An appreciation of The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson. Basic Books, 2015
One of the great ‘throw-away’ lines in a book I reviewed recently is that “endosperm provides 50-70% of all human calories” (Armstrong, 2014, p. 308). Endosperm [“a tissue produced inside the seeds of most flowering plants … It surrounds the embryo and provides nutrition in the form of starch, though it can also contain oils and protein. This can make endosperm a source of nutrition in human diet”] is at the heart of many seeds and would be justification enough for Thor Hanson’s latest science writing project The Triumph of Seeds [hereafter referred to as Seeds]. But, and somewhat dramatically, Seeds claims to show how grains, nuts, kernels, pulses, and pips not only conquered the Plant Kingdom but also shaped human history. A bold claim, but the case is argued convincingly – and well – and both substantiated and justified.
Assessment of Seeds
Seeds’ 277 pages (+ xxv pages of Author’s Note, Acknowledgements, Preface, and Introduction) contain 13 numbered chapters, a Conclusion, and various other ‘end-matter’ sections. Its chapters are divided into 5 themes (as introduced in the Introduction…): Seeds nourish (3 chapters); Seeds unite (2 ch.), Seeds endure (2 ch.), Seeds defend (4 ch.), and Seeds travel (2 ch.), which mirror what seeds do to survive. Oh, and lest the purists get too upset, Hanson has used a “functional definition” of seeds (“the hard bit encompassing the baby plant”, “what a farmer sows to raise a crop” – p. 16). But what did Seeds mean to me? What did I get out of it? Well, many things…
It contains nice imagery with its excitement of undertaking a line transect in a tropical forest (although the encounter with a fer-de-lance, a highly venomous snake of the Bothrops genus, is probably too much excitement for most of us!), with its analogy of expanding balloons and embryonic root development; and the ‘hope springs eternal’ notion of the buried seed bank blossoming in London in the spring of 1667 (after the previous year’s Great Fire…).
It had ‘Aha!’ moments: the enhanced energy gain that accrues when food is cooked is because its digestibility is thereby increased, and this use of fire is what separates the evolution of humans, the so-called ‘cooking ape’, from other primates; the derivation of the near-acronym canola (what the Canadians and Americans call oilseed rape) was explained; and the myth that spices were used to cover up the taste of rotting meat is dispelled.
Seeds also contains practical advice for anyone who’s ever tried to germinate avocado seeds – it can take at least a month before roots appear, so be patient! It’s not shy of offering ‘lifestyle advice’ either with the sage words, “Never argue with a fool – an onlooker can’t tell the difference.”
Seeds gives fascinating insights into: plant-predator/parasite co-evolution, e.g. in the tale of the hot/mild chillies; how coumarin (a seed extract) became converted to warfarin (a potent rat poison) which has found a new lease of life in humans as an anti-coagulant; and the amazing notion that the design of the planes form which bombs (grenades) were first dropped from on high in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911 was inspired by the flying seed of the Javan cucumber (and is subsequently seen in the design of the American stealth bomber…).
Seeds is intriguing: it might just change the way you view the landscape of the coal-forming Carboniferous period – maybe even viewing it as the Coniferous; and doesn’t disappoint in recounting the ever-intriguing story of the “Bulgarian brolly assassination” and seed-derived ricin. Also intriguing is the recognition that Ch. 9’s quest for spices (often seeds from far-eastern plants) is likened to our modern-day appetite for petroleum.
Seeds has lots of welcome up-to-datedness: use of an approximate value of 352,000 seed plant (which for Hanson is angiosperms and gymnosperms combined) species [presumably based on Paton et al. (2008)’s estimate of 325,000 angiosperms, but which is neither cited nor listed in the Bibliography, but which figure is used by The Plant List – which Hanson does cite]; an explanation of why chocolate melts in the mouth (quite literally!) (which has a molecular dimension nowadays); relevance of seed-derived guar gum to fracking (a process that releases gas from underground deposits, and which is a very hot topic this side of the Atlantic); good coverage of the Svalbard Seed Vault (which is also listed in the Index), but merely allusion to Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (and which is not listed in the Index(!).
Seeds contains many reminders. A reminder that seeds and seed products are a fundamental part of who – and probably what – we are; a salutary reminder that the rules of inheritance were deduced by an Austrian monk using peas; a timely reminder that rivalry between European powers has laid the foundation for much of modern-day economic activity as exemplified in Ch. 10’s tale of how coffee-growing – originally a product of the Arabian Peninsula – became established in Central and South America thereby allowing the French to break the near-monopoly of the Java-based Dutch (who had initially wrested it from the Arabs…). Ch. 12 also ‘reminds’ us that the greatest seed-dispersal story of all time may be that of Christian tradition’s tale of Adam and Eve ,who, after eating the fruit in the Garden of Eden, took the ‘internalised’ but undigested seeds of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil with them as they left that paradise (and which notion touches upon territory in Michael Pollan’s book “The botany of desire” which views humans as ”servants of our food plants”). We are also reminded of the terrible human cost that accompanied cotton’s exploitation with considerations of slavery and the Industrial Revolution. And Seeds reminds us that history does repeat itself as a cereal-based dimension in seen is such historic events as the Black Death, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the 21st century’s Arab Spring (!). But Seeds also reminds us that science can be fun: As Hanson attempts to repeat Mendel’s work, or tries to tear apart a cotton boll to count the ‘fibres’, or investigates the wind-dispersal mechanism of Javan cucumber seed with his own F1, Noah.
