A Word In Edgwise: In the Beginning Was … Not Us

A tiny green sprout of a plant.
Photo courtesy of BigStock/janroz

Noah Whiteman’s Most Delicious Poison is, as the subtitle explains, The Story of Nature’s Toxins–from Spices to Vices. His engaging text shifts deftly between humor, memoir, and scientific detail–some quite complex.

The complexities, however, serve to illustrate how vast a network has evolved between plants and animals over eons of survival conflict–well before humanity was a gleam in the cosmic eye. Late to the dance, humans borrowed freely.

“Opioid Overlords,” deals unexpectedly with “frankincense and myrrh,” now mainly associated with the manger in Bethlehem. Many still wonder, “Why did Wise Men bring those from afar–and what are they?”

Both were known even then for having pain pain-killing properties–today labelled “terpenoids” or (TRVP3). Principal in frankincense is incensole acetate, which works by binding to TRVP3 receptors in the brain.

But not to worry. There’s no examination, no need to memorize “TRVP3”–or even “terpenoid.” Whiteman’s book plumbs many levels, allowing the lay-reader to skim the minutiae yet comprehend the wonder at how tightly woven are the chemical defense/aggression ties between certain plants/insects and animals, including, finally, humankind. Whiteman stresses that while there are innumerable interconnections, from the beginning every living thing has drawn from the same elemental toolbox, tailoring natural its elements to their specific needs.

Early observation of his father’s struggle with chemical use led Whiteman to focus on similar struggles between plant and animal adversaries. When did they first utilize natural substances? How effective were they?  How did their bodies incorporate and modify them over time? What insights may now be gained into similar benefit or harm for humans?

“Societal failures are the main reason people develop use disorders,” Whiteman adds, “while the Monarch butterfly evolved to cope with its toxins over millions of years. I needed to reconcile parallels between work and my surroundings growing up, and this is when I realized there was a common through-line in these two spheres of my life.”

The book is an eye-opener on this very complexity. No win-win, more a poison/toxin computer game with infinite levels and switch-backs; the goal: ‘Stay alive and feed, yet don’t decimate your food supply.’

In sum, it’s “Eat or be eaten.”  The chemical warfare begun long before Homo saps “is why we have the natural pharmacopeia we do. We’ve simply tapped into a land-war that has been unfolding over the past 400 million years–think; The Very Hungry Caterpillar on a global scale.”

There are never certainties. Some plants utilize caffeine as a toxin to thwart insect aggressors while some bees imbibing caffeinated nectar pollinate more effectively. Humans, of course, swill caffeinated beverages daily; it revivifies and linked with reduced risk of depression, even suicide; but overmuch is toxic, fatal. “The dose makes the poison,” still holds.

“The human pursuit of nature’s toxins can be a new lens with which to view everything from the last 500 years of human history to our daily habits, including the ability to live longer, healthier lives.”  But Whiteman also cautions us to remember, “Humans are very recent arrivals on the planet, while the war of nature, raging now for hundreds of millions of years, is what’s given us our crops, our medicines, our air, and our water.”

(Curious about that title? It’s from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. More on that in the book!)

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