Why do some plants have beautiful flowers?
Sabbagh (2001 p. 19) explains:
‘In earlier pre-Darwin centuries, of course, the purpose of flowers was to enhance the beauty of the world and make it more pleasant for the acme of divine creation – ourselves – by contributing to the colourful and scented environment. The advent of the theory of evolution by natural selection means that we have to look for a more hardheaded answer, one expressed in terms of the value to the species of putting a lot of investment into surrounding the inconspicuous reproductive organs with complex, ornate and highly visible appendages. And the answer is that plants that have colourful and imaginatively sculptured flowers are those that depend for survival on attracting insects to them to carry pollen – the male seed- from the interior of the flowers to the eggs of another member of the species, or even to other parts of themselves to fertilize the flowers and produce the seeds for the next generation.’
Why do other plants have dull, hardly discernible, flowers?
The reason why plants, such as the class known as grasses, to which all cereals belong, have insignificant and unremarkable flowers is because they rely on the wind for pollination. The wind is blind, absent nose or brain, which means you can't seduce it with beauty, perfume or any other wiles. Whilst winds can be vortexed by geological and man-made features, and influenced in other ways by plant life - that's an altogether different and far more complicated story.
Take a few moments to contemplate the sinisterly seductive nature of beautiful flowers.
Beautiful flowers appeal across the species barrier to pollinating insects such as bees, butterflies and beetles. Anecdotaly, my dog used to spend time sniffing blooms when, seemingly, no one was watching. I've seen cats and foxes do the same - sniffing one individual bloom, and then another, presumably, therefore, not the musk or urine spray of a potential mate or rival. This is not so weird as it sounds when we realise that by so doing the mammal might take part in the process of pollination as pay back for getting a nice nectar-sweet scent to sniff.
But animal anecdotes aside, the main aim of this blog is to begin to explore why it is that flowers are associated with human romance, friendship, courtship, weddings, funerals and other ceremonious occasions? More precisely, I want to explore the following question: Why on Earth do we, who are not insects for whom flowers were selected by nature, like them so much?
Is something going on between us and flowers?
According to most Darwinists, our perception of the beauty of flowers is a thing of chance, a random happenstance of how natural selection created them over many millions of years to entice insects to pollinate their owners, combined with our own attraction to symmetry. And if our love of flowers is naught but a cultural artifact and consequence of our attraction to symmetry in our own mating choices then that simple explanation of why flowers so appeal to us would be enough. But let us step outside the random-mutant-successful-selection box for a moment. I’m not questioning natural selection here. Rather, I wish to contemplate the possibility that nature’s selection of flowers might have resulted in a genuine objective beauty that should demand our consideration beyond the premise that it is a mere cultural –subjective-eye-of beholder assessment. Let me be clear that there is no need to reject the theory of natural selection by contemplating this seemingly implausible possibility that flowers might just be objectively beautiful as an explanation for why both humans and insects find them so attractive.
Humans have been deeply interested in beauty of flowers for a long time. As Karl Sabbagh (2001, pp. 16-17)) informs us in his excellent book on a Victorian botanical fraud, the great naturalist Charles Ray wrote in 1660 of the beauty of flowers.Sabbagh quotes the Latin translation from Raven (1942) that is as true of people today as it was over 300 years ago:
‘…the various beauty of plants, the cunning craftsmanship of nature. First the rich array of spring-time meadows, then the shape, colour and structure of various plants fascinated and absorbed me: interest in botany became a passion.…Of course there are people entirely indifferent to the sight of flowers of meadows in spring, or if not indifferent, at least preoccupied elsewhere. They devote themselves to ball-games, to drinking, gambling, money-making,popularity-hunting.’
There is no need to get off the Internet to enjoy flowers, you can have a look at a vast array online – flower-porn if you will (click to check it out).
Beautiful are they not? Still, most of us prefer the real thing, naturally.
Lucky man that I consider myself, besides my beautiful wife there is a bowl of real tulips before me as I write these words. And I’m currently getting writing space by distracting my five year old daughter with the task of pretending she is a bee – taking the yellow pollen from one flower to the next. She’s still working on the problem of why she thinks they are as beautiful as butterflies, but is repulsed by some of the beetles that pollinate them. I might have to explain the "birds and the bees" to her soon, because she just asked how the plants make seeds.
