Speaking. Chapter 3. Focus B 2.

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Focus B 02
√ Biology
√ Literature

1 Biology.

W: Have you ever wondered how we know which plants are good
        to eat and which ones are poisonous? Well, it was simply a very
    long and drawn-out process of trial and error. Throughout history,
    people ate what they could find, kill, or otherwise get a hold of.
    When there was a lack of a traditional food source, people had
    to try new things. Over time, they started to figure out which
    plants made them sick and which didn’t.
    Now, I am not just talking about ancient times before farming
    became established. This trial and error with plants was going
    on well into the 18th and 19th centuries! In fact, historical records
    indicate that in the 1800s plant poisoning had become a serious
    issue. Since food wasn’t as readily available then as it is today,
    people were forced to take more chances with what they ate.
    Rather than drop by the market at the end of the street, people
    would have to wander out into the fields or forests and find
    whatever looked edible. Today, because the food supply is rather
    ample and stable, we rarely have to go find our lunch or dinner
    out in the woods.
    Nonetheless, we still need to be careful. Poisonous plants can be
    found all around us: in our homes as decoration, in our lawns, and
    in the general landscape. Of course, we don’t generally go around
    putting random plants in our mouths. However, children do. Have
    any of you ever caught your baby brother or sister chewing on
    one of the plants in your house? Or maybe you were caught
    chewing on one! Considering the fact that a baby’s body is
    smaller and less hardy than ours, we have to look out for them.
    A small amount of poison that might go unnoticed in an adult
    can cause more serious harm to a child. So, poisonous plants are
    dangerous to kids, but there are measures that can be taken to
    ensure safety. You can identify the plants in your surroundings
    by giving a call to your local garden center. You can describe the
    plant to them, and hopefully they can tell you whether or not
    it has poisonous properties. Alternatively, you can take the plant
    down to show them. Also, if you buy a new plant, it is wise to
    ask whether or not it is poisonous.
    Now, there are three main categories of toxicity in plants: extremely
    toxic, moderately toxic, and minimally toxic. These names, however,
    are very misleading. You see, the severity of the poison depends on
    a host of other factors, like the particular plant and the metabolism
    of the person. The term “poisoning” itself is actually also misleading.
    Poisoning doesn’t only mean a person dies from the poison.
    Poisoning can result in anything from indigestion and skin irritation
    to lethal brain damage or death.
    Let’s talk about a few categories of poisonous plants now. One
    category is the alkaloids. These are bitter-tasting plants with
    nitrogen compounds in them. A good example is hemlock.
    I mention it as an example because hemlock is famous. History
    buffs in the class may recall that it was the poison extracted from
    this plant that Socrates was forced to drink as his death sentence
    for corrupting the youth of Athens. That’s just an interesting side
    note. Anyway, the effects of hemlock are similar to nicotine,
    but, obviously, much more severe as it can cause the nervous
    system to shut down, resulting in death. Plants with minerals in
    them form another category of poisonous plants. These plants
    build up a large amount of some mineral that is toxic in humans,
    such as lead or copper. The effects of eating these plants can
    include psychological malfunctioning and, in higher doses, death.
    Plants containing oxalates are the third category. Oxalates, spelled
    O-X-A-L-A-T-E-S, occur as small crystals in the plant and irritate
    the mouth. Not quite as serious as the other two, but poison
    nonetheless. Once again, those three categories of poisonous
    plants are the alkaloids, plants with minerals, and oxalates.
    So, you may be wondering, why did poisonous plants evolve?
    What purpose does this serve? Well, there are many different
    sources of poison in different plants as we just heard, but in
    most cases, the poison is a by-product of one of the plant’s natural
    life processes, and the poison serves as a defense mechanism
    for the plant. Animals learn which plants to stay away from
    because they get sick when they eat them. So, it follows that
    the plant will survive and reproduce because no one is eating it.