Seeds provides ‘makes you think’ moments: Whilst we are used to single cotyledon-bearing plants (the Monocotyledons) and those with 2, the Dicotyledons, amongst the Angiosperms, Hanson makes the point that pine trees have up to 24 cotyledons; maybe it is true that caffeine is the drug that makes the modern world possible?; “Brazil without big trees” was Darwin’s assessment of the Galapagos; and, as a US$425 billion industry, cotton is the most valuable non-food crop in history.
Throughout Seeds, the narrative meanders seemingly effortlessly (a sure sign of great writing!) from the present to the past, from modern-day politics, commerce and seed-science, to ancient Greece and Rome and the Maya of the Americas, from the far-distant (to this UK-based commentator at least!) tropical rainforest to the our own backyard or the street corner. And Seeds is wonderfully well written (and contains numerous line drawings), with super linking paragraphs that take you seamlessly from one chapter to the next. And, whilst it is not a textbook as such, a lot of education takes place as one reads the text in Seeds, with its strong evolutionary theme running throughout.
As for the end sections, Seeds contains:
Appendix A – 5.5 pages listing the common and scientific names (the latter binomial term is much to be preferred to the more prevalent – though inaccurate – phrase Latin names, which term otherwise seriously scientific sites such as The Plant List still use) and family for those plants mentioned in the text (and wherein spp. is correctly not italicised. My students could learn so much good practice from just this section alone!)
Appendix B – 1 page of information on seed conservation organisations (and where we are told that a portion of the book proceeds will be donated to help preserve the diversity of seeds from both wild and cultivated species).
Notes – c. 18 pp. thereof, and which the reader is encouraged to read in the Author’s Notes on p. ix because they do contain much interesting material that couldn’t be squeezed into the main narrative. But one has to actively seek them out; there are no numbers in the narrative to advise us where there is a note. However, and notwithstanding this substantial section, the main text still has at least three footnotes (pp. 131, 169, and 212…).
Glossary – approx. 5.75 pp.; although Hanson has tried to keep botanical jargon to an “absolute minimum” this section should deal with those cases where this was unavoidable.
Bibliography – 15 pp. with 89 items dated post-2005 (maybe 90, but no year is listed for Falcon-Lang et al. !), and which therefore seems pretty up-to-date (but which still also includes 8 Charles Darwin Refs from the late 19th Century(!))
Index – c. 10.75 pages, 2-columned.
Seeds’ obvious comparison is with Thompson (2010)’s tome. Entitled “Seeds, sex and civilization: How the hidden life of plants has shaped our world” that book covers very similar ground to Hanson’s. I’ve not read Thompson in anything like the detail I did Seeds, and it’s therefore hard to say how similar the two are. However, in a world where plant-based books tend to be in scant supply, I’m prepared to say that there’s room for both of them(!). Curiously, Hanson does not cite Thompson in Seeds.
My gripes are few: All are botanical, and primarily arithmetical.
‘Forgiving’ Hanson for using 352,000 as an approximate number of seed-bearing plant spp. (but which really ought to be 353,000 – 352,000 for angiosperms plus 1,000 for gymnosperm spp., there are some inaccuracies in his statements that one-20th [5%] of angiosperms are grasses (p. 24), and that nearly one out of every 10 (10%) spp. in global flora is an orchid (p. 215). Using The Plant List – for consistency with Hanson – there are 11,554 grass spp.; i.e. approx. 3.3 of total angiosperm spp. are grasses. Taking The Plant List’s estimate of 27,801 orchid spp., which is closer to 1 in 13. Unnecessarily picky? Maybe, but it indicates the potential confusion that can arise when citations aren’t given for statements made (but perhaps that’s where a more-reflective, personal natural history book differs from a textbook..?). On a related numerical note, in relating the tale of the successful germination in 2005 of palm seed rescued from the Roman siege of Masada in 72/3 AD/CE, I think Hanson is a little free with the truth when he talks of the young tree’s 2,000-year lifespan (p. 85); Methuselah is at present approx. 10 years old (if it still lives…). Finally, there’s one spelling I want to question: imbibation (pp. 248, 227). Shouldn’t this be imbibition [“a special type of diffusion when water is absorbed by solids-colloids-causing them to enormously increase in volume. The classical examples of imbibition are absorption of water by seeds…”]?
The author, Thor Hanson, is a conservation biologist, Guggenheim Fellow, Switzer Environmental Fellow, and winner of the John Burrough Medal for excellence in nature writing and natural history. Whilst you don’t need to know any of that to appreciate the book, it does emphasise his track record in populist science communication, and underlines his academic credentials in writing about quite a scientific topic. Seeds successfully blends natural history, personal anecdotes, and ‘proper’ science and ties them all together seamlessly with lovely writing. Although often over-used, I think Seeds can be summed up appropriately in one word: Charming. It is well worth the effort (though it was no effort at all!) of reading it. In fact it was a pleasure to read and I learnt a lot. I started reading the book in the morning of the day before Friday, and – were it not for the fact I was taking copious notes for this review and for my own teaching purposes – would have finished it in the one sitting well before supper-time. Truly, it was Thor’s day! As Hanson says on p. xvii, “If I have done my job right, you will see in the end what I have come to know, … seeds are a marvel, worthy of praise, wonder, and any number of exclamation points. (!)” Job done right(!)
Armstrong JE (2014) How the Earth Turned Green: A brief 3.8-billion-year history of plants. The University of Chicago Press.
Paton AJ, Brummitt N, Govaerts R, Harman K, Hinchcliffe S, Allkin B and Lughadha EN (2008) Towards Target 1 of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation: a working list of all known plant species—progress and prospects. Taxon 57: 602–611.
Pollan M (2002) The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-eye View of the World. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
Thompson P (2010) Seeds, sex and civilization: How the hidden life of plants has shaped our world. Thames and Hudson.