This blog will primarily be about plant and microbiome topics, but for this first post I am going fool around with ideas from evolutionary biology. Evolutionary biology is inherently interconnected to the microbiome and cannot be separated without completely misconceiving the topic as a whole. I am going to start off with a tangent that may not make sense at first so bear with me.
During my most recent trip to the MET, I turned the corner and was drawn to a painting by Leon Frederic named, “The Three Sisters”. The painting has three red haired girls peeling potatoes wearing the most vibrant red dresses. A shade of red I don’t believe I have seen before. My eyes couldn’t stop looking at this painting. I was irrationally allured like a sailor to a Siren. I wasn’t the only one affected this way. The painting had a small crowd of intrigued people staring at it. I eventually walked away from the painting awestruck and confused. There was no rational reason to act this way. I have never been the type of person to be obsessed with artwork. I don’t have any talent for creating beautiful tangible pieces of art. I do not know much about art history, so that level of appreciation was lost on me. I simply was manipulated by the vibrant red color and my perceived aesthetic pleasure.
As humans, we like to believe we are above primitive manipulations. We shake our head and laugh at the stupidity of the moth that drowned its self in the swimming pool. We aren’t quite as immune to this type of manipulation as most people believe. Take the connection of pollinating insects and vibrantly colored flowers. The conventional evolutionary stance is that pollinating insects are dependent on the nectar and the flowers are dependent on pollination to produce seeds. Thus, they are mutually beneficial to each other. Now let’s flirt with a different point of view on the interaction. Plants for the most part are sessile organisms. They must develop mechanisms to spread seed without physically moving from a confined area. One mechanism is to produce beautifully colored and/or fragrant flowers to attract pollinators. This mechanism specifically manipulates another species to do all the manual labor and the only cost is a little more energy in flower production. The beauty of the flower also manipulates human behavior. We plant them in our landscapes and gardens. We place them in our house. We go out and work to provide our gardens with plant food and pest control measures. We spend our time researching and trading information on how to keep these plants happy. We give the cut flowers as romantic gestures to please our partners. From a human centered perspective, we might see these behaviors as destructive, selfish, and detrimental to ecosystems. They may just be the plants manipulating humans the same way they manipulate bees. This thought made me question my love for hiking. Why are beautiful sights, smells, and weather enough to draw me, a well-educated ecology lover, to the potentially ecologically harmful nature trails. Is it purely for the selfish endorphins, or is there something else behind that drive?
Another opinion I have come across on the internet is the belief that owning pets is selfish. I have also seen many articles and jokes about how cat owners are slaves. Since I own two cats, I would like to expand on this idea. Like the flower situation, we spend an unprecedented amount of resources and time feeding and keeping pets healthy. My boy cat in just 3 years has cost me a couple thousand dollars in vet bills, because he has asthma. While both of my cats make me happy with their love, this is far from the effort it takes on my end to keep them happy. It is a fairly irrational situation. Cats are strange when it comes to domesticated animals, because most people just own a “cat”. It may be a fluffy cat, a silky cat, or a short-hair cat, but for the most part we have not purposefully manipulated much of their gene pool to make them look more attractive. There are a few special breeds out there but nothing compared to other domesticated animals. They may actually be the pet that has taken advantage of the human’s nurturing nature and access to resources to manipulate us as their slave. Maybe they are the selfish beings in this equation? Maybe the articles and memes are on to something?
Now, I don’t want to be misconstrued. I don’t believe humans are the slaves of flowers and cats. I am aware my points are overly simplistic. I do however like to flirt with different ideas about the driving factors of evolution. As a budding scientist, I don’t want to ever be too attached to one idea. I firmly believe that if you can’t change your mind, you aren’t using it. Many serious people like to respond to this with, “don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out.” My outlook is that flirting with an idea doesn’t mean you forget reality. Imagination is something that many adults forget how to use. When I was a kid I liked to play a game my friends and I called, “wild people”. We acted stranded in the middle of nowhere and had to fight off another group of friends to survive. When it got dark, we went home and were able to understand “wild people” was over. I understood this concept at 8 years old very clearly. It’s sad that some adults cannot reconcile imagination and reality. Imagination and skepticism are not mutually exclusive concepts.