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The Botany of Desire

A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

By Michael Pollan
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The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

The Botany of Desire (2001) explores the complex and fascinating relationship between humans and plants. In these blinks, we’ll see how plants manipulate humans by taking advantage of our four basic desires for sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control, and how, in turn, we help plants reproduce and even grow stronger.

Key idea 1 of 8

Just as humans benefit from plants, plants benefit from humans.

Chances are you’ve been taught the story of the birds and the bees and know how animals and insects help spread pollen, allowing plants to reproduce. But do you know the role humans play in helping plants?

As a matter of fact, plants can use humans to serve their needs.

As humans, we like to think of ourselves as the subjects: the ones who think for ourselves and are in charge of everything. And we like to think of plants as the objects: passive things that exist to serve our purposes. After all, we choose to plant the seeds, right?

But what if the plant is actually the subject, causing us to act in its interest?

For example, the bee could appear to be the subject by using the flower’s nectar for food. But the plant is really in charge, attracting the bee that will spread its pollen and using the insect to reproduce. And humans are helping plants in just the same way by spreading and planting seeds.

Plants do this by appealing to our basic desires.

We can see this in the farmer who plants an apple tree; by offering a sweet apple that humans can use for food, the plant is employing us to plant trees, thereby ensuring the species’ continued survival.

Humans have four basic desires that plants can take advantage of – sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control. Many domesticated plants can address one of these desires. For example, the apple tree uses sweetness.

Plants have developed this ability for a simple reason: they can’t travel on their own to spread their seeds.

Therefore, plants produce sweet nectars that bees desire and food that humans crave, and thus ensure that their seeds will continue to be dispersed. Likewise, an oak will produce acorns that squirrels bury for safekeeping and often forget about – and so another tree is planted.

So now that we know more about how plants take advantage of our desires. In the next blink, let’s have a closer look at the relationship between humans and apples.

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