Is that bird a farmer? Is the potato a shepherd?: Revisiting the poorly named process of artificial selection.

Pollan, M. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. 2002. Toronto (ON). Random House Trade Paperbacks. p.xiii-xxv.

Diamond, J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies. 1999. New York (NY). Norton Paperback. p. 114-130.

“To say that one of us are more ‘advanced’ really depends on how you define the term, on what ‘advances’ you value. Naturally we value abilities such as consciousness, toolmaking, and language, if only because these have been the destinations of our own evolutionary journey thus far. Plants have traveled all that distance and then some-they’ve just traveled in a different direction” (p. xix Botany of Desire). Powerful words from Micheal Pollan, the type of words that force one to reevaluate their own sense of self and the role of the human in this world, but we’ll come back to that.

“Botany of Desire” challenges the stigma we put to species that are domesticated. This stigma that we hold is that domestication means lesser. If we can conquer a species and enslave it, then it is not worth our reverence. A house cat could no longer survive in “nature”, but natural selection selects for traits that are best suited for their environment, at that time and the house cat’s environment is now a house. The house cat’s domesticated behavior is perfectly suited for it’s current environment and, from an evolutionary perspective, are very successful. Surely, if a cougar was in your home, you would not hesitate to kill it. The same cat whose power that we awe. The cougar in the house is an extreme, and unlikely scenario but a parallel situation happens all the time when cougars wander out of “nature” and into the city. This city wandering behaviour can sometimes lead to death of the cougar. What I am trying to illustrate is that the cougar is not well suited for the city environment and that this city environment is still nature. As Pollan says, “today, ‘fitness’ means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force” p. xxiii. This is a major theme in “Botany of Desire”. That even though we live in comfortable houses and can domesticate species, we are still apart of nature. Once we come to terms that we are apart of nature, we come to the realization that we are still subject to the laws of nature.

The definition of artificial selection is quite simple. The intentional reproduction of individuals of a species to gain it’s desirable traits. However, when applied to the natural world this definition is challenged. In “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, Diamond talks about the relationship between strawberries and birds. The fruits on strawberry plants do not turn red, sweet, and tender until their seeds are mature. The red color of the strawberry then attracts the thrushes to eat the berries. The seeds are then dispersed through the birds defecation. “The greener and more sour the young strawberry, the fewer the birds that destroyed the seeds by eating berries before the seeds were ready; the sweeter and redder the final strawberry, the more numerous the birds that dispersed its ripe seeds” (p. 116 Guns, Germs, and Steel).¬† Any biologist would claim this to be natural selection at it’s finest. However, this is the same relationship that we have with many plants that we harvest. We desire potatoes for their size and taste. The bigger and tastier potatoes are selected by us and will multiply more effectively (p. xiv-xxv Botany of Desire) and yet we call this latter scenario artificial selection. We will also often call the person who selects the bigger, tastier potatoes a good farmer. So if this is the case, are thrushes really just strawberry farmers dispersing the seeds of the sweetest and reddest berries? Is the potato a shepherd, actively domesticating us to perform the plants work? Of course not. Diamond brings us back to earth with his statement, “Naturally, strawberry plants didn’t set out with the conscious intent of attracting birds when, and only when, their plants were dispersed. Neither did thrushes set out with the intent of domesticating strawberries. Instead, strawberry plants evolved through natural selection” (p. 116 Guns, Germs, and Steel). However, this thought is what forces us to reconsider our role in the world. We do have free will, but at the same time, we are apart of a coevolutionary relationship with plants.

Pollan is very good at showing the reader that we are involved in a coevolutionary relationship with the plants that we harvest. The plants give us food, beauty or altered consciousness. In turn, we do the work of planting, dispersing and clearing areas for these plants to grow. “The fact that one has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower or the potato” (p. xv Botany of Desire).”That’s why it makes sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees” (p. xxi Botany of Desire). The evolutionary goal of all species is to pass their genetic information on. Clearly, the domesticated plants have done an exceptional job of this. So maybe the plant is more advanced than we give it credit for. Just because in our own evolutionary monetary system we value conscious thought, doesn’t mean it’s really worth that much at all.


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