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Book Review 256: Natural Affairs

October 7, 2012 - Harry Eagar
NATURAL AFFAIRS: A Botanist Looks at the Attachments b etween Plants and People, by Peter Bernhardt. 225 pages, illustrated. Villard, $25

As I wrote in a review of one of Peter Bernhardt's other excellent collections of botanical essays, a surefire way to identify a faker when it comes to discussions of evolution is to ask whether he says anything about plants. Fakers never do.

The whole intelligent design fraud is about animals. Darwin knew better.

Even if he had never written about theory, he would still have been the greatest experimental biologist of his time (perhaps of all time) and one of the greatest field naturalists.

In 1877, Darwin published “The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species” based on his study of South African wood sorrels. What he noticed is heterostyly, an important feature of plant reproduction that is still not fully understood.

Bernhardt writes, “For me, much of Darwin's genius comes from his talent for using the most common creatures to explain complex topics.”

I guarantee that none of the phonies at the Creation Research Institute ever heard of a wood sorrel nor could any describe the ins and outs of the forms of flowers that botanists call pins and thrums.

In other essays, Bernhardt considers what goes into a salad, why saffron is so expensive (and describes how phony saffron is made), the contradictory mystical reactions of Spanish priests to the passionflower, and daffodils, among other byways of people inyeracting with plants.

As always, Bernhardt's writing is graceful and meaty (or should we say planty?). In three volumes, I have caught him in only one, somewhat excusable error.

On a visit to Hawaii, he fell for the tall tale about forest places too dangerous to visit because violent marijuana farmers are protecting their (squatted on) turf. It's a good story to thrill the tourists but it isn't true.


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