Seduction Scalpels Reality
Over 100 million years ago, you flowering plants went through wild gyrations to reshape yourselves as insect attractors, insect manipulators, and insect payday providers. But you did more. You also reshaped the genes, bodies, and behaviors of insects.
You remade the mouthparts of the three species of 270-million-year-old insects found at Tchekarda in Russia, refashioning those mouth parts to specialize in eating pollen. Roughly one hundred and fifty million years later, you plants would go even farther. You would reshape an insect’s physiology, its sexual specializations, and its society. You would help fashion an insect with its own promotional communication display mechanism, a figure-eight dance. A social insect whose entire lifestyle would be built around pollen and nectar. That insect made by you, the flowering plant? The bee.
How did your plants pull off this radical re-wiring of other creatures’ genomes? This elaborate creation of new species? And this astonishing creation of new ways to agglomerate in societies? Societies like the beehive? How did you mere plants rise up against the status quo, rebel against the principle of least action, and give the finger to entropy?
The standard answer is Darwinian selection. And, say critics like NYU’s Thomas Nagel, natural selection remains an under tested hypothesis, “an open question.” But in the case of the flower and the insect, the Darwinian explanation appears to work.
Your flower rewarded those who went along with the deal you plants offered. And the flower did not reward those who ignored its signals. You plants apparently reshaped the very gene string of insects simply by increasing the odds that those who were lured by your elaborate billboards would produce more young flies. And by increasing the odds that the flies who loved your flashy displays would eventually dominate.
Did your wild plunge into the materialism, consumerism, and excess of nectar, pollen, and flowers pay off? Did it prove worthwhile to expend huge amounts of energy on flamboyantly gaudy, materialist displays? Displays that you would use for a few weeks or a few months, then throw away? Displays that would litter the floor of forest margins with waste? You be the judge.
In the words of an Indiana University research press release, flowering plants “supplanted ferns and gymnosperms in many regions of the globe.” Flowering plants—angiosperms– pulled this off, says the Indiana University press release, by mounting worldwide “invasions.” Invasions of territories where trees were scarce. First you flowering plants penetrated the wetlands around lakes 130 million to 125 million years ago. Then you assaulted “understory floodplains,” the flatlands between forests and rivers, “between 125 million and 100 million years ago.” Finally, you flowering plants attacked “natural levees, back swamps and coastal swamps between 100 million and 84 million years ago.” And when you flowering plants invaded, you often took over. First you occupied the tropics and nearly wiped out the native cone-bearers and ferns. Yes, one manifestation of nature nearly exterminated another. Then you flowering plants moved north and south, into the temperate zones. In the end, you forced the cone-bearers and ferns to eke out an existence in the cold of the far north and the far south
You angiosperms—you flowering plants–competed the ferns and cone-bearers into a retreat. In fact, you plants that wasted vast amounts of resources on throwaway display elbowed the old, conservative, far more economical cone-carrying plants and ferns out of niches all over the globe. And you did it with unaccountable speed.
The explosion of wildly different forms of you flowering plants took place so fast that a global bouquet of radically different flowers seems to appear from nowhere in the fossil record. The profusion of forms and species was so wild and so instant in geological terms that Darwin’s critics claimed it proved that his theory of evolution was wrong. There was no step-by-step, slow-but-steady process of change, the critics said. No Darwinian gradualism. Declared Darwin’s attackers, the fossil record showed clearly that flowers had been created all at once, in one giant whoomph. Which was unequivocal evidence of a giant Whoompher—a God. A creator.
Darwin took this argument seriously. Very seriously. To counter it, he “wrote three volumes on plant reproductive biology.” One was an entire book to counter the flower argument against evolution, a book we bumped into a minute ago: The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects.
Yes, Charles Darwin believed that a new species could evolve only slowly. But you flowering plants with your wasteful ways and your gaudy displays were able to churn out hundreds of thousands of new breeds, new species, in what seemed like no time. Darwin called this explosive defiance of his theory of slow-but-steady natural selection an “abominable mystery.”
How did you flowering plants pull it off? For one thing, you were able to make the most out of minor changes. The difference between wildly varied flowers could be as little as one or more extra copies of a gene. But your real secret was, brace yourself, waste. Yes, you heard me. The real secret was materialism, consumerism, and the throwaway. At least if you believe what Wageningen University ecologists Frank Berendse and Marten Scheffer wrote in 2009 in the journal Ecology Letters.
