget it later. It is the brain’s own drug for coping with the human condition. Gotta love a female researcher!

Desire-Control….Plant –Potato

I couldn’t wait to see how he related the potato to control and boy did he do a good job of it. From the poverty stricken Ireland of the late 1700’s and population control to genetically modified potatoes to control nature in the late 1900s…what a journey the potato has made across the land and into the taste buds. From being called “the root of plenty” to being named as the problem of Ireland…”the indolent and turbulent habits of the lower Irish can never be corrected while the potato system enables them to increase so much beyond the regular demand for labour.’ Now, we are into the age of either eating potatoes doused with chemicals or genetically modified with a pesticide included making the potato “intellectual property” protected by federal laws. What is really scary is that this potato plant is registered as a pesticide with the Environmental Protection Administration!

The book is full of great information and it was difficult to limit it. A really good nonfiction read

1 comment:

B said...

Ohhh...that's sound really good! I'll have to borrow it....B.