Pay Them With Perfume
In our last exciting episodes, trees had defied gravity, scraped the skies, and with 200,000 leaves per tree had hogged up all the sunlight. You a land plant only a few feet high, were frantically trying to work around the edges of that light monopoly. To do it, you were attempting to invent new niches in which to survive. And to pull that off, you’d conjured up a miracle drink with which to lure another great gravity defier, arthropods who flew. Insects. Which is odd. Because those insects were thieves. They plundered your precious chips in the sexual game, your grains of pollen.
What in the world is the point of attracting creatures who feast on your sexual devices and force you to radically overproduce them? You plants “learn” something. You stumble into it tiny step by tiny step. Or do you “invent” it? In a series of big jumps? In lightning flashes of chemical creativity? We don’t yet know.
But you “learn” that by building flowers of specific shapes, you can fashion mazes. Mazes that will require an incoming insect to walk between walls of pollen balls and allow those balls to attach themselves to the visiting insect’s exterior. Mazes that will only give a payoff of nectar or perfume if I, the insect, rub myself all over your pollen in a specific way. Mazes you can use to get me to reshape myself. Mazes riddled with riches you can use to re-sculpt my physiology and my habits.
Meaning that if you lure me, an insect, to visit you, I will find you and your kind so richly rewarding that I’ll coat myself in your pollen then go off and visit another plant with a flower just like yours. I’ll fly direct to another plant of your species. I’ll carry your pollen on a non-stop airline trip to your sexual ideal—a plant almost identical to you, but not quite. I’ll become an extender of your sexual organs. I’ll become what botanist Peter Bernhardt has called a flying penis. In the process, I’ll increase the precision of your pollen’s wanderings. What’s more, over time I’ll reshape myself to fit only you and your kind. Meaning that I will guarantee express delivery of your sexual material to a waiting mate of precisely the sort you ache for most.
So you, the plant driven to the margins by the sunlight monopolists, by trees, will spend between ten percent and fifty percent of your energy budget reshaping a now useless leaf into what looks like a counterproductive luxury, a flamboyant signaling device, a materialist display as flashy as any building in Dubai. You, the plant, turn a deliberately disabled, repurposed leaf into a marketing device that says, hey, don’t waste your time and energy on my competitors. Don’t diddle with other kinds of plants. Come over here and visit me. I’ve made extra pollen. Some pollen for my purposes. Some for yours. All I ask of you is transport. I’m stuck here and can’t move. But you can do more than just walk. You can flit. If you act as my cargo shipper and take my pollen to the sexual centers of other plants, I will reward you mightily.
This strategy is so astonishingly successful that it produces 369,000 new species of plants Your big bet on consumerist, materialist excess and vain display is, as you’ve guessed, the flower. And, yes, “flowers [plants] are more diverse than every other group of plants,” says Stanford University’s Danielle Tucker,. Which means you flowering plants invented 369,000 new ways to make a living. You carved out 369,000 niches that never existed before. 369,000 new ways to suck up sunshine despite the ultimate sunlight hoggers, trees.
But to repeat, 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 species. They create new networks of interaction, new teams. They weave new kinds of meshwork arrays. And new weaves are often the hidden goals of materialism, consumerism, waste, and vain display.
Madison Avenue is often blamed for putting sex into advertising, but that’s not true. Who inserted sex into advertising? You. The flowering plant.
But you didn’t do it on your own. Another kind of advertising started roughly 113 million years ago, a mere seven million years or so after the evolution of you, the first flowering plant. And it was kicked off by the evolution of a new desire in female insects. A new passion. A new fashion. A new form of what economists call “demand.”
As you’d expect by now, the female insects seized by this obsession craved materialism, consumerism, excess, and vain, wasteful display. And they were driven by that old hand at excess, that old sinner against the law of least action, that old creator of most action and then some, sex.
These insect females were incredibly picky in their sexual appetites. They would only pay serious attention to a male if he gathered a back-breakingly hard-to-get perfume—one of 585 volatile compounds made primarily of terpenes and aromatics. A perfume mixed together from chemicals the male was forced to extract from the resin of tropical trees, from fungi, from rotting vegetation, and from leaves. Not just from one of them. From all of them. Mixed, matched, blended, and combined.
This life-complicating perfume-obsession spread like an infection. And it wasn’t limited to just one species. It showed up in the females of three kinds of insects—bees, wasps, and moths. Why did females of so many different species force males to go through this torment of chemical extraction? Was it for a down to earth, practical reason? To provide food and shelter? To guarantee the necessities of life? Not a chance. The female insects demanded these rare scents for one purpose and one purpose only—the throwaway waste of sexual display. The sort of materialist, consumerist indulgence that allows British perfumer Clive Christian to charge $215,000 a bottle for his Number 1 Imperial Majesty perfume and France’s Baccarat to charge $6,800 a bottle for its Les Larmes Sacree de Thebes (The Sacred Tears of Thebes).
But was this insanity the product of rabid capitalists creating false desires to enslave the masses? No, there were no capitalists anywhere in sight. This was nature on the wing. This was evolution doing its thing. Nature’s longest possible path between two points. Nature’s law of most-effort. Nature’s path of productive sin.
What was the value of inflicting an impossible perfume hunt on innocent males? It appears that female insects demanded this chemical feat of labor to create an artificial and arbitrary form of competition. A competition that could allow the females to save their chastity for the males with the greatest ability to play the perfume game.
