Pollan, M. 2002. Introduction: The Human Bumblebee. pg. xiii-xxv in The Botany of Desire. Random House, New York & Toronto.
Diamond, J. 1999. Chapter 7: How to Make an Almond. pg. 114-130 in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W. W. Norton & Company, New York & London.
This question was a minor point in Pollan’s introduction, but is what stuck with me after reading. What he proposes is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate artificial and natural selection because humanity now has such a broad impact on all aspects of life on earth. We are changing weather patterns, massively altering habitat, making some species astoundingly successful while causing mass extinctions of others, we are even changing the pH of the oceans and altering the amount of UV radiation reaching the planet. So the point being, we have our fingers in every pot and are mixing, combining, and taking apart every aspect of the ‘natural world’.
If we are doing all of these things, how can we separate a natural evolution of a species compared to one that has been influenced by humanity. Us changing the climate on planet earth alters all other species that live here, so in a sense one could say that artificial selection now impacts all natural selection. This was an astounding revelation for me, and while it may or may not be defined as correct, I think that it very accurately shows how interconnected our world is. Humans are not above nature, humans are nature.
In his introduction I think that this was Pollan’s goal, to deflate humanity’s ego by a small amount. He describes how we tend to think of ourselves as the subject and of plants as the object. “I choose the plants, I pull the weeds, I harvest the crops.” This, while at a basic, technical level is correct, is not the entire truth. We are a part of the system and we do not always posses the free will that we purport to. Jared Diamond describes this idea well with his example of berry picking. As humans we consciously, or subconsciously, choose the biggest, sweetest, and easiest to access berries. This is in our advantage, but do we really have free choice in the matter? My answer would be no. So we are taking part in this system, just as the berry bush is. We disperse and propagate these certain characteristics and the plant correspondingly is more successful. Is the plant academically considering its options, weighing the options consciously, and making a decision? No. But humans don’t either. On the surface we appear to and go through the motions, but I would argue that the choice is already present the entire time.
“Evolution doesn’t depend on will or evolution to work; it is, almost by definition, an unconscious, unwilled process.” (Pollan, Introduction, xxi)
I do not think Pollan’s ideas in his introduction will be popular, or even liked to any large degree. For people who like to think of humans as above nature and apart from it, he proposes a profound interconnectedness. And for those who are unhappy with the, arguably negative, influence that humanity has had on many species, he essentially steps back and says that successful crop plants have evolved well to work with humans, which in a sense automatically places plants who are not doing well alongside humans as simply being evolutionarily inferior. If looked at purely from how well different evolutionary traits have worked for species, this is accurate thus far. If we look to the future though, with possible massive climate change happening in the next few human generations, I think that the diversity of wild plant strains may very well prove to have the upper hand.
In the end, I think that any idea which sparks controversy is worth looking at closer because, whether it is a legitimate idea or not, it helps us consider our own beliefs about what is true in the world and consider why we hold on to these ideas.