Michael Pollan

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Michael Pollan, 2011

Michael Pollan (born February 6, 1955) is an American writer and journalist, currently the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.


  • Of course it’s also a lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness.
    • "Unhappy Meals". The New York Times Magazine. 2007-01-28. Retrieved on 2007-01-28. 
  • Nutrition science is where surgery was in about 1650, you know, really interesting and promising, but would you want to have them operate on you yet? I don’t think so.
  • The industrialization — and brutalization — of animals in America is a relatively new, evitable, and local phenomenon: No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.
    • The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), p. 333.
  • It's [a kitchen/dining table] where we teach our children the manners they need to get along in society. We teach them how to share. To take turns. To argue without fighting and insulting other people. They learn the art of adult conversation. The family meal is the nursery of democracy.
  • We forget how much time it can take simply to avoid cooking: all that time spent driving to restaurants or waiting for our orders, none of which gets counted as 'food preparation'. And much of the half-hour saved by not cooking is spent watching screens.
  • the microwave is an individualistic serial machine – it can only do one at a time so if you've got four people eating four different entrees, each has to be individually heated. So our microwave dinner, which was supposed to save us so much time, took about an hour to get to the table.
  • Home cooking is good for you, and I eat out less. But that's the least of it. What has surprised me is how stimulating it is. How satisfying. You learn a lot about plants and animals. You begin to recognise your place in the world.
All page numbers from the trade paperback edition published in 2002 by Random House (13th printing) ISBN 978-0-375-76039-6
  • Evolution doesn’t depend on will or intention to work; it is, almost by definition, an unconscious, unwilled process.
    • Introduction “The Human Bumblebee” (p. xxi)
  • Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose.
    • Introduction “The Human Bumblebee” (p. xxi)
  • These are stories, then, about Man and Nature. We’ve been telling ourselves such stories forever, as a way of making sense of what we call our “relationship to nature”—to borrow that curious, revealing phrase. (What other species can even be said to have a “relationship” to nature?) For a long time now, the Man in these stories has gazed at Nature across a gulf of awe or mystery or shame. Even when the tenor of these narratives changes, as it has over time, the gulf remains. There’s the old heroic story, where Man is at war with Nature; the romantic version, where Man merges spiritually with Nature (usually with some help from the pathetic fallacy); and, more recently, the environmental morality tale, in which Nature pays Man back for his transgressions, usually in the coin of disaster—three different narratives (at least), yet all of them share a premise we know to be false, but can’t seem to shake: that we somehow stand outside, or apart from, nature.
    • Introduction “The Human Bumblebee” (p. xxv)
  • Sometimes the cause of civilization is best served by a hard stare into the soul of its opposite.
    • Chapter 1, “Desire: Sweetness / Plant: The Apple” (p. 41)
  • Beauty and nature often shows up in the vicinity of sex—think of the plumage of birds or mating rituals through out the animal kingdom. “Sexual selection”—that is, evolution’s favoring of features that increase a plant’s or animal’s attractiveness and therefore it's reproductive success—is the best explanation we have for the otherwise senseless extravagance of feathers and flowers, maybe also sports cars and bikinis. In nature, at least, the expense of beauty is usually paid for by sex.
    There may or may not be a correlation between the beautiful and the good, but there probably is one between beauty and health. (Which, I suppose, in Darwinian terms, is the good.) Evolutionary biologists believe that in many creatures beauty is a reliable indicator of health, and therefore a perfectly sensible way to choose one mate over another. Gorgeous plumage, lustrous hair, symmetrical features are “certificates of health,” as one scientist puts it, advertisements that a creature carries genes for resistance to parasites and is not otherwise under stress. A fabulous tail is a metabolic extravagance only the healthy can afford.
    • Chapter 2, “Desire: Beauty / Plant: The Tulip” (p. 74)
  • There are a lot more roses and tulips around today, in a lot more places, then there were before people took an interest in them. For a flower the path to world domination passes through humanity’s ever-shifting ideals of beauty.
