Northern California Science Writers Association

Noah Whiteman — Nature's poisons: Why we love them and abuse them

  • Wednesday, October 18, 2023
  • 6:00 PM
  • A free Zoom talk


Many of the mood-altering chemicals humans love to abuse — caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, heroin, alcohol — first arose in plants, fungi or microbes as a defense against predators or competitors. The same goes for chemicals that help us enjoy our food, such as black pepper, capsaicin and the pungent chemicals in herbes de Provence, as well as those that keep us alive, such as penicillin, heart medications, antimalarial and anticancer drugs. 

Noah Whiteman, a professor of integrative biology and molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley and 2020 Guggenheim Fellow, has long been fascinated by the evolutionary interactions among poisonous plants and the creatures that eat them, and also why and how those same chemicals are used by other animals, including humans. 

In his new book, "Most Delicious Poison: The story of nature's toxins — from spices to vices," due out Oct. 24, Whiteman branches out from plants to explore the many varieties of toxins — some produced by animals themselves — and the evolutionary arms race between predator and prey that led to them. Woven throughout is the story of how some animals — birds, chimps, even other insects — have co-opted these chemical defenses and use them in unique ways, much like human behavior. Whiteman also draws on his personal story — his former smoking habit, his father's alcohol use disorder, and his own favorite addictive drug, caffeine — to illustrate how and why humans use and abuse these addictive toxins. 

Join us at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18, for a Zoom talk by Whiteman about his book and the delicious poisons all around us.

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software