The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History

Anyone familiar with children, for example, understands the origin of punctuation. It started with the exclamation point.

As a simple exercise, the instructor showed us how to splice our own DNA into that of a bacterial cell. As the bacterial colony then divided and grew, our DNA would be copied ad infinitum, a basic form of cloning. Though of course we only used a tiny fragment of DNA and the results were crude, I distinctly remember thinking, “I shouldn’t be able to clone myself in a one-credit class.

Bill had discovered an ancient river valley in Illinois, 100 miles long, where every detail of the forest was beautifully preserved in the rocky ceiling of the mine. “We simply look up and map the plants,” he told me.

By Mendel’s time, plant breeding had progressed to a point where every region boasted dozens of local varieties of peas, not to mention beans, lettuce, strawberries, carrots, wheat, tomatoes, and scores of other crops. People may not have known about genetics, but everyone understood that plants (and animals) could be changed dramatically through selective breeding. A single species of weedy coastal mustard, for example, eventually gave rise to more than half a dozen familiar European vegetables. Farmers interested in tasty leaves turned it into cabbages, collard greens, and kale. Selecting plants with edible side buds and flower shoots produced Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli, while nurturing a fattened stem produced kohlrabi. In some cases, improving a crop was as simple as saving the largest seeds, but other situations required real sophistication. Assyrians began meticulously hand-pollinating date palms more than 4,000 years ago, and as early as the Shang Dynasty (1766–1122 BC), Chinese winemakers had perfected a strain of millet that required protection from cross-pollination. Perhaps no culture better expresses the instinctive link between growing plants and studying them than the Mende people of Sierra Leone, whose verb for “experiment” comes from the phrase “trying out new rice.

By shifting to a highly digestible, cooked diet, our forebears no longer needed the massive molars and expansive guts that apes need to process fibrous raw foods. And with so much more energy available, we could suddenly afford the metabolic demands of a larger brain.

Each buoyant husk surrounds a single fist-sized kernel that is hollow except for a nutritious liquid known to health-food enthusiasts as “coconut water.” Whatever branding specialist coined that term cannot be blamed for shying away from the more accurate, technical description: acellular endosperm.

Given time, evolution is much more likely to provide us with a multitude of solutions than it is to give us one ideal form.

(Like “coconut water,” the name “canola” is a savvy branding invention. No one, presumably, felt very optimistic about marketing a product called “rape oil.”)

Never argue with a fool—an onlooker can’t tell the difference.

Some wild mustard seeds respond to changes in the angle and length of daylight through six feet of snowpack, while many forest species recognize the difference between full sunlight (a good chance to sprout), and the far-red wavelengths that filter through leaves (too shady). Whatever

The British physicist William Lawrence Bragg once said that science is less about obtaining new facts than “discovering new ways of thinking about them.” Talking

When journalist Blaine Harden boarded a tug to make the journey in the mid-1990s, his captain offered a sober prediction: “By the time you get to Portland, you are going to be bored shitless.

Why do polls consistently find people more comfortable with the idea of changing their own genome, or the genomes of their children (for medical purposes), than they are with the notion of altering the genes in seeds?

Wild primates from chimpanzees to capuchin monkeys regularly treat themselves with botanicals, choosing specific seeds, leaves, and bark known to have healing properties. When researchers in the Central African Republic observed a gorilla plucking junglesop seeds from the dung of elephants, no one was surprised to learn those seeds contained potent alkaloids, and that local healers prescribed them (as well as the plant’s leaves and bark) as a treatment for everything from sore feet to stomach problems. This

Without the act and anticipation of planting and harvest, there could be no agriculture as we know it, and our species would still be wandering in small bands of hunters, gatherers, and herdsmen. Indeed, some experts believe that Homo sapiens might never have evolved at all in a world that lacked seeds.

Wrangham’s theory proposes cooking as the critical innovation separating advanced members of the genus Homo from their more ape-like ancestors.