Seeds, Sex, and Civilization: How the Hidden Life of Plants Has Shaped our World. Peter Thompson and Stephen Harris. 2010. Thames & Hudson, New York. 280 p. $29.95. ISBN 9780500251706.
This book includes nine chapters with information on: 1) the origins of agriculture; 2) seed science from Aristotle to Darwin; 3) seed formation from pollination to seed maturity; 4) strategies for survival, including seed longevity, dormancy, and germination; 5) environmental control of germination; 6) discoveries regarding germination by both amateur and professional scientists; 7) plant exploration, breeding programs, and the positive and negative effects of the Green Revolution; 8) germplasm preservation in seed banks and clonal repositories, uses of genes from non-commercial genotypes, and the pros and cons of genetically modified crops; and 9) future prospects for solving the problems of feeding a growing world population, given global warming, environmental degradation, declining diversity in crop species, and diminishing supplies of energy. The book contains nearly 50 excellent photographic illustrations with most in color, suggestions for further reading, and an index.
Information is included on a wide range of species, most of which are identified by their common names. This presentation can be confusing, as British common names do not always agree with American names. However, inclusion of Latin names would have been distracting, given the number of species mentioned, and common and Latin names are provided in the index. One minor criticism is that some statements border on the teleological; for example, “Most [flowers] produce pollen profusely to ensure that a tiny proportion is carried by insects or other pollinators to a receptive stigma.”
Thompson, former Head of Plant Physiology at the Kew Royal Botanic Garden in England, and a leader in establishing seed banks, weaves into the text the contributions of numerous pioneers in seed collection, plant breeding, and other aspects of research, including Gregor Mendel, Thomas Knight, N.I. Vavilov, Lewis Knudson, and Norman Borlaug, and describes how their observations and research led to a better understanding of seed physiology and plant biology in general. In addition, he provides a personal touch in describing his experiences in collecting seeds in diverse areas of the world.
Harris, Druce Curator of the Oxford University Herbaria, covers future prospects in the concluding chapter, Thompson having died in 2006. Harris discusses whether food production can keep up with the increase in world population, given the problems of global warming, and the loss of farmland to urbanization, erosion, and desertification. He summarizes the role of the research described in previous chapters in solving these problems, and concludes with the hope that “we will make our choices rationally and equitably for the benefit of all mankind, rather than for the political, social or economic benefit of the few.”