So I like Michael Pollan, and I like his writing voice. This book promises to be a lot of fun, and very informative. For any who want some more background on Pollan, here isa video clip where he and Hugh Grant (no, not that one) discuss some of these issues. Grant is the head of Monsanto, the Death Star of seed production.
The details Pollan provides in this book are fascinating to me and, as I suspected, the differences we have are at the foundational, paradigmatic level.
The first chapter is on the ubiquity of corn. We here in North America are the corn people. Corn is everywhere. The background assumption here is that we shouldn’t be the corn people, and it is not yet apparent to me where that is coming from. “How do we know that?” is a question that I always find myself asking, usually at the point where praise or blame come in.
Pollan begins with supermarkets that seem disconnected with “Nature.” But he then goes on to show the actual connection to Nature, and it is usually a corn field in Nature — or Iowa at any rate. His foil is industrial food (a competitor with Nature, but a competitor which rides on the back of Nature), which he defines as “any food whose provenance is so complex or obscure that it that it requires expert help to ascertain” (p. 17).
The problem is that Nature is mute. Even if accorded the status of a god, it is a god that cannot speak. We cannot derive any oughts from the is. If Nature is a god, it is a god that is an eternal flat plain, having no Mt. Sinai anywhere. There are no stone tablets with the will of this god inscribed on it. Whatever is, is.
The Christian with food interests can appeal to nature (lower case n) as a source of revelation, subservient to Scripture. But the things we derive from nature must be consistent with Scripture, and must not be used to trump Scripture. Nature teaches us that sodomy is out, for example, and so does the Bible, more explicitly and clearly. Nature does not teach us that we should not consume so much corn, and neither does the Bible. At bottom most of my questions about this food business are epistemological. How can we say that? Where did we get that? Self-control I know about, and gluttony, and drunkenness. But where do I get warnings from God about the lawful percentages of corn in stuff? Someone might point to penicillin as something we discovered out in nature, and for which we have no scriptural support. And I grant it — I believe the scientific method is trustworthy, and we can learn a lot as we exercise dominion. I do not deny the principle. What I question are the facts. Here I am, with lots of corn molecules in my fingernails, likely to outlive almost all of my ancestors. Why is it bad to have my body, which goes into the ground at eighty (say), have lots of corn in it? I know why it is bad to have an affliction that penicillin can treat. But why is the corn bad? Will I be yellow at the resurrection?
One of Pollan’s foundational assumptions is his commitment to evolution, which is really odd. “The current thinking among botanists is that several thousand years ago teosinte underwent an abrupt series of mutations that turned it into corn” (p. 27). He does not give us this in a passing reference to evolution, but rather grounds the whole edifice of his argument upon it. And the reason this is odd is that the argument, once grounded this way, collapses.
Like many who look closely at the natural world, he moves smoothly from a raw assertion about the gropings of blind chance to a discussion of the dazzling engineering that went into the corn stalk. For example, a grain of pollen drops from the male organ at the top of the stalk (there are about 14-18 million grains of pollen per plant), and lands on one of the silk tassles. The pollen’s nucleus then divides it into two, each genetically identical, but with two different jobs. One of the twins tunnels a microscopic tube down the center of the silk thread. The other twin then follows it down the tunnel to fuse with the egg to form the germ of the kernel. Then the other twin, the first one, follows along to set about forming the big starchy part of the kernel. Ta da! What university did the corn go to in order to learn how to do all that? Blind chance? Heh.
This kind of description is why I intend to enjoy this book. But the odd part of this is that evolution is all about change. And evolution is what evolution does, and so why are mono-crops a problem? What duties does corn have to wheat or peas? Doesn’t evolution require the promulgation of your own seed, as much as possible? It seems that the evolutionist should want to let ‘er rip, and may the best grain win. Survival of the you-know-whatest. And it seems that the Christian (who wants to learn from an evolutionist like Pollan) has to balance what God built into the world on the one hand, with plants bearing seed after their kind, and the dominion mandate on the other, which gives us the authority to tinker, as Jacob did with the sheep. At the one end we would have the raw foods option, and at the other we would have the most loathsome of all frankenfoods. The Christian has no business at either extreme.
So what do we need in order to sort this all out? For starters, we need a commitment to the authority of reason. By this I do not mean autonomous reason, Enlightenment style, but an approach to data (whether in Scripture or from nature) that is willing to have a pet idea be falsified, and knows what constitutes falsification. Evolution doesn’t give us this, while a Creator God does.