Thor Hanson: The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History (2015)

In The Triumph of Seeds, conservation biologist Thor Hanson guides the reader through a fascinating exploration of the evolution of different types of seeds, from spores to coffee beans.

Taking Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as his point of departure, he argues that “natural selection, like commerce, rewards a good product” (xxiii); a mechanism which ensures that successful evolutionary adaptations become the norm.

Hanson combines his biological expertise with a genuine enthusiasm for the subject of seed evolution, allowing the reader to discover the multifaceted organisms that seeds are, as well as how deeply they are entwined with human lives: “We live in a world of seeds. From our morning coffee and bagel to the cotton in our clothes and the cup of cocoa we might drink before bed, seeds surround us all day long” (xxiv). Hanson’s accessible style makes his expertise available to the reader, who may find him or herself similarly enthused by the intricate mechanisms of seed evolution and survival.

The book is subdivided into five sections, each focusing on a different quality pertaining to seeds: Seeds Nourish, Seeds Unite, Seeds Endure, Seeds Defend, and Seeds Travel. In each section a few species of plant are discussed more in depth, to exemplify the overarching quality. Under “Seeds Nourish” for instance, Hanson discusses grasses, several of which are significant food crops, and links them to early human civilisations.

In a pedagogical move, he compares seeds to “babies” that usually come packed with their own “lunch”, and manages to make the specificities of plant biology accessible to a lay audience:

In terms of lunch, most seeds use a nutritious product of pollination called endosperm, but various other tissues will do the job, including perisperm (yucca, coffee), hypocotyl (Brazil nut), or the megagametophyte preferred by conifers. Orchids don’t pack a lunch at all – their seeds simply pilfer the food they need from the fungi found in the soil. (Hanson 17)

Noting how all seeds share the common goal of “protecting, dispersing and feeding baby plants” he goes on to demonstrate how “the food in seeds gets eaten by a lot more things than baby plants” (ibid) – and not least by humans. In this rich volume, Hanson also discusses the survival strategies of seeds, seed banks, and seed longevity in relation to climate change. Thus, his book certainly provides food for thought.

30.12.2021 by Lykke Guanio-Uluru, Professor, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, Bergen