Anyway, back to natural selection and the question of objective beauty
The newly proven true and only independent discoverer of natural selection (see Sutton 2014), Patrick Matthew, poignantly wrote to the great science fraudster and plagiarist Charles Darwin on flowers in 1862 and again in 1871:
‘Your's in tracing out the admirably balanced scheme of Nature all linked together in dependant connection—the vital endowed with avariation-power in accommodation to material change. Altho' this is a grand field for contemplation, yet am I tired of it— of a world where my sympathies are intended to be bounded almost exclusively to my own race & family. I am not satisfied with my existence to devour & trample upon my fellow creature. I cannot pluck a flower without regarding myself a destroyer.’
Matthew to Darwin: (Matthew 1871):
‘That there is a principle of beneficence operating here the dual parentage and family affection pervading all the higher animal kingdom affords proof. A sentiment of beauty pervading Nature, with only some few exceptions affords evidence of intellect& benevolence in the scheme of Nature. This principle of beauty is clearly from design & cannot be accounted for by natural selection. Could any fitness of things contrive a rose, a lily, or the perfume of the violet. There is no doubt man is left purposely in ignorance of a future existence. Their pretended revelations are wretched nonsense.’
Rightly keen to demolish the myth of supernatural design by a bearded being in the sky, Richard Dawkins (1996, p.256) does not consider the possibility of objective beauty:
‘I was driving through the English Countryside with my daughter, Juliet, then aged six and she pointed out some flowers by the wayside. I asked her what she thought wild flowers were for. She gave a rather thoughtful answer. ‘Two things’, she said ‘To make the world pretty, and to help the bees make honey for us.’ I was touched by this and sorry I had to tell her that it wasn’t true.’
Dawkins then goes on to write that his daughter’s response was little different from that which had been given since the middle ages –that man has dominion over nature, which is there for his delight.
Quantum physicist David Deutsch (2011) has something deeper than Dawkins to say on flowers and beauty.
Deutsch questions the possibility that we find flowers attractive because they share an objective beauty that was necessary in natural selection in order to cross the species barrier with unquestionably clear signals between plants and insects. Do we find flowers beautiful for that reason? The question is certainly a science problem in need of a solution. If Deutsch is right it might explain why so many scientists have been led astray by the beauty of flowers to think that they simply must have been purposefully designed by an omnipotent bearded spirit in the sky.
Is there something more than simply our own attraction to symmetry in our perception of the beauty of flowers? Might it be that they are objectively beautiful as a result of what it takes to signal clearly across the species barrier? Could it be also due to the fact that we share DNA with plants and insects - all three species having evolved from a common ancestor? For example, humans - it is now well known - share 98 per cent of the same genes with chimpanzees, but did you know we share 25 per cent of the same gene types as banana plants, 18 per cent with certain weeds and 44 per cent with fruit flies.
I only wish Patrick Matthew could have known what we know today. How delighted I think that immortal great rational thinker in science would be to have evidence-led knowledge-gap-filling answers that are better explanations than a superstitious belief in divine Creators..
Writing in the freedom-space provided by the 18th century enlightenment, Matthew (1831) saw, erroneously as it turned out, no need to employ arguments regarding whatever belief he may, or may not, have had that the Christian, or any other, "God" might have had a hand in it as a political get-out-clause when he shared his unique discovery of natural selection (Matthew 1831, p.381):
‘Geologists discover a like particular conformity – fossil species – through the deep deposition of each great epoch, but they also discover an almost complete difference to exist between the species or stamp of life, of one epoch from that of every other. We are therefore led to admit either of a repeated miraculous creation; or of a power of change, under a change of circumstances, to belong to living organized matter, or rather to the congeries of inferior life, which appears to form superior. The derangements and changes in organized existence, induced by a change of circumstance from the interference of man, affording us proof of the plastic quality of superior life, and the likelihood that circumstances have been very different in the different epochs, though steady in each tend strongly to heighten the probability of the latter theory.’
What about Darwin?
Darwin typically plodded behind in the footsteps of others. In that sense he was just like Robert Chambers (1844), who had years earlier read and cited Matthew's (1831) book before writing the Vestiges of Creation (see Sutton 2014 for a fact-based discussion), which contained very similar ideas about evolution. Darwin (1859), like Chambers, also deliberately allowed a role for "God" in his book. Incidentally, Chambers's (1844) book - in all its many editions - is widely acknowledged to have hugely influenced the work of both Darwin and Wallace.
