January Book Club – Evolution and Genetics of Food

January’s book club explored the issue of our food supply: Why do humans eat what we eat? Where does it come from? How have humans changed food? Has food changed us? To begin, we discussed Michael Pollen’s “Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.” In this book, Pollan claims that flowers and plants are not passive participants, and instead are lively participants in the process of coevolution with humans. Pollan asserts that some plants satisfy basic human desires. In his book Pollan details four such examples: (1) apples represent sweetness, (2) tulips represent beauty, (3) marijuana represents pleasure and (4) potatoes represent sustenance.  In the depiction of these plants’ abilities to satiate human desires, Pollan paints a picture of coevolution whereby plants aren’t passive and may actually be using humans to survive similarly to the way humans use plants to survive.  In general, book club readers liked this book but some members found this book to be a bit to verbose and lacking sufficient scientific support.

Next we discussed Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Food by Federoff and Brown. This book attempts to tackle the issues of whether genetically modified food is safe and whether common safety concerns are valid. The book describes the history of agriculture and plant modification beginning with the so-called “natural” breeding processes to the more modern “genetic modification.”  The authors argue that genetically modified food isn’t much different from “natural” hybrid crosses farmers have been using for many years, and assets that this method is less likely to result in error. The authors also explain how the use of genetically modified food could reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilizers in the environment while simultaneously feeding a fast growing population.  Those members of the book club who were wary about genetically modified food were somewhat swayed by this book’s pervasive and well-backed arguments regarding the safety of genetically modified food and its potential for environmental conservation.

Join us on Friday, February 22 for our next Skeptic Book Club Discussion on Gender Differences. We will be reading two books with varying views on the issue: The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley (2003) and Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine (2011).  Please check out Phoenix Skeptics in the Pub at http://www.meetup.com/phoenixskeptics for more information and to RSVP.

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