Science and a cabinet of curiosities

Decorative bananaplant

I am in the process of writing an extraordinary and comprehensive book review. It is written by the most brilliant man you have probably never heard of: Michael Polanyi. The book is called “Personal Knowledge“.

I first read part of it almost 47 years ago and was immediately very impressed. It seemed to me to be the complete answer to just about all relevant questions about the theory of science.
It took some effort to finally borrow a copy of the book in 2024 again. I am now reading it in its entirety and with more scrutiny. And it is even more overwhelming than I remembered. So much so that I put it aside for a couple of days before reading further: I first wanted to write this blogpost that is strongly related to a part I remember best from that first encounter with ‘Personal Knowledge‘.
About the banana plant. More precisely: one I know personaly as it were …


Eight of the exam subjects in my high school involved science subjects. Biology I found the most instructive and fascinating of these but I did not pursue university studies in it.
Thanks to an unlikely confluence of circumstances however, by now I finally find myself studying some biology after all. The circumstances being: I retired, I started painting and I came to live in an apartment somewhat akin to a greenhouse …

Somehow seriously funny …

I took a very first step in this direction of studying biology in 2017. In an article (in Dutch) about health I included some remarks about the amazing Endosymbiosis-theory.

And now I digged, not very elaborate but seriously in-depth, into the background of that special inflorescence of banana plants shown in the photo above.

There are many kinds of banana plants. Definitely not trees by the way. They have no side branches and they very easily make new shoots which are appropriately called “suckers“. When you dig them out at the right time, you can give them away and they shoot two or three meters out of the ground in no time.
My specimen was also that kind of a present. Unlike my relatives and acquaintances however, I did not place it in a garden but indoors. Several of those banana plants began to bloom here in the far-from-tropical Netherlands, but unlike those specimens in gardens, my one has been blooming for six months now and there is no sign yet that this will stop anytime soon! (Kind of a curiosity yes, but not one of the kind I am referring to in the title of this blogpost).

A very limited exploration immediately reveals that there is a huge difference between wild bananas and cultivated ones and that the influorescence has spectacular aspects. So spectacular even that there are varieties bred not for the fruit but because of its decorative aspects. So that solved the bigger part of the little mystery of no real bananas appearing: we were probably cloning such a decorative variant. No matter how painstakingly we did the watering, fertilizing and protecting them against the cold in our winters, the chances of harvesting edible bananas were very low indeed.

Each new leaf of the banana plant is larger than the previous one: until shortly before flowering becomes apparent. Or the other way around: flowering is ‘announced’ by the appearance of one or a few much smaller leaves. After the last leaf has grown the next first thing visible is the bud: a bit more purple / maroon than in my photo. Then follow more or less groups (‘hands’) of what looks like tiny bananas with tiny flowers ‘on top’. Female ones. See photo below. (In the photo of my specimen they are very few and by now they have turned very dark brown, almost black.)

Then, every one or couple of days, a bract of that bud opens and (small, male) flowers become visible: about seven of them.

When you cut what looks like the stem of the banana plant, the onset of the inflorescence is visible many months earlier. Of course. The last of the scientific articles I read as preparation for this blogpost dealt with that activity: Inflorescence and Flower Development in Musa velutina.

The first thing to notice about the article is that it does have sections titled ‘Results‘, ‘Discussion‘ and ‘Conclusion‘ but there is only one occurence of the word ‘hypothesis‘. In this sentence:

In itself, the whole structure of the study is quite remarkable, but I point out in particular the key ‘word’ (1933) here!

Other studies mentioned in the “discussion” section are from the 19th century, 1953, 1963 and the late 20th century. The questions actually addressed are purely about taxonomy and morphology.

This study by Bruce K. Kirchoff was published in 2017 in the International Journal of Plant Sciences and this cute colourful presentation of Kirchoffs findings featured on its front page.

There can be no doubt: a serious amount of engineering, craftmanship and focus was absolutely necessary to produce this publication, but what type of ‘comprehension‘ was involved? (‘Comprehension is a crucial term in the book ‘Personal Knowledge‘; Polanyi already introduces it in the preface).

Polanyi warned of cabinets of curiosities: loose, disjointed chunks of scientific knowledge in an ocean of opinions and traditional views. With that in mind to me those big gaps in time between the studies mentioned by Kirchoff stand out.

