“A Concatenation of Accidents”
Pollan, Michael. 2002. The Botany of Desire. pg. xxiii-xxv. Random House, Toronto, Canada.
Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. pg 114-130. Norton, New York, United States.
It is a most peculiar experience whenever I am forced to acknowledge my anthropocentric view of the world. What better class to do it in than one that highlights the effect that plants have made on humans over the course of our brief history. One step back and a vast cycle of life forms adjusting each other for their own fitness comes into focus. For every corn plant humans have selected and cultivated, the argument can be made that corn has also selected us to propagate their seeds. By improving the ability for humans to survive, and thereby procreate, corn has given us cause to increase our production of corn greatly since the first corn plant was discovered as a food source. This relationship is one of mutual dependency where both parties are required in order to see either continue to prosper. Michael Pollan humourously puts the impetus on corn in his book The Botany of Desire by saying “that’s why it makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees.” (pg xxi). If we continue to put a human voice to corn it would be easy to say that corn is doing quite well in it’s war on the trees.
Jared Diamond explains how it could be that plants, or more appropriately natural selection as a cosmic force, use humans to select for beneficial traits in the seventh chapter of his book Guns, Germ, and Steel. He says that “as far as plants are concerned, we’re just one of thousands of animal species that unconsciously ‘domesticate’ plants.” (pg 115) an observation that when taken one step back reveals natural selection as the culprit in nearly every interaction. Diamond then points to the politely described latrine sites where many seeds would have collected over the course of a humans lifetime. (pg 117). As a person collects strawberries for consumption in the wild it is more likely that they will grab big strawberries. A reasonable assumption is that the seeds of big strawberries will produce strawberry bushes that will produce more big strawberries in kind. When the person notices the correlation between these events it is also reasonable to assume that they might try to plant some more of these seeds somewhere they can easily retrieve the fruits from. Voila, a very watered down example of an animal accidentally domesticating a plant. Following this domestication, we see the fitness of the strawberry improve drastically. Genetic information is passed down constantly as humans continue to increase demand for the sweet fruit. Pretty clever trick on the part of the strawberry.
Ok, so what? Why does it matter that plants are respectively domesticating us? We perform a service to them that increases their fitness while they do the same for us. What’s the big deal? I think the answer to that lies in the unwillingness humans have towards the idea that we AREN’T the center of the universe. It’s a big deal because by not accepting that we as a species are just another aspect of nature performing its ultimate task I think we find ourselves ignorantly pushing forward a system that is unsustainable only for ourselves. The penalty for this ignorance is a short species lifespan. While we might drag other life into oblivion with us on our short 1 million year trip into the dumpster it is very likely that life will find a way to carry on without us. As the years go on the situation becomes more and more a shape up or ship out scenario.
“All aboard the HMCS Extinction! Lieutenant are all of the humans accounted for?”
“Aye Captain! They’re all safe below deck. Funny thing is they still seem confused about what’s happening. Sir, I don’t think they know that they’re going extinct.”
“Yes Lieutenant, that is unfortunately the case. For some reason they spent their twilight years arguing over the safety of vaccines, and hollering about the lives of celebrities instead of doing anything about climate change. Well, hopefully the lizard people will be better stewards of the planet.”
“We can only hope so, Sir.”