    2 Literature

M: OK, let’s start with a bit of background on Plutarch before we
    get to his work. The particular work I mean is Plutarch’s Lives.
    Plutarch lived from the year 46 to the year 120 in what had been
    (and at a later date continued to be) Greece. For many years,
    Plutarch served as one of the two priests at the temple of
    Apollo at Delphi (the site of the famous Delphic Oracle) twenty
    miles from his home. Greece, by the turn of the first millenium,
    was a sad ruin of its former glory. Mighty Rome had looted its
    statues and reduced Greece to a mere conquered territory.
    Despite these circumstances, Mestrius Plutarchus --- that is actually
    Plutarch’s given name --- lived a long and fruitful life with his
    wife and family in the little Greek town of Chaeronea.
    So, that is the man. Now, about his work. Plutarch’s plan in his
    work Lives was to pair a philosophical biography of a famous
    Roman with the biography of a Greek who was comparable in
    some way. Plutarch’s work includes short essays of comparison
    for each pair of lives, and after each essay, Plutarch pauses to
    deliver penetrating observations on human nature as illustrated
    by his subjects. This structure makes it difficult to classify Lives
    under a single genre --- I mean to classify it as history, biography,
    or philosophy. Plutarch’s announced intention was NOT to write
    a chronicle of great historical events, but rather to examine the
    character of great men, as a lesson for the living. I think --- and
    I certainly hope you agree after you’ve had a chance to read it
    --- that this is a fascinating work with applicable lessons for living
    for readers even today.
    An interesting point about Plutarch’s Greek heroes is that his
    subjects had been dead for at least 300 years by the time he
    wrote about their lives, around 100 A.D. That means Plutarch
    had to rely on old manuscripts, many of which no longer exist
    today. All we have left to rely on is Plutarch’s work. But even
    ancient legends can yield some insight, as Plutarch says at the
    beginning of his life of Theseus. Plutarch himself had no faith
    in the accuracy of even the so-called factual materials he had
    to work with. He actually made a comment to this effect in his
    essay on the life of Pericles. To quote, he said, “It is so hard to
    find out the truth of anything by looking at the record of the
    past. The process of time obscures the truth of former times,
    and even contemporaneous writers disguise and twist the truth
    out of malice or flattery.” That’s something for you to keep in
    mind the next time you’re reading your history textbook.
    Anyway, in spite of this problem, Plutarch managed to compare
    Roman and Greek heroes, and do it well enough that his work
    has survived the ages.
    It is interesting that this work was very popular until the 20th
    century. Then, people pretty much forgot about it. Let’s talk a
    little bit about why that happened. The Romans loved Plutarch’s
    Lives, and enough copies were written out over the next centuries
    that a copy of most parts of Lives managed to survive the Dark
    Ages in different places. It’s interesting to note the number of
    famous figures from history who have appreciated Plutarch’s
    writing and wisdom. Beethoven, as he was growing deaf, wrote
    in 1801, and I quote: “I have often cursed my Creator and my
    existence. Plutarch has shown me the path of resignation. If it is
    at all possible, I will bid defiance to my fate, though I feel that as
    long as I live there will be moments when I shall be God’s most
    unhappy creature ... Resignation, what a wretched resource! Yet
    it is all that is left to me.” Beethoven read Plutarch’s comparisons
    of the lives of Greek and Roman heroes and found wisdom
    there. There are many other examples of famous people finding
    inspiration in Plutarch. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was
    another fan of Lives.
    So, you may be asking yourself, “If this book is so famous, why
    haven’t I ever heard of it?” Well, despite all of the attention
    Plutarch’s work got through the ages, by the 20th century,
    Plutarch’s popularity began to fade. None of the literary scholars
    were putting out revitalized new editions of Lives. Probably
    because students were demanding more diversity in the reading
    curriculum, so a lot of classic works of literature were being
    pushed aside. Another factor could have been that Lives is a
    difficult book. Plutarch uses a complicated style of writing, so
    it’s not an easy read.


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