Twelve million years after the scent-obsessed female insect came forth from the maw of evolution, orchids hit on the same secret of advertising that we decry when marketers in Western society use it: yes, once again, sex. Well, actually, pornography. But pornography with a twist. Up until now, sexual waste had been there solely to hook an individual of one species up to another individual of his or her own kind. But with the evolution of the orchid, sex crossed the species line and went flat out porno. How?
The female of the Thynnid wasp let it be known that she was available by standing on the top of a plant and lifting her head to the sky. So the Australian hammer orchid built a flower that looked almost precisely like a female wasp in a mating position, complete with an upturned head that shined like the real thing and fuzz in the appropriate places. Yes, the hammer orchid built a 3-D Playboy centerfold. And the orchid added one more lure with which to outcompete other plants in attracting Thynnid wasps. A chemical lure. The orchid’s flower exuded the scent emitted by a female Thynnid wasp in heat.
But most orchids went one giant step farther. They simplified the male wasp’s chemical chore. The orchids synthesized that rare chemical perfume that males had previously been forced to extract and blend from the combined resin of tropical trees, fungi, rotting vegetation, and from leaves. If I, a male euglossine bee, touched down on your elaborate surface, you, the orchid, rewarded me by letting me fill the basket of carrying hairs on my thighs with the rare scent I needed to seduce a real female. Without having to travel to four different kinds of sources to get it.
You, the orchid plant spent a lot of energy. All on two ridiculously elaborate materialist lures that you would use for six to ten weeks—a small fraction of the year—then would throw away—
- a chemical mix, a perfume, that performed no useful role in the your internal economy;
- and your flower.
In a world of least action and entropy, that should have been enough. In fact, it should have been way, way too much. But you, the flowering plant, the angiosperm, the orchid, were nowhere near through lavishing energy, time, and material resources on capturing my attention and my pollen-carrying power. In fact, your elaborations, complexities, and wild inventions of new wastes of time and energy would defy belief.
If you put a real female bee next to the orchid that imitates her, a male Thynnid wasp will spot the fake quickly, ignore the orchid, and go for the real female. The orchid to this day has still not perfected its pornographic lures. It has still not mastered the art of making a super-female—a female more attractive than the real thing. But a long, long time ago, the orchid overcame this weakness. How? Timing. It put out its flower in the weeks before females emerged from the hive. It beat the competition—the real females. Think of that for a second. Think of the plant intelligence it takes to discover an insect’s annual rhythm and to “see” how to use it to advantage. Think of all the trouble an orchid had to go to to beat the clock–building a biological calendar, a timing mechanism, that allowed it to accurately predict when the real females would emerge and to get ahead of that deadline. Think of the bio-machinery, the bio-technology it takes to achieve timing with this precision.
Then there is the creative panic with which flowers responded to the challenge of the trees. Thanks to that remarkable panic, orchids were in a continuous competition to come up with new flowers, new perfumes, and new insect lures. They switched scents to lure different insects. Or they changed the part of the male insect’s body to which they attached their balls of pollen. They came up with six hundred different ways of attracting just one kind of insect, the aforementioned euglossine bee. These small shifts in tactics resulted in 600 different orchid species. Six hundred different varieties of materialist consumerist, competitive display. Not to mention the orchid’s achievement of shaping two hundred different species of euglossine bees.
Orchids’ throwaway marketing displays, their disposable billboards, seemed flamboyant beyond belief. But, in fact, they were practical. Like retail stores, they were designed to both dazzle the insect and to help him or her to the goods the flower offered. Charles Darwin, who wrote an entire book on the subject, The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects, says that the flower of every orchid includes an aircraft runway, a petal that “is larger than the others and stands on the lower side of the flower, where it offers a landing-place for insects.” What’s more, this specialized, easy-access petal “secretes nectar for the sake of attracting insects, and is often produced into a spur-like nectary.”
Then come more path-of-most-effort complexities. For example, now that the flower has made a deal with an insect to carry its pollen to a distant flower, it can go to extra lengths to forbid its pollen from fertilizing itself. An orchid found in southeastern Brazil, the Notylia nemorosa, makes sure that it can’t fertilize itself by opening its equivalent of sperm, its pollen bundles, for business for two or three days while keeping its female organ, its stigma, blocked off. Then this Brazilian orchid fixes the pollen bundles so they can no longer be removed. It locks its pollen down so it can’t dispersed. And, says Charles Darwin, it opens “a narrow slit…in the stigmatic cavity, allowing pollen deposition.”
The message? Don’t take the path of least effort. Don’t take the easy route to sex. Do not let the male material you produce mate with your own female offspring. What’s more, the Netylia nemorosa orchid backs up that self-fertilization-prevention mechanism by producing pollen that is incompatible with its own egg. Why this extraordinary attempt to cancel out the path of least resistance and to take the riskiest and most difficult path? The most wasteful path imaginable? And to produce a masterpiece of materialism, consumerism, and gaudy, useless display? Why this absolute need to take the path of most effort and get out of your own sexual sandbox and reach out to a distant flower? For the sake of differentiation. For the sake of one-of-a-kind offspring. For the sake of generating as many forms of stems and leaves as you can to suck up the sunlight that sifts between the greedy leaves of tree. And all for the sake of a cosmos driven to explore her potential. A cosmos on a quest. A cosmos using you as an antenna to feel out the flamboyant, the ornate, and the impossible. A cosmos that loves those who oppose her most.