Thursday, May 1, 2014

Hope from Flowers?

Blue!  Yellow!  Purple!  Red!  Flowers bring an explosion of color into our lives, especially now as we enter May.  The beautiful sight and smell of flowers soothes our senses like few other things can, explaining why we humans take the time to grow so many flowers on land that could be growing actual food.

Like so much of nature, flowers have a lot to teach us.  Our efforts to understand the real world have given us incredible information – often far more than our grandparents had – and this
 knowledge of the history and workings of the world around us can power our metaphors more strongly than fictional tales.  But what lesson can we take from the flowers that fill our lives with color every May.

One possible lesson from flowers is the wonderful success that cooperation can bring.  Imagine what the world was like sometime more than 100 million years ago, before flowers as we know them evolved.  To our mammalian eyes, the most important feature of our world then may be the towering, fearsome dinosaurs.  But, if we can find a place of safety under the underbrush, and momentarily pull our minds away from the sharp teeth which killed so many of our Ancestors, a discovery awaits us.  Down here, a different struggle of life is playing out, as the same evolutionary factors of competition and reproduction that we vertebrates deal with are carried out in the theater of plants and insects.  Plants often face a greater challenge in moving their sperm than we mobile animals do.  For millions of years, the best they could do was to use things like wind, waves, and the chance movement of insects to move their sperm (pollen).

We see a green branch in front of us – and wonder why there are more insects on this one than others?  Are they eating it?  Apparently not.  Though we can’t smell anything different, those insects can. This plant has a mutation which has resulted in a slightly different scent around the pollen production area, and hence the attracted insects.  Similar mutations include making a normal secretion edible to these insects, which are now being attracted by the scent, and being rewarded with food.  Were these mutations unlucky for the plant, a waste of calorie resources to benefit some other creature?  No.  The benefit was well worth the few calories lost – because these insects have bumped against the nearby parts of the plant, and will carry their cargo of pollen directly to other members of this plant species, instead of it being wasted on the wind.  It’s easy to see how these first fumbling mutations toward flowerhood helped everyone, and so were selected for.  Both insects and flowers benefited so much that many young followed, and the co-evolutionary, cooperative partnership between insects and flowers began.  Later improvements in sweeter nectar, more powerful scents, more visible flowers, and insect brains hard wired to look for those flowers followed.

Moving forward toward today, we see what a successful partnership it was!  As flowers evolved to be ever more alluring, the insects slowly became expert pollinators.  Their partnership spread to fill our Earth, with descendants evolving into literally millions of different flowers and insects.   Though people often associate evolution with competition, flowers remind us of the often unstoppable evolutionary power of friendly cooperation, where everyone wins. 

We could just see flowers only as a nice part of life – but it’s so much richer for me to see their full history too, to glimpse the millions of years of innovation, improvement, and teamwork that gives us each flower we see today, and the incredible detail behind each petal.  May the beautiful flowers at every turn remind us, both now and throughout the year, of the power of friendly cooperation.