    • Chapter 2 (p. 79)
  • The tulip’s genetic variability has in fact given nature—or, more precisely, natural selection—a great deal to play with. From among the chance mutations thrown out by a flower, nature preserve the rare ones that confer some advantage—brighter color, more perfect symmetry, whatever. For millions of years such features were selected, in effect, by the tulip’s pollinators—that is, insects—until the Turks came along and began to cast their own votes.… Darwin called such a process artificial, as opposed to natural, selection, but from the flower’s point of view, this is a distinction without a difference: individual plants in which a trait desired by either bees or Turks occurred wound up with more offspring. Though we self-importantly regard domestication as something people have done to plants, it is at the same time a strategy by which the plants have exploited us and our desires—even our most idiosyncratic notions of beauty—to advance their own interests. Depending on the environment in which a species finds itself, different adaptations will avail. Mutations that nature would have rejected out of hand in the wild sometimes prove to be brilliant adaptations in an environment that's been shaped by human desire.
    • Chapter 2 (p. 81; ellipsis represents the elision of a brief historical note)
  • The Greeks believed that true beauty (as opposed to mere prettiness) was the offspring of these two opposing tendencies, which they personified in Apollo and Dionysus, their two gods of art. Great art is born when Apollonian form and Dionysian ecstasy are held in balance, when our dreams of order and abandon come together. One tendency uninformed by the other can bring forth only coldness or chaos—the stiffness of a Triumph tulip, the slackness of a wild rose.
    • Chapter 2 (p. 106)
  • For look into a flower, and what do you see? Into the very heart of nature’s double nature—that is, the contending energies of creation and dissolution, the spiring toward complex form and the tidal pull away from it. Apollo and Dionysus were names the Greeks gave to these two faces of nature, and nowhere in nature is their contest as plain or as poignant as it is in the beauty of a flower and its rapid passing. There, the achievement of order against all odds and its blithe abandonment. There, the perfection of art and the blind flux of nature. There, somehow, both transcendence and necessity. Could that be it—right there, in a flower—the meaning of life?
    • Chapter 2 (pp. 109-110)
  • The images and words brought back from these journeys—visits with the souls of the dead and unborn, visions of the afterlife, answers to life's questions—were powerful enough to compel belief in a spirit world and, in some cases, to serve as the foundation of whole religions. Of course, plant drugs are not the only technologies of religious ecstasy; fasting, meditation, and hypnotic trances can achieve similar results. But often these techniques have been used to explore spiritual territory first blazed by the entheogens.
    What a natural history of religion would show is that the human experience of the divine has deep roots in psychoactive plants and fungi. (Karl Marx may have gotten it backward when he called religion the opiate of the people.)
    • Chapter 3, “Desire: Intoxication / Plant: Marijuana” (p. 144)
  • But is this wonder the real thing? At first glance, it wouldn’t seem to be: a transcendence that’s chemically induced must surely be fake. Artificial Paradises was what Charles Baudelaire called his 1860 book about his experiences with hashish, and that sounds about right. Yet what if it turns out that the neurochemistry of transcendence is no different whether you smoke marijuana, meditate or enter a hypnotic trance by way of chanting, fasting, or prayer? What if in every one of these endeavors, the brain is simply prompted to produce large quantities of cannabinoids, thereby suspending short-term memory and allowing us to experience the present deeply?…From a brain’s point of view, the distinction between a natural and an artificial high may be meaningless.
    • Chapter 3 (pp. 170-171)
  • Aldous Huxley did his best to argue us out of the view that a chemically conditioned spiritual experience is false—and he did so long before we knew anything about cannabinoid or opioid receptor networks….He points out that mystics have always worked systematically to modify their brain chemistry, whether through fasting, self-flagellation, sleeplessness, hypnotic movement, or chanting.†
    †Huxley suggests that the reason there aren’t nearly as many mystics and visionaries walking around today, as compared to the Middle Ages, is the improvement in nutrition. Vitamin deficiencies wreak havoc on brain function and probably explain a large portion of visionary experiences in the past.
