Nature's poisons: Why we love them and abuse them

October 24, 2023

Noah Whiteman posing with a sunflower leafAs an evolutionary biologist, Noah Whiteman knows that many chemicals humans abuse — cocaine, heroin, caffeine, alcohol — originated in the continual arms race between plants, fungi or microbes and the animals that want to eat them.

It was only after the death of his father in 2017 from alcohol abuse disorder, however, that the University of California, Berkeley, professor saw the connection between his life's work — the study of how animals have coopted plant poisons to protect themselves — and his personal story.

That realization grew into a fixation on documenting the many plant poisons that humans have learned to use and abuse, culminating in the new book, Most Delicious Poison: The story of nature's toxins — from spices to vices, published Oct. 24 by Little, Brown Spark publishers.

In the book, Whiteman, a professor of integrative biology and molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, faculty director of the Essig Museum of Entomology, and an affiliate of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Center for Computational Biology, Center for Theoretical and Evolutionary Genetics and University and Jepson Herbaria explores the many varieties of toxins humans use and abuse, and the evolutionary back-and-forth between predator and prey that generated them ever since plants first colonized land 400 million years ago.

Berkeley News