Hanson, Thor. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. pg. xix-18 & 55-80. Basic Books, New York, United States of America.
In many ways, seeds govern how we live. They provide us with an insurmountable abundance and diversity of food products. Their metabolites and oils provide important medicinal and nutritional benefits that we use heavily, and rely on even moreso. Thor discusses both his experiences and questions regarding the life and success of seed plants. He introduces this in a captivating an amusing scene of him trying to smash a seed open, in which he resorts to a whaling on the stubborn seed with a leg on his desk. To no avail, the seed coat’s resilience ignored Thor’s determination and waited. Thor stresses that one of the primary attributes of a seed’s success is their independence; equipped with a sturdy shell in the seed coat, and a nutritive source in the endosperm (in flowering plants). When making this case, Thor writes creatively and analytically, relating his personal stories to just how remarkable of a structure the seed really is. Thor states: “….in the history of plants, no single event has ensured the protection, dispersal and establishment of their progeny more than the invention of seeds” (pg xxi). Thor makes a compelling case for this, discussing exactly how influential these changes had been on the evolutionary history of plants.
To first understand when seeds became prevalent in the world’s flora, Thor describes his experiences with a paleobotanist, who believes that the widespread perception of the greenery that dominated the Carboniferous era is likely incorrect. He proposes the idea that while the swamps in the Carboniferous era did provide an ideal habitat for the tree ferns and giant club mosses, their environment has truly caused a terribly biased fossil record. In swamps, the silty and moist environments are ideal for fossil formation, but the environments which favoured the developing seed plants (alpine, colder, dryer habitats) is where they shined. Bill, the paleobotanist, believes that the fossil record is biased because of the respective environments the seed plants and the spore plants existed in, causing an over representation of the spore plants. Given the advantages that seeds have over short-lived spores in less forgiving environments, I believe Bill’s proposition is not outlandish at all. Though my only concern with his explanation is the lack of discussion on what evidence there is on seed plants, aside from a, albeit very reasonable, largely untestable hypothesis. Particularly, what seed plants have been found in this era that we know of? Where were they found, and over what total region? What plants have been found to exist around them? Such questions may not have answers in modern literature, as a curator points out to Thor at a conference: “Man, I wish someone would work on paleo seeds” (pg. 61). Though I’m sure this is frustrating to timeline plant evolution when the data on seed plant identity, abundance, and distribution is very lacking, that is likely due in part to how challenging it is to identify seeds from a fossil, let alone any plant they belong to.
As Thor continues his emphasis on the integral nature of seeds to our society, he discusses Mendel, the father of genetics, and how his work went unnoticed for so long. Ironically, though I feel Thor chose to talk about Mendel for many reasons, I definitely felt that Mendel had entered a similar fate of seeds themselves: though they both have contributed a very substantial amount to modern human society, they both continue to go unnoticed. In Mendel’s case, he emphasizes his importance by saying “His experiments show how profoundly seeds, and our intimate relationship with them, have influenced the way we understand the natural world” (pg. 73). Though Darwin’s work was rapidly praised, generously cited, and is still well known today as a theory that forms the crux of all biological sciences, Mendel’s contributions remain fairly quiet. Mendel’s demonstration of inheritance through generations (vertical gene transmission) much earlier than the discovery and elucidation of DNA by Watson and Crick was a feat that went largely unnoticed for its innate obscurity and challenging ideas. Though Mendel now builds much of the foundation that evolution stands on, many tend to forget that without his genius, our understanding of inheritance would have likely been both drastically delayed and scattered.
Thor’s very astute but realistic style of approaching the subject of seed plant importance is both well written and organized. He shows us how remarkable a seed is at the developmental and anatomical level, while also showing us how much we truly underestimate their remarkable innovation and necessity to our lives.