Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Book Review: The Triumph of Seeds

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

I read a lot of books that might be described as "natural biography". These are the ones where the author takes some physical object and explains how it changed/made/shaped/remade history. Some are really good (SaltThe Box, Rust). Most are so-so. I expected The Triumph of Seeds to be another IYTTSMSIYPETB.

I'm happy to report it's much better than that. Thor Hanson has the knack of putting his observations together so that they flow smoothly, creating a coherent whole rather than a series of vignettes. He has a nicely-rendered set of characters (mostly scientists) whom he talks to, an engaging way with an anecdote, and the admirable habit of periodically looping back to connect what he's writing to what he's written before. He brings in just enough of his own life to make it personal, without straying off into memoir territory.

As to the subject matter, it's interesting and enlightening. Seeds are really complicated. They're alive, and yet they're metabolically inert. They're highly and variously evolved. They have an extraordinary variety of adaptations--colors, alkaloids, hard shells, soft bits, you name it--and a complex evolutionary history. 

Also, I learned many entirely useless facts, such as what guar gum really is. (Did you know it's used in fracking?) So that made me happy. 

In short, what's not to like? Seeds is short, well-written without being pretentious, and informative. Even if you don't think the subject matter sounds interesting, you might like this one.


  1. Replies
    1. I encourage you to do so.

    2. Read it. Really enjoyed it. I liked his end notes even. He seems thorough on the research - getting something retranslated, for example. And I found his recreation of Gregor Mendel's work a neat thread passing throughout the book.

    3. I'm glad you liked it! The same author has a book entitled Feathers, which I'm planning to read soon.