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June 22, 2003

The Botany of Desire

I wrote this last July and need to get it here:

michael pollan is the man i want my son to follow. he has singlehandedly for me turned science back into the direction of biology and away from math and technology. if that sounds oxymoronic it is perhaps because we so easily associated math and technology directly with hardware and the entire skew the cold war has had on american science. when i grew up, thinking about science and brains meant thinking about rockets, space, nuclear engergy, electrical, civil and mechanical engineering. the holy grail of understanding stood at the level of maxwells equations and the high priests of all were the theoretical physicists. other scientific minds like watson, crick and darwin were lesser lights whose duty was to inspire elementary-level battle against religious fundamentalists. but there was no way that studying plants could rival studying steel. pollan introduces the possibility for 4H to become more popular than the computer club, the botany of desire is the manifesto.

over the past ten years, computer geeks like me have only stopped to turn our heads toward the natural world for the occasional publication. jared diamond's guns germs and steel has been about as far as most of us have been willing to follow that path. but 'the botany of desire' has ignited a curiousity about the natural world i haven't felt since the first time i followed jacques and his sons out on the calypso. talking with dolphins and chimps has only generated a vocabulary of a few hundred words with a few dozen researchers at most, but pollan illumniates a dialog between plants and humans that goes back dozens of generations in hundreds of ways around the world. distilling it down to tulips, apples, cannibis and potatoes, pollans smoothly scientific and philosophical narrative has generated a kernel of interest that could easily go in dozens of directions. each has gotten me eager to get my hands dirty.

as i look back, i find it is pollan who has singly nabbed me in this regard. i can still recall the fascination i had with his april 1997 article in harper's magazine 'opium made easy'. as well, his recent new york time's magazine article 'this steer's life' grabbed me out of complacency. for me, he has become the james glick of the natural world. yet everything he speaks of is so much more personal. it's easy to speculate about what cellular technology might do, and so much of our admiration of scientific discovery has much to do with futurism. pollan, however uses scientific discipline to investigate what already is, which forces us to apply our minds to problems and opportunities that already exist rather than to the accelleration of anticipation on what might be if only. yes, bluetooth wireless might allow me to do x y and z in tomorrows world, but there are potatoes and apples in the market today which represent an extraordinarily complex mix (or lack thereof) of genetic science. that i can exercise intellectual judgement over this matter today excites me much more that the possibility that i might be a smart consumer tomorrow. even better, that i might become a gardener today and that there is a fight over 'open source' seeds today is far more appealing than parallel matters in software. i am what i think but even more what i eat. pollan give me so many new ways to think about what i eat.

the botany of desire is delightfully entangled in human emotions as the title suggests. there is more than science here to contemplate. there is an entire cognitive history to contemplate. in this regard, pollan becomes a medium after borges as he introduces the reader into the contingent memesphere of plants whose influence changes human destiny - a hidden world suddenly made visible. how is any boy observing a flower bound to act in the flower's interest like a bee? the flower makes us feel. the flower makes us think. the flower makes us pick it. suddenly i understand the conflict i have when my daughter picks the random dandelion to blow its seeds. it's a weed i say, but who can resist it? and in the end i let her blow. i pluck daisys and check the fidelity of my love, i cannot resist looking for the lucky clover. we have coevolved to do so and our present is the the result of the irresistable attractions of humans and plants.

there is much more than an engrossing read here. for me, a world has been offered and i eagerly anticipate engagement. by the way, the bibliography points to multiple dimensions of new knowledge. do not miss this book. it is crucial.

Posted by mbowen at June 22, 2003 11:16 AM

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