Most Delicious Poison: The Story of Nature's Toxins—From Spices to Vices (Hardcover)

Most Delicious Poison: The Story of Nature's Toxins—From Spices to Vices By Noah Whiteman Cover Image

Most Delicious Poison: The Story of Nature's Toxins—From Spices to Vices (Hardcover)


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An evolutionary biologist tells the story of nature’s toxins and why we are attracted—and addicted—to them, in this “magisterial, fascinating, and gripping tour de force” (Neil Shubin).

A deadly secret lurks within our spice racks, medicine cabinets, backyard gardens, and private stashes.

Scratch beneath the surface of a coffee bean, a red pepper flake, a poppy seed, a mold spore, a foxglove leaf, a magic-mushroom cap, a marijuana bud, or an apple seed, and we find a bevy of strange chemicals. We use these to greet our days (caffeine), titillate our tongues (capsaicin), recover from surgery (opioids), cure infections (penicillin), mend our hearts (digoxin), bend our minds (psilocybin), calm our nerves (CBD), and even kill our enemies (cyanide). But why do plants and fungi produce such chemicals? And how did we come to use and abuse some of them?

Based on cutting-edge science in the fields of evolution, chemistry, and neuroscience, Most Delicious Poison reveals:
  • The origins of toxins produced by plants, mushrooms, microbes, and even some animals
  • The mechanisms that animals evolved to overcome them
  • How a co-evolutionary arms race made its way into the human experience
  • And much more

This perpetual chemical war not only drove the diversification of life on Earth, but also is intimately tied to our own successes and failures. You will never look at a houseplant, mushroom, fruit, vegetable, or even the past five hundred years of human history the same way again.
Noah Whiteman is an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is Professor of Integrative Biology and of Molecular and Cell Biology. At Berkeley, he is also affiliated with the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, Center for Computational Biology, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Jepson and University Herbaria, and Essig Museum of Entomology. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2020 to write Most Delicious Poison and lives in Oakland.
Product Details ISBN: 9780316386579
ISBN-10: 031638657X
Publisher: Little, Brown Spark
Publication Date: October 24th, 2023
Pages: 304
Language: English
“Magisterial, fascinating, and gripping, Noah Whiteman’s Most Delicious Poison is a tour de force. With infectious enthusiasm and deep knowledge, Whiteman opens the curtain behind the substances that affect all of our lives.”—Neil Shubin, paleontologist and author of Your Inner Fish

“Noah Whiteman expertly reveals the evolution of the toxins that permeate our daily lives in this deeply researched and fascinating book.”—Jennifer Doudna, Nobel Laureate, CRISPR gene editing co-inventor, and Innovative Genomics Institute founder

“I wish I could travel the world with Noah Whiteman and enjoy firsthand his deep and eclectic knowledge of the thousands of compounds that plants evolved to defend themselves against predators. Fortunately, he has written Most Delicious Poison. This exuberant, poignant, and mind-blowing guide will transform how you think about plants and how humans use and abuse their toxins to flavor food, treat disease, alter moods, and more.”—Daniel E. Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body and Exercised

“Humans have benefitted for millennia from the wild variety of healing, intoxicating, delicious or stimulating toxins produced by the biological warfare that pervades the natural world. Whiteman provides a wonderful overview of the diversity and ubiquity of these drugs, giving us an inspiring, entertaining look at both the richness of nature and the clever ways humans—and many other species—have learned to exploit it.”—Edward Slingerland, author of Drunk

“Through captivating storytelling, Noah Whiteman breathes life into the history of nature’s toxins, exploring the pleasures, comforts, and agonies that have shaped human evolution as it has intertwined with the evolution of these vital yet often overlooked organisms.”—Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth

"[Most Delicious Poison] feel[s] like a riveting lecture by a passionate professor."—Robert Sullivan, New York Times

“A fascinating discussion of how nature’s toxins can affect us all.”—Kirkus Reviews

“This amusing debut from Whiteman, an evolutionary biology professor at UC Berkeley, explores the ‘ways that toxins from nature arose, have been used by us humans and other animals, and have consequently changed the world.’”—Publishers Weekly

"Biologist Noah Whiteman's exacting yet expansive analysis reminds us that although they 'permeate our lives in the most mundane and profound ways,' the toxic chemicals we use every day are not nature's gifts to us but rather its munitions."—Dana Dunham, Scientific American

“Whiteman’s provocative volume will make the reader think differently about familiar substances like coffee, cayenne, and cocaine.”—Margaret Quamme, Booklist

“Aficionados of chemical form, people interested in botanical pharmacology and toxicology, and those who are simply curious about the origins of their drugs and spices will find much to enjoy in this fascinating compendium.”—Emily Monosson, Nature

“Personal and well-researched, Most Delicious Poison has wide appeal, in part, as Whiteman points out, because indulging in nature’s toxins ‘is an essential part of what it means to be human.’ So go ahead. Pour a cup of herbal tea, add some drops of lavender oil to the diffuser and enjoy this mind-bending read.”—Aaron Tremper, Science News, named a favorite book of 2023

“Well worth a read. Spare the time to mull over each chapter for slightly longer than you might otherwise, if just to let the poison sink in."—Tom Leslie, New Scientist

Most Delicious Poison is full of illuminating insights into the natural world and the plants that have shaped us.”—Constance Craig Smith, Daily Mail

“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.”—Nathan Martins, The Daily Californian

Most Delicious Poison is a captivating exploration of the world of toxins. Noah Whiteman paints a comprehensive picture of the paradox of toxins, leaving readers with a newfound appreciation for the intricate ways in which nature’s poisons have shaped human existence.”—Ebenezer Mensah, BNN

“A kaleidoscope of facts and historical vignettes, both of how plant chemicals work, and how humans learned to harness some of them.”—Katrina Gulliver, The Spectator