“Darwin’s genius was to see the wonder, and the significance, in the ordinary and mundane, in things that you and I wouldn’t look at twice… even if he had never written The Origin of Species Darwin would still rank as one of the greatest biologists who ever lived…”.
The author knows whereof he speaks. He is Ken Thompson, an independent senior research fellow in the department of Animal and Plant Services at the University of Sheffield and former director of the Buxton Climate Change Impacts Laboratory. His new book is Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants, A Tour of His Botanical Legacy.
Early on the author warns us, “because Darwin’s work on evolution by natural selection was so brilliant, it’s easy to overlook all this work. Nothing, of course, can compete with his evolutionary achievement; even Darwin could only shake the world’s foundations once. But his botanical work is as impressive as everything else he did… and in the end I hope we will agree Darwin’s most wonderful plants are just as amazing as he thought they were.”
In 1862 Darwin published On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilized by insects and on the good effects of inter-crossing (1862).
The book was an immediate sensation. Here’s what Joseph Hooker, Darwin’s closest friend and for twenty years Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, said in a letter to a correspondent:
“Darwin’s still works away at his experiments and his theory and startles us by the surprising discoveries he now makes in botany; his work on the fertilization of orchids is quite unique — there is nothing in the whole range of botanical literature to compare with it, and this, with his other works… raise him without doubt to the position of the first naturalist in Europe, indeed I question if he will not be regarded as great as any that ever lived; his powers of observation, memory and judgement seem prodigious, his industry indefatigable and his sagacity in planning experiments, fertility of resources and care in conducting them are unrivaled.
While Ken Thompson notes, “It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of Darwin’s experiments. Darwin’s work led directly to the discovery, fifty years later, of the plant hormone auxin. How auxin works, how it mediates the effect of light on growth, and the nature of the photoreceptor involved, have been major research topics in plant biology throughout the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first.
“But more than that, Darwin’s work contributed to the end of the prevailing orthodoxy of preceding centuries, which was that plants were dull pieces of machinery, without sense or sensitivity. According to this view, if plants responded to the environment at all, that response was a mere direct mechanical effect. Thus, if roots grew downwards, they were responding to gravity with no more sense of purpose than Newton’s apple falling from a tree; if a stem bends towards a light, that was only because the light sped up maturity (and thus cessation of growth) of the lit side, or simply dried out the illuminated cells as that they grew more slowly than the dark ones.
“But Darwin showed that plants were able to perceive a stimulus, which then caused a different part of the plant to react in a specific and clearly adapted way. The parallel with animals was clear to Darwin. ‘There is therefore no improbability in this power having been specially acquired. In several respects light seems to act on plants in nearly the same manner as it does on animals by means of the nervous system’”.
As just one example of the originality and remarkably enduring value of his research, the author notes:
“Darwin’s work on climbing plants was so far ahead of its time that it hardly needs updating. Even now, much of what we know about climbing plants goes right back to Darwin’s 1865 book, and if you were planning a PhD on climbing plants today, Darwin remains the foundation He asked questions about how climbers know what to get hold of (and what not to) that we’re only beginning to answer.”
Ever the careful scientist himself, Ken Thompson notes that Darwin as in The Origin was at pains to point out that “… just because something seemed perfectly designed” for a particular purpose, that didn’t mean that it had actually been designed.
Here’s Darwin on the same subject:
“Although an organ may not have been originally formed for some special purpose, if it now serves for this end, we are justified in saying that it is specially adapted for it. On the same principle, if a man were to make a machine for some special purpose, but were to use old wheels, springs, and pulleys, only slightly altered, the whole machine, with all its parts might be said to be specially contrived for its present purpose.”
And here is Francis Darwin’s “himself an eminent botanist” recollection of his father’s botanical work:
“To the end of his life he never made any pretense to be a botanist… he continued to study the means of fertilization of orchids, etc, principally because of his irresistible desire to understand the machinery of living things. It is true that in elucidating the machinery he supplies the most brilliant evidence in favor of the validity of natural selection as the great moulding force in Nature… but I do not think this was his object, it was rather a by-product of work carried on for the love of doing it.”
Thirty years ago, while browsing in the science section, in a local Barnes and Noble bookstore, I came upon and purchased Darwin’s book on orchids. I had never seen an orchid before, had no interest in orchids, but — something about the way Darwin was using it as a showcase and template for the mighty force of natural selection — seized my imagination. It was a surprisingly easy read and by the time I finished it, I was a Darwinian. Darwin’s great discovery that evolution — every detail of every living thing — could be explained as an adaptation providing a reproductive advantage achieved by natural selection working on random mutations over a span of billions of years — was truly a world-changing event.
It was one thing coming in contact with the clarity, the simplicity and the beautiful logic of the theory of evolution, of which I had been vaguely aware for much of my life. It was another to witness first hand the extraordinary explanatory power of evolutionary thinking. What had been attributed for millenia to the exquisite handiwork of a divine creator, could be now seen as the non-supernatural but no less miraculous outcome of natural selection — working over many millions of years upon random mutations, assembling thousands of adaptations conferring differential reproductive advantage — to produce enduring, sometimes revolutionary change.
The theory of evolution was like a Rosetta Stone, decoding the hidden meaning of the natural world. As a scientist, Darwin is regularly placed in the company of Einstein and Newton. The mathematical physicist, Roger Penrose has nominated the theory of evolution as the “most superb” theory in the history of the life sciences. The cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett has called it “the greatest single idea that any human being ever thought of.” Konrad Lorenz, the twentieth century father of ethology, has said, “ever since I first heard of evolution (as a boy of ten) I thought it was the most wonderful thing I could ever imagine — and still do.” The famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has repeatedly credited Darwin with single-handedly solving the problem of the then inexplicable apparent design in the world: simultaneously demolishing the long standing natural theology argument for a God of the Gaps.
There is a growing consensus that The Organ of Species is the greatest most enduring science book of all time. Darwin’s closing paragraph (in 1859) at the end of The Origin,
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one … has been hailed as an uncanny foreshadowing of the discovery of DNA nearly a hundred years later.
Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants is the latest in a stream of books attesting to the enduring genius of Charles Darwin.
It is recommended to everyone.
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