Grade: 4.0 /5.0
Trying to beat the summer heat by drinking a freshly made lemonade? Do not expose yourself to the sun after squeezing lemon! Or do it at your peril. The sun’s UVA light will activate a chemical called furanocoumarins contained in citrus, resulting in skin burn. Strangely, while furanocoumarins can result in third-degree burns and skin graft, this chemical is also used to treat skin diseases like vitiligo.
This paradox is one of many that lie at the center of evolutionary biologist Dr. Noah Whiteman’s new book “Most Delicious Poison.” Dr. Whiteman’s gripping tale explains how animals and humans have long attempted to harness plant’s toxins for their own purpose, be it survival, reproduction and, particularly in the human case, recreational.
By simply making our food more enjoyable and treating diseases, these chemicals permeate every aspect of our daily lives. Quoting the 16th century Swiss physician Paracelsus, Dr. Whiteman warns, “the dose makes the poison.” Found in what he calls “nature’s pharmacopoeia,” these toxins we so egregiously rely on are not inherently healthy since they were not originally made for us.
Dr. Whiteman is also a professor of integrative biology and of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley. Growing up in northeastern Minnesota where the wilderness was a refuge, it was his father’s deep appreciation for nature that sparked the author’s interest in the natural world, eventually leading him to become a biologist. Throughout the book, Dr. Whiteman invites readers to take a journey down memory lane, depicting vivid images of lush landscapes that seem to be out of a painting from Le Douanier Rousseau. It was during one of the walks he took with his dad in the Sax-Zim Bog that Dr. Whiteman encountered a major character featured in his book: the monarch butterfly.
Quite literally a flying poison, the monarch butterfly exemplifies the perpetual arms race in the natural world. Like Sun Tzu, Dr. Whiteman describes “The Art of War” in the natural world. Beware of the beautiful bright and colorful, innocent butterfly. After all, “all warfare is based on deception” and the monarch is a skillful soldier, who develops its strategy before attaining its flying form.
As a caterpillar, the monarch co-opts the toxin from poisonous milkweed leaves — it eats those leaves, stores the toxin in its body and elevates the toxicity level of the original poison. Only a handful of hungry beaks are able to pierce this self-made toxic armor. The milled leaves that the caterpillar eats should kill it, but like a judoka who would use their opponents strength and weight against them, monarchs have adapted to the poison, using it both as a nutrient and ultimately, a weapon. As Charles Darwin observed, the war of nature is merciless.
Through his book, Dr. Whiteman upholds the latin adage uti, non abuti—“to use not to abuse.” Because yes, ‘Most Delicious Poison’ is also a story of human use of natural toxins. As the author weaves the web of his life with the story of plant’s toxins, he shares with his audience details of his life, sometimes difficult such as his complex relationship with his late naturalist father who struggled with Alcohol Use Disorder for most of his adult life.
Fascinating, poignant and elegantly written, Dr. Whiteman’s book is an engrossing interdisciplinary work, mixing subjects ranging from biology and chemistry to history by way of political science. In an era of technological arms race and raging conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Dr. Noah Whiteman tells us about an ancient war that continues to be waged today: the war of nature.
Despite the myriad of chemical names — alkaloids, pyrethrins, phenolics and flavonoids — which would require a whole new toxin to make them digestible, this book remains accessible to a wide-ranging audience. Page by page, Dr. Whiteman poisons us with his prose and dazzling knowledge and like the monarch caterpillar, we slowly adapt to his poison. His unwavering dedication to the subject makes “Most Delicious Poison” intoxicating indeed.