Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Pepper Flavored Invasion

Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. New York: Basic Books. p 113-175

Right now, while I am writing this very blog, I can feel the presence of a single idea taking root in my mind. I imagine that you probably know what I am talking about; at first it just feels like a little itch in the back of your mind, a tease of something huge, something that could possibly blow your mind hole. However, no matter how tempting it may be, the best way to lose an idea is to force it. Just like the harvest of any kind of crop, a creative thought or an original idea needs to be seeded be in a healthy atmosphere and requires patience to properly flourish, then it is ready to be collected. 

"How can I know what I am thinking until I write it down," those words have been dancing around in the back of my mind ever since the first week of university. Nonetheless, I don't think a person necessarily needs to write down an idea to solidify it in their minds; but I would agree that, in most cases, putting thoughts into words is a crucial step in understanding a thought. 

Well hopefully by this point you are now totally engrossed in these words of wisdom ;) and you are now finally prepared listen to what I have to say next. After taking part in the Plants and People course for about two months now and being introduced to a magnificent mosaic of facts and knowledge, produced by my professor and from the thought of authors I have read this semester; I have come to a single conclusion, "Plants have taken over the world and in their own way capable of mind control". Creepy right? Well let me explain.

During my latest reading, Thor Hansen's: The Triumph of Seeds, the author goes into particular detail about Christopher Columbus's voyages to the West Indies. Although Columbus is often considered the sole man responsible for discovering the Americas, he is also known as the man who didn't quite make it all the way. His actual goal was to reach the eastern shores of Asia and to open up a new trading route to deliver more spices. Believe it or not gold didn't fund exploration, spices did. Back in 1522 when the first ship to circumnavigate the world returned back to the shores of Seville, Spain, four of the five ships were missing from the original fleet; furthermore, Captain Magellan was dead along with over 200 members crew. The journey however, was still considered a success due to the amount of profits made from the spices they were able to collect (Hansen 132). 

Now let us back to the topic of Columbus; what was he looking for, what possesses a man to sail across open ocean to sail into the unknown? The answer is to search for black pepper, which according to popular myth grew on flaming trees guarded by serpents (Hansen 130). Since little exploration had been made across the Eurasian continent into Asia by European explorers, Europe was completely unaware to the origin of many of these spices and their origins. Nonetheless, Columbus never created a new trade route for black pepper, but unbeknownst to him he achieved something greater. Before his return trips to Europe, Columbus would attempt to salvage as many plants and seeds as he could, hoping that he could satisfy his backers (the people funding his operations). The result being the introduction of chili peppers into Europe and the rest of the world.

So let's recap for a moment: people like spices, spice trade funded exploration and early colonization, exploration led to the introduction of new plants worldwide. Adaptive evolution often involves selection preexisting traits to solve new and unique problems. An example of this, can be found in looking at the evolution of early birds. Precursors of modern birds (dinosaurs) already had feathers, which may have been used for communication, sexual selection, warmth and/or protection. Nonetheless, even though they were not originally selected for flight, feathers were fundamental in evolution of modern birds. The cultivation of chili peppers is a similar example.

Capsiacin is the compound in peppers that create the burning sensation in people's mouths. However, the original selection pressure that gave rise to the production of capsiacin, was a fungal seed pathogen (Hansen 136). Coincidentally, the presence of capsiacin, have made peppers a sought out commodity; and without saying a single word, firing a single shot or possessing a single human thought... peppers have bent humans to their evolutionary will and have now claimed dominion to vast portions of the tropic/temperate world, something they never could have never done on their own.

There is my argument for addressing the notion of a plants ability to influence human behavior, but no matter how much it feels like my own original thought; I know it was seeded there by others and I am incredibly appreciative for the new perspective and insight that I have been given.

Thomas Powell