Just finished reading Richard Dawkins's book Climbing Mount Improbable, whose task is to defend evolution from the accusation that certain features of organisms could not possibly have achieved their brilliant design through a continuous series of viable steps, as evolution requires. He tackles several of the hardest cases. The hardest of all may be the eye, which he argues really was possible as a very long series of minor adjustments to the basic idea of a light-sensitive cell.
But the reason to buy the book is the last chapter, in which he confronts the distressing topic of What Goes On Inside of Figs. To wildly simplify, fig (Ficus) flowers are inside of the figs. Each fig species has a corresponding species of wasp that hatches in one fig and, if female, lives to transport pollen to a different fig, lay her eggs there, and die. But again, that's like saying that Hamlet is about a guy who's mad at his father-in-law; it's the endless infoldings and recursions and self-references that make the fig-wasp story enthralling and distressing in a way that invites comparison to the literary.
I've tried to explain the fig-wasp mutualism many times, and never have felt I'd grasped it. Dawkins goes all the way through it in a way that both explains it and acknowledges how astonishing it is, and while much of the book is beside the point for non-creationists, this chapter is worth the price of the book.
A fig is not a fruit but a flower garden turned inside out. It looks like a fruit. It tastes like a fruit. It occupies a fruit-shaped niche in our mental menus and in the deep structures recognized by anthropologists. Yet it is not a fruit; it is an enclosed garden and one of the wonders of the world. I am not going to leave this statement dangling as a self-indulgent profundity to be plucked by the 'sensitive' and baffle everyone else. Here is what it means.
Those last two sentences are classic Dawkins, consciously engaging in "self-indulgent profundity" only to cut off any mythmaking that this might encourage. Dawkins sometimes sounds like he's training his reader in awe management. Feel the amazement, he says, then accept that plausible explanation for it all. Learn to feel awe without needing to make myths. Other writers, like Stephen Jay Gould, are better than Dawkins at allowing the awe to survive the explanation of science; Dawkins never avoids seeming a bit of a killjoy. But what he does he does well, and he explains the astonishing story of figs and wasps -- in its several tiers of infolding complexity, very well. After laying out the many cross-cutting layers of motivation and sabotage in the fig-wasp drama, he concludes:
Figs and fig wasps occupy the high ground of evolutionary achievement ... Their relationship is almost ludicriously tortuous and subtle. It cries out for interpretation in the language of deliberate, conscious, Machiavellian calculation. Yet it is achieved ... without brain power or intelligence of any kind. The players are a tiny wasp with a very tiny brain ... and a tree with no brain at all ... It is all the product of an unconscious Darwinian fine tuning, whose intricate perfection we should not believe if it were not before our eyes.
... and which, once grasped, changes our relationship to figs. To me as an American child, figs meant fig newtons, and sometimes squishy seedy fresh figs, and now and then a houseplant that seemed always to be dropping leaves. But since getting close to the diversity of figs in Australia, I've learned to feel toward the genus Ficus something that's amounts to admiration, curiosity, horror, and revulsion in roughly equal measures.
A few months ago, when last in an Australian grocery store, I considered buying a fresh fig, but then looked closely at the hole in the bottom of each fruit, which can bear a distinct resemblence to an anus. It's not that busy a hole: only female wasps pass through it, and only on entry does its abrasions strip off their wings. But it's enough to remind me that a fertilized fig would be full of dead wasps, wasp guano, crushed waspy ambitions, and indeed everything else that would accumulate, as karma or compost, in a flower garden.
Not only that, it would have been the site of dramas of Shakespearean subtlety, not the less dramatic because the competing desires lay in the genes of the players rather than their consciousness. It doesn't matter that this fig I might buy is sterile; it's still a stage set for the same overwrought opera. It's just rather a lot to just put in your mouth, and chew on.