5th February 2016

Pondering the Why


Nature does nothing in vain.


Some of us successfully outgrow the toddler need to know why. I haven’t. This piece of wisdom from Aristotle has always resonated for me.  It liberates us to ask why, and validates an otherwise annoying and pedantic habit. If nothing is in vain, there are answers waiting out there to be found so let me at’em. I want to know why avocadoes don’t ripen on the tree, why a blossom is shaped a particular way, why certain male flowers are produced before female. The whys are infinite and constantly changing and evolving to make a different picture. Like those kaleidoscope tubes I had as a child.

 The most expedient way of explaining the allure and power of the why is to tell the story about an orchid, a moth, and a man who had the answers.

In 1862, a Madagascan orchid grower sent a package containing a number of gorgeous orchids to an eminent British naturalist. Among them was Angraecum sesquipedale, a night-fragrant orchid with one very distinctive feature: a nectary that extends for one and a half feet (the sesquipedale of its name).  Pooled at the bottom of this long floral part was where the nectar reward for a pollinator was found.

So the naturalist pondered the why, deciding based on everything he knew of the plant, its environment and evolution that there must be a moth wandering about Madagascar with a proboscis that it could extend to the 10 or 11 inches needed to access the pooling nectar. Except no one had recorded the existence of such an insect. And wouldn’t for 41 years.

Because, you see, that naturalist, Charles Darwin, knew that nature does nothing in vain. So there had to be a reason, an advantage to having such a long nectary. And in plants, that reason always boils down to the successful passing down of one’s DNA.  So Darwin knew the ‘why’ would boil down to sex and pollination. AND HE WAS RIGHT.

In 1903 Lionel Wallace Rothschild and Karl Jordan ‘discovered’ an African hawkmoth given the unwieldy title Xanthopan morganii praedicta. And its proboscis? Just as long as Darwin predicted. So 41 years after Darwin wrote Hooker a letter with his prediction, 21 years after his death, we knew the orchid and the moth existed. To see them interacting in the manner for which they coevolved? It took until 1992 before the moth was observed feeding from and pollinating the orchid. That’s 130 years to be proven right.

Nature does nothing in vain. You’ve just got to know where to look to find the answers to your why.