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Book Review 245: Wily Violets & Underground Orchids

August 27, 2012 - Harry Eagar
WILY VIOLETS & UNDERGROUND ORCHIDS: Revelations of a Botanist, by Peter Bernhardt. 255 pages, illustrated. Morrow

One way (of many) that tips us off that creation “scientists” are phonies is that they never write about plants. They are interested only in animals, and really in only one animal: us.

Real scientists are just as interested in plants. In fact, during the elucidation of evolutionary theory, many breakthroughs came from studying plants.

But in popular science writing, animals get the lion's share of attention, and usually the big, showy animals, too. There are 100 books about sharks for every book about minnows; and for every book about sharks, a hundred about birds.

It does take a deft touch to write as engagingly about plants as about animals, and Peter Bernhardt has it. Many of the essays in “Wily Violets & Underground Orchids” were written for Natural History magazine in the days before it became tendentious.

The neat trick of Natural History in those days wtas that it combined articles about the exotic with thoughtful reflections on the state of research in the field (see Stephen Jay Gould before he became wordy and boring); and Bernhardt was among the best of the NH stable at that approach.

Reading a whole bunch of essays by the same author – say Pascal James Imperato on public health – was a painless way of being informed about the main problems of the subject. Like a TED talk only more reliable.

Bernhardt's problem was pollination. It turns out that it is a whole lot more complicated than the bee making love to the blossom.

Really, we would expect that, but who expects an orchid that lives its entire life underground. Who pollinates that? As of the date of his essay on that subject, Bernhardt was pulling for a beetle, although the evidence was pointing to a phorid fly.

One of the chapters concerns the Christmas star orchid from Madagascar. If Charles Darwin had never written a word about speciation, he still would have been the greatest theoretical and experimental biologist of his time (perhaps of all time), and one of the top field biologists as well.

The Christmas star hides nectar in a long tube – 11 inches long.

Darwin, who had never been to Madagascar, surmised that the pollinator was an insect with an 11-inch tongue, and most likely a sphinx moth.

He was ridiculed by the creationists of his time as a fantasist. The sphinx moth with the 11-inch tongue was discovered decades after Darwin died. And still no one had seen it drinking the nectar, but as Sherlock Holmes would have deduced, the circumstances, however improbable, required the conclusion. (Sphinx moths with long, but not that long, tongues have been discovered doing the same trick on other Madagascar orchids.)

With a wicked sense of humor that we also never find among creationists, the taxonomist who described the Christmas star moth named it Xanthopan morgani subspecies praedicta.


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