Every great scientist in any serious branch of science has said or still says it: there is much more that we don’t know for certain than we do know for certain. In stark contrast to dangerous self-aggrandizers like Bill Gates and other WHO funders/advisors and those silly journalists and politicians blabbering about ‘97% of scientists agree’.

Science and agriculture

Expressed by weight, the cultivated banana is easily the most successful fruit in the history of mankind. Not for very long, by the way. Only about 7,000 years and besides: it is believed that initially the fruit was an accidental byproduct and the plants were cultivated for the roots and leaves. A bit like hemp. Normally the fruits of non-cultivated bananas are inedible.

Partly because of that enormous agricultural success, the amount of easily accessible images and all kinds of more or less informative texts about bananas and banana growing, is truly overwhelming. By comparison, the amount of serious scientific studies on them however, is exceptionally small.

Pver at the site I read that the strange organization Tropic Biosciences employs around 60 of the just 70 people worldwide working on banana genetics!
Let that sink in!
It explicitly mentions that Wageningen University in the Netherlands “.. has a famous banana research programme“. (Hence the caption under the photo of their not completely unique research experiment …)

When you also take a look at the exact activities of that Tropic Biosciences that low number of 60 in a way is truly alarming.
Some 70 years ago the then absolutely dominant banana export variety, ‘Gros Michel’, was eliminated by the Panama Disease. Its place was taken by the ‘Cavendish’. Now a new virulent disease, Tropical Race 4 (TR4) in turn threatens the Cavendish.

This news about bananas has led to remarkably different reactions.
I came across this difference in a set of two ‘articles’ via a magazine with popularized science, called: Bio wetenschap & Maatschappij (Bio Science and Society).

One of those was written by  Ir. Doriet Willemen who works for the Koninklijke Nederlandse Plantenziektekundige Vereniging (Royal Dutch Plant Protection Society) and also edits a website aimed at school students. Therein she sounded the alarm with an article with an obsessively funny name. (“De banaan is de pisang“: it takes too much time and room to supply a decent translation).
The type of alarmism that nowadays by so many is deemed appropriate to install fear in people, especially in children even.

The other article, written by Anker Sørensen ends in a completely different mood,…a new disease-resistant variety is no longer so far away, especially now that a number of international initiatives have been launched that will further accelerate research into new resistant varieties.
Sørensen is employed by Keygene, a Wageningen-based Crop Innovation Company (sic !).

Somewhat more than Willemen, but still quite vaguely, Sørensen points to the “monocultural” background and the issue of seedless multiplication.

Monocultures on Steroids

This article (from 2015!) is different. Take note: five out of the eight authors are related to the Dutch Wageningen University.

II provide three quotes, the thrid with some extra emphasis.

Both the ‘Gros Michel‘ back then and the ‘Cavendish‘ in recent years are threatened by this ‘Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense‘ (Foc). And more strikingly, that Foc seems to have ‘grown up together’, as it were, with that particular plant species: the cultivated, sterile banana!

For decades already, every well educated person knows that monoculture has it advantages but also comes with vulnarability. And we deal with a special type of monoculture: genetically identical plants.

The Oxford English Dictionary leaves no doubt. Monoculture is: “The cultivation or exploitation of a single crop, or the maintenance of a single kind of animal, to the exclusion of others“. A single crop. Not crops that share the exact DNA! Hence my choice of the words: Monoculture on steroids.

The main conclusion of this study, somewhat irreverently summarized, reads: New banana varieties must be developed based on available differentiation in uncultivated, non-sterile bananas and by genetic engineering.

Unfortunately the article closes thus:

It merely introduces some special victimhood and some vaguely anti-capitalist sentiment. I hate anti-capitalist sentiments but what I hate most about it is that vagueness and sentimentality. I hate it especially because the real challenges that come with the blessings of entrepreneurial production are covered this way.
Real problems such as oligipolies and investors and managers completely disconnected from the actual production processes.

Imagine that you are the responsible CEO of one of the world’s largest banana production and trading companies, and you are confronted with the terrible end of the “Gros Michel“. As you tried to imitate the caricature of the “capitalist,” you looked for ways to turn this disaster into profit. For example, when you felt connected to banana cultivation because you had learned it from your parents, you organized extensive consultations with the best scientists – not necessarily the most famous – in the field of (Foc) fungi and seedless propagation. And experts on the dissemination of this knowledge in the producing countries …

Did you know that banana flowers are considered superfood in many countries? And rightly so. Enjoy your meal.

1 comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.