DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Apollo, Dionysus and the Potato


          Humans tend to choose between two things: order or disorder, control or chaos—in this case, genetically engineered agriculture or organic farming. Michael Pollan explores facets of these choices, specializing into the use of genetically engineered potatoes called NewLeafs. In Botany of Desire, Pollan discusses the background of these potatoes as he cultivates them. He yearns to “satisfy [a] curiosity” of the interactions between humans and potato by comparing his own relationship with his NewLeafs, and other relationships by elaborating on the human Apollonian law and order and nature’s inclination to Dionysian chaos. The scientific aspects of his analysis contain evidence about the biological processes of creating genetically engineered potatoes from modern and past events. Subtly, Pollan also brings in his personal views to the story of the potato. By exploring the alternatives to human-controlled potatoes, he presents his support for the techniques organic farmers use to maintain their own way of involving themselves with nature. Through his experiences and historical anecdotes, he concludes that humans would fare better if they coexisted with plants, not try to control them because at some point, nature will evolve to win.

            The theme of human’s desire for control and order against the intrinsic entropy produced by nature revolved around Pollan’s use of the Apollonian and Dionysian archetype. Apollo is the Greek god known for law and order, light, rationality and the visual arts while Dionysus is the portrayed the lavishness of wine, collective frenzy, and ecstasy (George 399). Pollan compares these two to show the difference between human civilization and raw nature—the technological and the primitive.

The chapter begins with the introduction of the NewLeafs and its particularly unique genome. The NewLeafs themselves are the main example of Apollonian tendencies of human to control and fight—they are genetically engineered to fight its main predator, the Colorado potato beetle. They are no longer fruits of nature but patented products manufactured by the Monsanto Corporation. Pollan elaborates well on how he was affected by Corporation’s process of handing out their products by describing “the disconcerting news that [the] potato plants were themselves registered as a pesticide…” (Pollan 190). He shows that Monsanto usurps power over the irregularities of the plants, the pests, and the environment through the use of biotechnology, their gene guns and agrobacterium. Their potatoes are controlled, fabricated, and manufactured; and Pollan emphasizes that “…genetic engineering is also a powerful technique for transforming plants into private property…” (Pollan 208). The potatoes no longer become a product of nature, but of human privatization.

            Controlling and privatizing property is the common denominator in Pollan’s analysis. He refers to economists such as William Cobbett who demonstrates that there must be a supply to people’s demand or society will crumble. Pollan retrogrades back in time to the moments when the potato was just newly introduced in Europe. The arrival of the spuds sparked the idea that the potato is the “damned root” that pulls civilization down to the ground (Pollan 203). Pollan illustrates the dark imagery that people saw when it comes to the potato. It was described as “mere food, primitive, unreconstructed and lacking in any cultural resonance” (Pollan 203), insinuating that the English, who manufactured bread from wheat, were far more advanced than the Irish who lives off the potato. Pollan mention Cobbet’s comment that the English were the “… man operated under the coolly ration sign of Apollo, the Appetite Man was in thrall to earthy, fecund, amoral Dionysus.” (205), the Appetite Man being the Irish. The process of making bread is the English’s version of taking control over nature but now in modern times, science has become the tool for such power.

            Science has allowed for the human desire for uniformity. Pollan notes how Apollonian order and uniformity strived for the aesthetics of organization. As he visited the Monsanto Corporation, he discusses that his NewLeafs are clones of clones grown in “…what appear from a distance to be shimmering crenellations of glass turn out to be the twenty-six greenhouses that crown the building in dramatic sequence of triangular peaks” (Pollan 206). This meticulously systematic environment shows that there is a human need for methodical visual design. Monsanto and other scientists crave structure and leave no room for discrepancies—and if they do find an error, specifically in the potato, Pollan uses violent diction to indicate that their technology will “pierce” into the  DNA, “elbow its way into the double helix” to make the error right. Pollan proves a point that it is not Monsanto’s error that needed to be repaired but it is nature’s error of applying chaos and disorder to its creations. Creations are fabricated to perfection and once Monsanto is satisfied, then these cloned potatoes can be someone’s perfect order of McDonald’s fries (Pollan 228).

