Caffeine by Michael Pollan


This subtitle, How Caffeine Created the Modern World, lays out an ambitious subject for a 2-hour audiobook, even if it is written by Michael Pollan. I’m not in a position to say that it was a successful thesis, but it was interesting enough that I want to devote a post to it to remember some of the points he made. I am sorry to say that as far as I know, it is only available through Audible.

Pollan nearly attributes agency to the plants, that is, he says that the coffee and tea plants “over the course of their evolution figured out a way to produce a chemical that happens to addict most of the human species. This is an astounding accomplishment and while that was not the plants’ intent in concocting this molecule–there is no intent in evolution just a lot of blind chance that occasionally yields an adaptation so good that it is extravagantly rewarded–once that molecule found its way into the human brain, the destiny of those plant species and the animal species changed in momentous ways. That adaptation proved so ingenious that it allowed the plants to wildly expand their numbers and habitats.” These two species expanded their reach, “colonizing” millions of acres around the world. The caffeine molecule is useful to the plants as a defense mechanism; in high doses it is lethal to insects, it has a bitter flavor, and has herbicide that may discourage competing plants.  In Omnivore’s Dilemma he says it is corn that chose us as a partner and we first work hard to help it reproduce, then we must work to find ways to consume all that is produced, sometimes to ill effects.

Before the British began drinking coffee in the seventeenth century, alcohol was the drink of choice all day long, partly because it was safer to drink than water. Around 1660 it was noted that those who drink coffee instead were more fit for work. This enabled the successful completion of more complex tasks, and voilà, next thing you know, we have the industrial revolution. It was developments leading to the British Empire that turned them to tea drinking. He notes that while caffeine was a part of creating modern “civilization,” the effects on individuals were not necessarily beneficial.

Pollan stopped drinking coffee cold turkey and suffered all the usual withdrawal symptoms, including loss of confidence. He doubted whether he could complete the work he was doing, or indeed, ever write another book. The wonderful effect we feel from coffee in the morning is the suppression of the withdrawal symptoms. That rang true for me; my cup and one-half of coffee in the morning changes everything.

The clear positive effect of having no coffee for three months for Pollan was that he slept like a teenager. He notes that sleep researchers he consulted for this book do not drink coffee. One researcher he quoted several times was Matthew Walker, whose book Why We Sleep I think of often.

I am sorry to be so enthusiastic about a piece of work that I cannot direct anyone toward. It is an “Audible Original,” and while it was free to me as an Audible member, it’s hard to imagine joining for a 2-hour piece.

Michael Pollan, “Caffeine:  How Caffeine Created the Modern World,” Audible Original, 2020, 2 hours and 2 minutes.

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