In his first and other editions of the Origin of Species, Darwin (1859) wrote as though there is a supernatural “Creator” who designed natural selection as a law of nature to make and break species (Darwin 1859 p.489)
‘Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual.’
As we can see, Darwin, contrary to so much Darwinist mythmongering, kept his "God" in the Origin of Species. Nonetheless, outside the politics of appeasing the Church and all its believers, I suspect he was as stumped as Matthew by the strange appeal of flowers:
From the Spectator Archive on “The Idle Rich: http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/29th-october-1910/18/the-idle-rich
“,,, a story told by Lord Avebury in his address at the Darwin-Wallace celebration of the Linnean Society of London on July 1st, 1908. It runs thus :— "One of his friends once asked Mr. Darwin's gardener about his master's health, and how he had been lately. 'Oh!' he said, my poor master has been very sadly. I often wish he had something to do. He moons about in the garden, and I have seen him stand doing nothing before a flower for ten minutes at a time. If he only had something to do I really believe he would be better."
Besides pollinating those flowers by sticking his nose inside one and then another, was Darwin, at turns, contemplating his so-called "Creator"? Perhaps he was pondering Matthew's great discovery and the beauty of his own great science fraud?
We can understand his behaviour, and discover more about what he did, but can't even attempt to know the mind of Darwin, because about what he secretly thought we can but wonder.
On more solid ground, science, not speculation, can help us solve the riddle of why so many rational thinkers have been led-astray by notions of beauty being a signal sent purposively to humans by a divine "Creator", rather than consequently to us after jumping the barrier between different species. Who knows what pay-off's such knowledge might have? Is David Deutsch (2011) onto something big? Perhaps the UN should sanction the placing of flowers in gun barrels in conflict zones? Might there be a ultimate flower, just waiting to be bred by artificial selection for communicating Peace and Love? If flowers signal to us because we share some 25 per cent of the DNA of plants, and even more of the DNA of insects, might the right variety of flower have certain crime reduction capacities? Would anyone be so bold as to explore such a seemingly ludicrous proposition, when so many modern humans are, as has always been the case, more concerned with ball games, money making, gambling, and popularity hunting?
As is always the case, human society cannot be reasonably distilled into convenient binary explanations. Jesus of Nazareth, Newton, Einstein, Matthew and Darwin were all great popularity hunters. Some were more circumstance suited than others to succeed, of course. But knowledge and our knowledge of history and veracity evolves - ultimately, we can but hope, it evolves towards a more accurate representation of reality. A representation that relies upon hard facts, firm evidence and not just the mere thoughts and lies of ambitious and popular men with beards.
Postscript 25th February 2015
On 21 Feb 2015 I directed Professor David Deutsch - via Twitter - to this blog post and asked his opinion of my insect and plant DNA explanation for the seemingly universal beauty of flowers. He very kindly used Twitter to reply.
The screenshot of Prof. Deutsch's reply is below. He wrote:
'Implausible, I think, because one side only has genes for creating the patterns and the other only for recognising them.'
At this point, as a social scientist, I must admit I'm now out of my depth as well as league. I must defer to Prof. Deutsch's superior knowledge in this area. However, I would like to invite confirmatory or dis-confirmatory opinions for Matthew's, Dawkins's and my own ideas on the fascinating question of the beauty of flowers.
Chambers, R. 1844. Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. New York. Wiley and Putnum. (published anonymously).
Dawkins, R. (2006) Climbing Mount Improbable. New York.Norton.
Deutsch, D.(2011) The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World. Allen Lane – The Penguin Group.
Matthew, P. (1831). On Naval Timber and Arboriculture: With a critical note on authors who have recently treated the subject of planting. Edinburgh. Adam Black. London. Longman and Co.
Matthew, P. (1862) Letter: Matthew, Patrick to Darwin,C. R. December 3rd. Darwin Correspondence Database. http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-3843accessed on Sat Aug 3 2013.
Matthew, P.(1871) Letter: Matthew,Patrick to Darwin, C. R. 12 Mar.Darwin Correspondence Database, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-7576 accessed on Sat Aug 3 2013.
Raven, C.E. (1942) John Ray, Naturalist. Cambridge.Cambridge University Press.
Sabbagh, K.(2001) A Rum Affair: A true story of botanical fraud. Da Capo Press.