    • Chapter 3 (p. 171; ellipsis represents elision of a quote from Huxley)
  • The brain can be made to drug itself, as seems to happen with certain placebos. We don’t merely imagine that the placebo antidepressant is working to life our sadness or worry—the brain is actually producing extra serotonin in response to the mental prompt of swallowing a pill containing nothing but sugar and belief. What all this suggests is that the workings of consciousness are both more and less materialistic than we usually think: chemical reactions can induce thoughts, but thoughts can also induce chemical reactions.
    • Chapter 3 (p. 171)
  • Christianity and capitalism are both probably right to detest a plant like cannabis. Both faiths bid us to set our sights on the future; both reject the pleasures of the moment and the senses in favor of the expectation of a fulfillment yet to come—whether by earning salvation or by getting and spending. More even than most plant drugs, cannabis, by immersing us in the present and offering something like fulfillment here and now, short-circuits the metaphysics of desire on which Christianity and capitalism (and so much else in our civilization) depend.
    • Chapter 3 (p. 175)
  • What, then, was the knowledge that God wanted to keep from Adam and Eve in the Garden? Theologians will debate this question without end, but it seems to me the most important answer is hidden in plain sight. The content of the knowledge that Adam and Eve could gain by tasting of the fruit does not matter nearly as much as its form—that is, the very fact that there was spiritual knowledge of any kind to be had from a tree: from nature. The new faith sought to break the human bond with magic nature, to disenchant the world of plants and animals by directing our attention to a single God in the sky. Yet Jehovah couldn’t very well pretend the tree of knowledge didn’t exist, not when generations of plant-worshiping pagans knew better. So the pagan tree is allowed to grow even in Eden, though ringed around now with a strong taboo. Yes, there is spiritual knowledge in nature, the new God is acknowledging, and its temptations are fierce, but I am fiercer still. Yield to it, and you will be punished.
    So unfolds the drug war’s first battle.
    • Chapter 3 (p. 176)
  • At a certain point, a point already long past, the farmer’s attempt at the perfect control of nature evolved into the control of the farmer by the corporations that promoted that dream in the first place. It is only because that dream is so elusive that the control of farmers by its merchants became so inescapable.
    • Chapter 4, “Desire: Control / Plant: The Potato” (p. 225)
  • Monoculture is the single most powerful simplification of modern agriculture, the key move in reconfiguring nature as a machine, yet nothing else in agriculture is so poorly fitted to the way nature seems to work. Very simply, a vast field of identical plants will always be exquisitely vulnerable to insects, weeds, and disease—to all the vicissitudes of nature. Monoculture is at the root of virtually every problem that bedevils the modern farmer, and from which virtually every agricultural product is designed to deliver him.
    • Chapter 4 (p. 225)
  • I was starting to appreciate that the conventional journalistic narrative that usually organizes a story like this—evil technology foisted by greedy corporation—leaves out an important element, which is us and our desire for control and uniformity.
    • Chapter 4 (pp. 226-227)

Quotes about Michael Pollan

  • There is a ton of literature now—including TED Talks and Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind—about psilocybin and MDMA being highly effective medications for PTSD.
  • a growing number of popular books and public lectures tout the benefits of psychedelic use. Michael Pollan, in How to Change Your Mind, persuasively makes the case that psychedelics, such as LSD and psilocybin, can be personally transformative? A growing amount of scientific data backs him up.
    • Carl Hart Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear (2021)
  • Ten years after the first Breaking Convention, here we all are in a psychedelic movement that has changed beyond recognition. Suddenly, psychedelics are considered viable mental health treatments and they're popular. Michael Pollan's book How to Change your Mind has brought psychedelics into the homes of people who might otherwise have thought these substances were exclusively harmful. These are wonderful advances, but with this increasing popularity has arrived the potential for big business interest and the promise of psychedelic-fueled status, fame, and fortune-if you're willing to do what it takes to get it.
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