For the whole of the recorded history of our species – and quite likely much longer than that – humans have looked to the plant kingdom for relief from their pains, illnesses, and injuries, insight into their metaphysical conundrums, and inspiration for their reveries. Leaving the latter two of these categories aside for the present purpose, so important have plants medicinally been – and continue to be – to us that many of our most basic medications, aspirin and quinine for example, as well as “wonder drugs” such as the cancer-fighting agent Taxol are the direct results of scientific investigations of their respective biochemical properties. However as Kara Rogers clearly and concisely explains in Out of Nature; Why Drugs from Plants Matter to the Future of Humanity our age-old connections with plants are, for various reasons, deteriorating and as a result we are increasingly at risk of losing vital opportunities for solving some of our most vexing and in some cases dangerous physiological problems.
Not simply one problem but an intersection of many, the future of drug development from plants cannot be examined from a single perspective; only a holistic approach will do the subject justice. Fortunately, it is this very strategy that Dr. Rogers employs to familiarize the reader with the various elements that must come into play in the development of drugs from plants. From the history of the explorations of early botanists to the present day international conventions on everything from patents to the rights of indigenous peoples to the profit and loss statements of multi-national corporations, the range of subjects Dr. Rogers brings into her examination is far larger than most readers would have imagined. Then, of course, there is the core matter of the human relationship to and effect upon the environment.
From the damming of rivers to the logging of the rain forests to the filling of the air with a host of different compounds – not the least of which being Carbon – the seven billion plus humans on the planet Earth are quite possibly responsible for the greatest amount of change upon it ever caused by a single species in such a short period of time. Indeed, the biophilia originally proposed by E.O. Wilson and discussed at length by Dr. Rogers in Out of Nature is appearing to break down; more and more people are becoming alienated from and as a result apathetic toward the natural world (the very title Out of Nature itself hold a double meaning; not only do we derive benefits “out of nature” but we are now also conversely taking ourselves “out of nature” through our inattention to it). Not surprisingly, many of the planet’s other life forms are not faring so well as a result. “Scientists have estimated that at the current rate at which plants and animals are going extinct,” writes Dr. Rogers, “one new major drug is being lost every two years.” This of course insists upon the question “for which diseases are we unknowingly forgoing a cure?”
As a writer on this complex and multi-faceted subject, Dr. Rogers, a biologist with a PhD in both pharmacology and toxicology, as well as the senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica, is about as ideal a choice as could be desired. Not only is she thoroughly qualified to declaim upon such various subjects as bioprospecting, ethnobotany, and drug development as it now occurs in both collegial academia as well as the profit-focused world of “Big Pharma,” she is exceptionally skilled in boiling the most important aspects of these often arcane fields down to their essentials and assembling them in a manner that is accessible to the interested amateur while still remaining pertinent to the professional.
But make no mistake; Dr. Rogers does not cut corners in Out of Nature. Indeed, after reading it, one is astonished that the book is just barely over two hundred pages in length; so filled is it with information and insight that scarcely half a dozen pages can be read that the reader is compelled to pause and contemplate the astonishing implications – be they scientific, sociological, political, legal, etc. – of what has just been addressed. To accomplish this, the literary convention of a strong linking narrative has largely been abandoned. Each chapter is in many ways a stand-alone essay that, at times, may make one question if the author has become lost along a tangent from which there will be no return to anything addressed in earlier chapters.
Yet fear not, for in the final chapter, “The Forest for its Trees,” Dr. Rogers superbly (and dare it be said, almost poetically) brings all the various and seemingly disparate topics she has addressed back together in one final scientifically-grounded exhortation for a reawakening of our individual and collective awareness of just how reliant we have been and continue to remain on the plant world for our very well-being. Whether we follow the healing practices of traditional herbalists or seek the advice physicians in white lab coats working in the most technologically advanced facilities, we are all dependent upon plants for the treatments that will be proscribed to us; Out of Nature clearly explains not only how this has come to be and remains, it also concisely argues for an alteration to our present path if we are to continue to benefit not only from the vast riches of the plant kingdom we presently know but in order to have the opportunity to discover the undiscovered secrets it yet holds.
Author: Kara Rogers
Publisher: The University of Arizona Press
Format: trade paper
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was purchased by the reviewer.