Michael Pollan’s account of the evolutionary history of corn in The Omnivore’s Dilemma makes frequent use of anthropomorphic language to describe the species Zea mays. He writes that corn is “one of the plant world’s greatest success stories,” adding, “there is every reason to believe that corn has succeeded in domesticating us” (23). Speaking of agriculture more generally, he explains,
Though we insist on speaking of the ‘invention’ of agriculture as if it were our idea, like double-entry bookkeeping or the light-bulb, in fact it makes just as much sense to regard agriculture as a brilliant (if unconscious) evolutionary strategy on the part of the plants and animals involved to get us to advance their interests. (23)
Does it, though? In considering this question, the first question I would ask is, “What are the interests of the plants and animals that we’re advancing?” (Since we’re talking about an evolutionary strategy, “the plants and animals” should be interpreted to mean the plant and animal species, rather than the individuals.) Pollan writes of corn’s “rise to world domination” (23), and it is the plant’s large population across a diverse set of habitats that defines this rise.
There’s a certain appeal to talking about having large populations in many locations as being in the interest of a species. After all, these things increase the chance that the species will continue to exist in the future. But does a species really want these things in any meaningful sense? The will of a species to survive is certainly unlike the will of a human to survive (although the will of the individuals of some species to survive may be more comparable to that of a person’s). Evolution, after all, is driven by random mutations, rather than any active effort on the part of the species. Indeed, in referring to a “brilliant (if unconscious) evolutionary strategy,” Pollan acknowledges that a species doesn’t really try to achieve any of these things.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about species in this way. After all, it’s far more pleasing to read about a “reckless-seeming act of evolutionary faith in us” (27) than “a mutation, which, resulted in our planting corn for food, but which, in the absence of humans, might have been fatal.” We should realize, though, that when we talk about a species having interests, the word “interests” is merely a shorthand way of expressing more complicated ideas. The same, of course, is true of individuals having interests, but the underlying complexities are very different in the two cases, even though we refer to both with the same word.
I raise this point now because it says something about the way Pollan looks at nature, and that will come up again. When he’s writing about corn, the language is strictly descriptive, and it seems inconsequential enough. Nobody is going to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and try to assemble an army to take back the cornfields from the species that has “conquered” (24) us. Later on, he’ll use this kind of language as the basis for an argument about what we should eat. I’ll have more to say on that when I get there.