Seduce The Gods: Plant Pornography
Evolutionary breakthroughs do not just fashion new kinds of legs, wings, and brains. They do not just generate new forms of individuals. They often create something we overlook when we obsess on the origin of new species. They create new networks of interaction, new teams.
And here’s a dirty little secret. Even a seemingly isolated individual like a plant, an animal, a you, or a me is a form of teamwork, a teamwork between twenty trillion cells in a plant and a hundred trillion cells in you or me. Not to mention the 39 trillion bacteria inside you that digest your food for you and protect you from microbial invaders in your nose and throat. Yes, you are a network, a mesh, a team, a community. But that’s not where the teamwork stops.
An individual is a teamwork between you, the seemingly individualistic organism, your colony mates and relatives, your friends and enemies, and your surroundings. Not to mention a culture left to you by 10,000 generations of ancestors. And your obligations to generations yet to come.
You, an individual, are a knot in a network of relationship that pulls in even the energy of a sun 93 million miles away and the photon flows of stars four billion light years away, stars that chill you with awe. Stars that the creatures around you use as navigational signals in the night. Stars that even indigo buntings and robins use when they migrate.
You and I are nodes in what Princeton University philosopher Manual De Landa calls “meshworks.” And the evolution of new meshworks is as crucial as the evolution of new organisms.
Which leads to another evolutionary secret. Materialism, consumerism, and waste are teamwork makers. They are integrators. They are meshwork fabricators. They are evolutionary breakthrough creators. And that’s where plants’ invention of bling comes in.
You are a plant 100 million years ago. Trees are stealing your sunlight. And insects are stealing your pollen. How do you solve this problem? You do something radically unnatural. You make the “harmonious” status quo look ridiculous. You defy mere conservation. You go far beyond stems, panels, and plumbing. You abandon plant solutions entirely. And you rope in another species. You invent a new form of what the father of economics, Adam Smith, called specialization of labor. As you’ve read before, you seduce, kidnap and recruit a species vastly different than your own: insects.
To do it, you go outside more than just one box. You go outside of two. You employ the Swiss army knife effect. You employ what 20th century evolutionary thinker Stephen Jay Gould called “exaptation”—using something that evolves for one purpose for a totally different task, employing a device you’ve already got up and running, but putting it to work for a function beyond imagining.
You have developed the genes for making leaves. But now you use your solar-panel genes to create another kind of panel entirely. In fact, you invent something that at first glance is useless. Something that is materialist, consumerist, and wasteful beyond belief.
Yes, it’s spread out in a thin sheet like a leaf. Yes, it has veins like a leaf. Which means it is expensive and uses a massive load of material resources. Like a leaf. But it has utterly lost its practical value. It seldom has the high-cost ventilation holes that open to let in carbon dioxide and that close to stop the evaporation of water. And it almost never has solar power generators—chloroplasts. What’s more, you use it only for a few weeks or months, then you let it die and litter the landscape with its remains. It is big, flashy, and pricey, but you have the gall to throw it away. In other words, it’s consumerist trash. It’s a pointless waste. Right? So what is it good for? Promotion. Persuasion. Recruitment. Vanity. Vainglory. Pride. Display.
And what the hell is display good for? What’s the point of vanity?
Remember those insects gorging on your pollen? Remember your sperm transport problems? Remember how you’ve been forced to rely on the unreliable? How you’ve been forced to scatter your pollen to the wind? In the hope that a gust would randomly take your male seed, your pollen, to a receptive female of precisely your species. Remember the whacky notion of opening communication with insects and working out a deal? Remember the goal of remote controlling an insect like a drone?
How about using your leaves to seduce and recruit? How about using your leaves to communicate?
How about finding shapes, colors, and smells that an insect will not be able to resist? How about modifying your leaves to fit the tastes, the pleasures, and the lusts of six-legged fliers with wings? How about using the veiny panels you originally invented for water carrying and photosynthesis to do something so different it’s ridiculous– feeling out an insect’s motivational machinery? Feeling out an insect’s psychology? How about using your panels to develop what author Michael Pollan calls a “botany of desire”? How about using them to mesmerize creatures of a very different kind? How about using your panels as billboards?
How about refocusing from producing stomata and choloroplasts to producing a strange variation of the chloroplast, a “chromoplast”—a color maker? How about producing reds and yellows to pull in butterflies. Ultraviolet patterns and colors that contrast sharply with the background to lure bees. Whites and pale colors to grab the attention of moths at night. How about offering up insect pornography? How about using your panels as, well, umm, flowers.
But what in the world is the value of capturing the attention of an insect who does nothing but steal from you? Wouldn’t it be better to send that insect away? Especially in a cosmos where the law of least effort applies? A universe where all things fall apart and everything drifts toward entropy? Or could it be that this particular cosmos favors most action and entropy’s opposite, higher degrees of order, higher degrees of integration and complexity? Higher degrees of astonishment? Higher forms of meshwork weaves? Higher degrees of audacity?
How do new meshworks come to be? Remember the Swiss army knife effect? Exaptation? The discovery that something you developed for one purpose can be used to achieve a very different goal? The same chemical pathway that manufactures color pigments can be used to produce perfumes.
Using odor-producing molecules to manipulate insect behavior is old hat to you. For a long time now, you’ve used scents to battle against plant-eaters, to fend off insect and microbial marauders. You’ve used scents to coordinate defensive maneuvers against enemies, defensive maneuvers you pull off with a phalanx of other plants. For example , according to Purdue University’s Natalia Dudareva, when you were “infected with a virus,” you used scent to mobilize your community. You released “a volatile compound that signals other plants to set up defenses against the virus.”
And you used offensive odors as repellants, pushing insects away. But opposites are joined at the hip. A molecule that cracks the code of another species’ motivational machinery is the start of a communicative language, and a language can be used to repel or to attract. Switch strategies and reprogram the roughly fifteen genes you use to produce the odors with which you send insects reeling, the fifteen genes you use to produce “essential oils” and “volatile compounds,” and instead of repelling insects, you can entrance them.
For example, you can mix and match your chemical building blocks—chemicals like methyl benzoate, methyl salicylate, salicylic acid, and linalool— to smell like rotting meat to attract flies. Or you can go for the biggest perfume breakthrough of all—imitating the mating scent of an insect female. You can manufacture a perfume that promises an insect orgy, a perfume that, yes, produces insect pornography.
Scent production will prove so promising that eventually one of you new-style ground plants, the orchid, will be capable of generating one hundred different perfumes. But that’s getting ahead of our story.
While you’re jumping outside the box to solve your tree problem, while you’re turning the status quo on its head, while you’re exapting, why not take advantage of your garbage? You know those liquids you expel in order to get rid of “excess assimilates”? Like the sugar-rich sap called phloem? And the sugary drop that many of you plants exude to help along the meeting of male pollen and the female egg? The sexual fluids on the high tips of your egg-fortress towers that give an arriving pollen the liquid it needs to fire up its germination machinery and manufacture sperm? Why not take advantage of the robbery of these beverages by insects? Why not overproduce these liquids, enrich them with extra sugars and amino acids, and use them, to recruit?
Conrad Labandeira of the National Museum of History calls the result of repurposing this waste an outright “bribe”–a sugar water drink so heavenly that the Greek gods were said to have drunk it on Mount Olympus.. Yes, you plants repackage your sewage as a libation that can even influence the behavior of the gods. You invent nectar.
But that’s not all…