            However, someone else’s fries could be structured in a different way from how a gene gun could inject a gene in a potato’s DNA. After Pollan visits Monsanto, he meets the “typical” potato grower, Danny Forsyth, who would spend his days in the middle of perfect crop circles that “have been doused with so much pesticide that their leaves wear a dull white chemical bloom and the soil they’re rooted in is a lifeless gray powder” (Pollan 217). Pollan’s grim description alone send a vicarious feeling of disappointment of human’s involvement with their crops. Danny Forsyth and more technical farmer, Steve Young, leads Pollan to view farming a different way. He discusses explicitly the process of spraying insecticide, pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, and brings a uninviting perspective of how farmers make our food. This proves the far distances human have treaded in order to gain an ounce of control over nature. There are chemicals for every weed and for every insect in order to have a “clean” field and this field represents “a triumph of human control” (Pollan 217). Pollan concludes that this process is unappealing and he shows that even the farmers themselves doubt their ways: “When [Forsyth] talks about agricultural chemicals, he sounds like a man desperate to kick a bad habit (Pollan 218). The relationship between farmers and their crops represents the fight between humans and plants. Pollan demonstrates how tiring farming becomes and how complicated tending the fields can be which is essential to the perfect potato they desire. But in the end, there is a law in the universe that disorder is inevitable.

            Dionysus is known as the God of Wine, the man that drinks all day, drowning himself in ecstasy. He symbolizes natural disorder and according to the English’s beliefs, the potato is an accomplice to his primitive chaos (Pollan 205). Therefore, humans strive for order. But order will be overcome by the unexpected. When humans have thought that they have grasp ahold of everything, nature will act to prove otherwise—as Pollan notes, “…where the more thorough our control of nature is, the sooner natural selection will overthrow it” (Pollan 213). Pollan discusses the Irish’s success with the potato, and then proves nature’s raw power by following it with the discussion of the Famine caused a fungus (Pollan 206), showing the inevitability of uncertainty.

Human attempt for control is described when Pollan introduces, Dave Starck, a representative of Monsanto’s potato. Starck explains that “there are two ways of splicing foreign genes into a plant” which is the use of a gene gun and agrobacteria (Pollan 207). Genetic engineering techniques such as DNA splicing demonstrate that human will go the farthest length into the microscopic scale to modify nature’s flawed potato. However, even after introducing new genes inside the potato plants, there is the idea of uncertainty if the scientists will or will not get the results they wanted. Pollan introduces the notion of “genetic instability” and how “the reliability or safety of one genetically modified plant doesn’t necessarily guarantee the reliability or safety of the next” (Pollan 209). There is the thought that human think they acquired control over the genes of the potato, but nature will eventually counteract it with its intrinsic randomness.

            Moreover, Pollan continues to talk about uncertainty when he talks about the Bt toxin. He states that scientists generally thought that this toxin is safe for humans then they found that instead of breaking nature down, it built it up (Pollan 211). In this section, he constantly uses the phrase: “We don’t know.” “We don’t know” what the toxin is actually doing to the plant. “We don’t know” the actual effects of the toxins to the environment. “We don’t know” how serious the deaths of monarch butterflies related to the toxin. “We don’t know,” Pollan emphasizes (Pollan 211). Furthermore, even if scientists has created a toxin for the insects, nature will evolve and create insects that will be resistant to the drug. In some way, shape or another, raw nature is there to evolve and triumph over human control.

            As a result, Pollan explains that instead of fighting nature by controlling it, humans should go along with nature. The environment is unpredictable, no matter how much humans think they know everything. This chapter reveals that humans do not know half of the information they acquire. “There were too many unknowns,” according to Mike Heath, the organic farmer; “…face it. The bugs are always going to be smarter than we are” (Pollan 222). Pollan then states that he was not all surprised at this comment and that he understands what Heath meant. The complete opposite of order is chaos, and Heath proved that chaos is not so bad just as long as he flowed with it and found balance between order and chaos. He adds variety and diversity to order which is “the best defense against nature’s inevitable surprises” (Pollan 223). In contrast with Forsythe’s “clean” fields, Heath’s fields are filled with diverse weedy crops, which was home to many “beneficial insects” such as ladybugs (Pollan 222), a stark difference from Forsyth and Young’s desire to eliminate all bugs possible. Pollan creates an accurate description by saying that all the potato needs is less human order and more of the complex disorder nature provides (Pollan 224). Thus, organic potatoes appealed to him more.

            Pollan showed how farmers use so many chemicals on their crops so it can battle nature’s insects and fungus, how much humans want to protect themselves from the “disorder” of nature that they create something unappealing. In the end, Pollan doesn’t even touch the NewLeafs, and he provides enough information why. He asks the question of what the NewLeaf can represent about the relationship between man and plant and the answer is that not one of the two is more powerful. There will always be the existence of Apollonian aesthetic order in human and nature’s Dionysian uncertainty. It all just goes along the idea of balance and coexistence.


Works Cited:


        George, Daniel R. "'Shooting At The Sun God Apollo': The Apollonian-Dionysian Balance Of The Timeslips Storytelling Project." The Journal Of Medical Humanities 34.3 (2013): 399-403. MEDLINE with Full Text. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.


        Pollan, Michael. “The Potato”. Botany of Desire. Toronto: Random House, 2001. 183-238. Print. 

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.