How do you summarize a book that traverses every continent, plumbs the depths of human and paleontological history and skims both the ocean waves and the dead silence of outer space? "The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History" (Basic Books, $26.99), does just that, tracing the journey of seeds and making a case that the world as we know it is saturated with, and impossible without, seeds.
The purpose of this book is to celebrate the vast power of seeds. Seeds protect, disperse and feed baby plants. Because of that process, seeds have conquered the terrestrial world and shaped human history. Without seeds, we could not “enjoy most deep-fried foods, walk on linoleum floors, paint our houses, lubricate rocket and race-car engines, or marvel at the artwork of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Renoir, van Gogh, and Monet,” writes "The Triumph Seeds" author and conservation biologist Thor Hanson.
Not only did "The Triumph of Seeds" deeply educate me in seed biology and evolution, but I also learned of the significant role seeds have played in the growth and development of human civilization and the very real and specific impact seeds have had on the course of human history.
Hanson demonstrates why seeds have been one of nature’s success stories.
Seeds nourish: Seeds have the nutrients already in place to sustain a baby plant.
Seeds also nourish humans, which is a key reason that thousands of seed banks have been created to hedge against a disaster, though human-created disaster can compromise these efforts as the civil war in Syria demonstrates, Hanson says. Ultimately, actively planting and using seeds is the best way to preserve them. Seed banks can buy us time, but ultimately, seeds are designed for growth, not sitting in a bank.
Seeds unite: Sexual reproduction increased the innovative combinations possible for plants, diversified their lineages, and made it possible for plants to adapt and thrive in an astonishing number of earthly environments.
Seeds endure: Seeds can survive storage, fire and cold. What other living entity can “hibernate” for so long under such extreme conditions? In this regard, seeds are truly remarkable.
“Seeds can have an almost indefinite life span,” writes Hanson. For example, during the archaeological dig at Masada, date seeds more than 2,000 years old were found. An enterprising botanist eventually planted one of these seeds. It sprouted. This thriving date tree is named Methuselah (a reference to the long-lived patriarch from the Bible).
Seeds defend: In order to protect the future life of a plant, seeds are well-equipped with a variety of defenses that increase the odds that the seed will survive to germinate. Defenses may include a hard shell, poky spines or even deterring chemicals that make its consumption undesirable. Other seeds have evolved to be consumed in order to increase dispersion.
Seeds travel: Consider the enormity of the feat that plants have to gather all of their nutrients, defend themselves and reproduce all while being stationary. Yet with the innovation of the seed, plants can travel far and wide, conquering new habitats.
On a note related to traveling and defending, Hanson explores the question, “Why do we add seeds (spices) to our food, especially meat food?” His answer is that meat can move. Animals can move to defend themselves. Plants don’t move. They do all of their feeding, reproducing and defense while stationary, and thus they have evolved to contain a variety of chemicals to defend themselves. We then use these chemicals (attached to seeds as spice) to flavor and enhance our foods.
Seeds shape human history: Two examples in "Triumph of Seeds" demonstrate seeds' influence on history.
The notorious “Triangle Trade” of the 16th to 19th centuries was founded on cotton, one of the most valuable seed-based plants. Because cotton is a very labor-intensive crop, slavery was chosen to answer the labor need. Had there been no cotton or similar crop in the U.S. Southern states' economy, it is very likely that there would have been no slavery and no American Civil War.
Seeds have been the foundation of political and intellectual revolutions. During the 1700s, coffee houses sprang up everywhere in Europe, serving as intellectual gathering places that contributed to cultural, scientific, literary and business advancements. These gathering places spurred on the Enlightenment and contributed to the revolutionary ideals that led to the American and French revolutions, all over indeterminate numbers of cups of coffee grown from the coffee bean (or seed).
Take a moment to consider and appreciate all the ways that seeds magnify and brighten your life. I know I have since reading this book. And I’m a better person for it.
Taylor Halverson (Ph.D.s in biblical studies and instructional technology) is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. http://taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.