Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. New York (NY): Basic Books. p. xix-18 & 55-80.
What did you eat for dinner? What fabric is your shirt? It is truly amazing just how much seeds have shaped the world around us, everything from what we wear to what we eat. I knew that plants produced many of these items, but I’ll admit that I rarely think about the seed. To be honest, the only time I think about seeds is when I’m filling my bird feeders, eating certain foods, or sweeping the floor after my crazy parrot has had a temper tantrum and threw her food everywhere.
In this book, Thor talks about the evolution of seeds and their impacts on humans. He explains what characteristics allow seeds to thrive in nature and why these characteristics are so vital and useful to us as humans. I took his invitation at the beginning of the book, sat down with some tea, and read the story of the triumph of seeds and how “these small botanical marvels paved way for modern civilization” (p. xxii).
Thor begins the book with a funny story about trying to open a stubborn seed. This seed was so well protected that Thor could not open it. He used this story to highlight the importance of seeds, followed by the quote “in the history of plants, no single event has ensured the protection, dispersal, and establishment of their progeny more than seeds” (p. xxi). Seeds are protected, nourished, strong, and mobile baby plants. Thor used this parallel to help you better understand the importance of a seed to a plant. uses these characteristics of seeds to bring us on his journey about the discovery of seeds and their evolution.
This journey begins with his graduate work where he worked on almendo trees in the Costa Rican rain forest. Thor spent multiple field seasons searching for seeds, but did not understand how this small seed grew into a huge almendo tree towering above. To answer this question, he turned to well known botanists Carol and Jerry (>450 publications… wow). Carol says a familiar quote, similar to that said in my Botany class: “a seed is a baby plant with its coat and packed lunch” (p. 9). This quote is the first example of how plant seeds are paralleled with human babies in the book. Thor furthers this parallel to humans by saying that Carol and Jerry did not have children because they were too busy, but chose work with seeds, the plant’s baby.
Thor continues his journey with the evolutionary importance of seeds. Seeds evolved to give plants an advantage in a dry environment. Thor works with paleontologists and a researcher named Bill who has a revolutionary theory that seed evolution took place on land during the Carboniferous. Bill explains that the Carboniferous was not as swampy as we may have thought. This theory is revolutionary because it was previously thought that seed plants became dominant after the swampy Carboniferous when the land dried up, giving seed plants an advantage over spore plants. Thor believes Bill’s theory; however I am not as convinced. It is hard to picture what happened during the Carboniferous with little fossil evidence of seed plants and no knowledge on ancient seeds during this time. I still imagine a swampy landscape dominated by ferns, but this image has been tainted by what I’ve been taught in class.
Continuing with the evolution of seeds, Thor talks about how the evolution of angiosperms parallels his “intrinsic parental response to protect and nurture” (p. 67) his son. This is because flowering plants (angiosperms) have covered seeds, whereas gymnosperms have naked seeds that are more exposed to the environment. Thor uses this parallel to help you better understand the importance of a seed to a plant. It would only make sense for angiosperms to cover and protect their children to better ensure their survival. This is an important step in the evolution of seeds, as well as in their usefulness to people.
We finish reading by revisiting Mendel’s work. Although his work is well known and taught today, it is hard to believe that at one point Mendel was the only one to understand his work with peas and genetics. It is sad to think that Mendel never got credit for his work when he was alive. People may not have understood Mendel’s work; however, archaeologists have found that people knew about the benefits of selective breeding and even crossbreeding for many years. We see selective breeding in everything today from plants like corn to animals used for pets.
In closing, this book has made me think more carefully about seeds and how they have evolved to shaped our world to have an extraordinary impact on people. It is hard to believe something to small has had such a large impact on us as human and our civilization. I will definitely think about them more carefully as I grind my coffee beans in the morning.