The cone-bearers and ferns that you flowers shoved aside were exactly what we are told nature demands. They were ascetic. They were thrifty. They “respected” the environment. They lived in harmony with their surroundings. They honored the law of least effort. They were parsimonious. They threw very little away. But thrift is not always a virtue. Especially in evolution. Especially in the world of nature.
To quote Berendse and Scheffer, the cone-bearers and ferns, the gymnosperms, “kept the soil poor – with their poorly degradable litter.” Think of pine cones and pine needles. They are hard and unyielding. They are Scrooge-like hoarders. They resist becoming food for the bacteria that make things decay. You flowering plants, on the other hand, made a rich litter. Very rich indeed. You produced a banquet. What’s more, say Berendse and Scheffer, the petals and leaves that you flowering plants tossed away were litter of a very special kind. Unlike tough, woody pine cones, they were “easily degradable.”
Remember all those flower petals you saw on the ground last spring just after the apple and cherry trees had shed their petals? And how rapidly the thick drift of white and pink petals disappeared? Why did your path’s coating of petals melt away so rapidly? Because it was a bacterial feast. And what bacteria eat, they turn into the raw stuff of soil. Rich soil.
But if the soil in the age of the cone-bearers, the gymnosperms–was so poor, where did you flowering plants get the extra stuff it took to charge up with nutrients? The sun. Remember those richly veined leaves? Remember the leaves’ green polka dots, the chloroplasts? Chloroplasts were specialists at capturing sunlight and turning it into bio-stuff. They were specialists at kidnapping, seducing, and recruiting dead stuff, abiotic particles—photons—and bringing them into the process of living mass.
Here’s the result according to Science Daily’s summary of Berendse and Scheffer: “During the Cretaceous, the Earth’s surface underwent one of its greatest changes in vegetation composition.” Underlying that change was the radically revolutionary initiative on the part of you flowering plants, your campaign to enlist the services of other species, from the bacteria that cleaned up your mess to the animals who would someday eat your fruits. Not to mention your campaign to recruit insects.
According to Berendse and Sheffer, you flowering plants did not live in harmony with your environment. You changed your environment to suit your needs. And that environment included animals. Animals that the plants actually reengineered. As the ScienceDaily summary puts it, “the improved edibility of the leaves and fruits of the flowering plants led to a tremendous increase in the number of plant eaters on the Earth, which opened the way to the rapid evolution of mammals, and finally to the appearance of humans.”
You flowering plants sinned against the status quo. You rebelled against nature. Instead of respecting her and living at peace with the existing order, you flowering plants rejiggered the zoo of animals on this pebble of a planet.
Instead of saving, hording, and conserving, you produced a wild profusion of materialist excess. Then you indulged in waste. You threw it all away.
And you flowering plants—you angiosperms– helped fashion the humans of today. At least if Berendse and Scheffer have got it right. Maybe there is a point to vanity after all.
Vanity works because seduction pays. In fact, making an offer too good to refuse can produce a bigger bonanza than blood-sucking exploitation or bone-chomping predation.
The angiosperm contract produced the deal humans would someday make when they allowed domesticated plants and animals to reshape human habits and societies. In the agricultural arrangement, you plants got humans to find the choicest soil for you, to clear the land, to irrigate and fertilize it, to plant your seed, and to defend your offspring from nibblers and competitors. You got humans to insure that you could be fruitful and multiply in ways that nature had never conceived. In exchange, you plants fed your humans. In this agricultural contract, you plants used humans as your new insects. In the original version of this deal, the angiosperm contract of 130 million years ago, you plants worked you energy budgets off on insects’ behalf. In exchange, both you plants and the insects you seduced became fruitful and multiplied, taking over the earth.
The angiosperm contract, the insect-plant alliance, was a food-for-transport-and-sex arrangement. And it made the world of birds and flowers that humans love today. The world of birds and flowers that naïve humans worship as natural. But in its day 130 million years ago, you flowers on this ball of stone were as unnatural as a Madonna concert at a convention of Baptist ministers. With an abortion performed onstage as an opening act.
So why did nature allow you, the flowering plant, to survive? Why did she do more? Why did she allow you to thrive?