Saturday, 16 February 2008

Curing the disease of human self-importance

Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire* changed my life. More specifically, it changed my lazy, conceited assumptions about the primacy of human consciousness.

Sure, I'd known for a long time that the Great Chain of Being (and its counterpart in evolutionary language, the concept of "higher" species the highest being Homo sapiens) is a load of anthropocentric hogwash. And I've known for slightly less time that there are several simple but earth-shaking ways to visualise the specific truth and putridity of said hogwash.

One of these is this simple list of the number of genes in various genomes that have been sequenced:
Thale cress.....25,500
Sea urchin......23,300
Fruit fly........13,700
Baker's yeast....5,800
E. coli...........4,400
Then, for the more visual among us, there's also the lovely evolutionary tree of life, with its teeny tiny "you are here" annotation (high res pdf):

So, then, if we already know that humans are not at the top of some mistakenly conceived evolutionary escalator, what's so special about The Botany of Desire*?

The core concept of the book boils down to this question: what would happen if we looked at agriculture "not as an invention, not as a human technology, but as a co-evolutionary development in which a group of very clever species--mostly edible grasses--had exploited us/figured out how to get us to basically deforest the world" to benefit their genetic legacy?

It's a new way of thinking about agriculture, to be sure. But how is Pollan's idea any different or better than the list of gene numbers (in which the relative positions of rice and humans are already fairly suggestive of some kind of grassy overlordship), or the "you are here" tree of life?

Pollan's hook does go deeper than the list and the tree, by penetrating the skin of human physical form and getting down to the sinew of human intention. But is the botany of desire really anything more than a "literary conceit" as Pollan himself calls it? Does it actually benefit anyone or anything beyond giving us "some entertaining insights"?

In his Ted talk, below, Pollan argues, I think convincingly, that there are real tangible benefits to thinking about ourselves in this new way. For example, he cites its power to "really make us feel the Darwinian idea". It certainly did that for me. I had seen any number of "you are here" diagrams but it didn't really come home until I thought about how I was being expertly manipulated by the edible grasses.

But enough of my trying to explain it, why not hear it straight from the eloquent and impassioned Pollan himself:

H/t to Greg Laden.

*no Amazon link, support your independent bookstore


Mich said...

nice blog :)

nlightnmnt said...

And his name is Pollan!