Deceived by Orchids
The Institute for Historical Research recently selected ten of the “most interesting articles and books” of 2016 and I was delighted to find my BJHS paper Deceived by Orchids: Sex, Science, Fiction and Darwin among them.
For the past five years I’ve been researching and writing a book on orchids that was originally intended to be a slim volume, part of a series on plants. However, it turns out that I’m not much good at brevity and when it came to the orchids, my natural long-windedness was exacerbated by the fact that I was diagnosed with cancer early in my research. I’m now fully recovered, but for a few years, I found it hard to concentrate on writing, so I did more and more reading (eventually accumulating over 150,000 words of notes for what was for a supposedly 40,000 word book).
As I researched, I developed the habit of “following orchids around”, letting them guide me away from my core interests in the history of botany and evolution, into literature, cinema, mythology, theology and elswhere. The slow pace at which I had to work gave me time to see connections I might otherwise have missed and gradually I noticed some unexpected links.
In the early twentieth century, several botanists more or less simultaneously discovered a curious form of pollination that’s now called pseudocopulation, which involves flowers (usually orchids) mimicking female insects, which fools male insects into attempting to mate with them. The (frustrated) male flies off with the flower’s pollen attached and when it attempts to repeat the process, it serves the orchids’ crafty purpose by depositing the pollen on another flower. This solved several problems that Darwin had been unable to resolve in his book on orchid fertilisation. However, thanks to my eclectic research, I realised that before the breakthrough could be made, Darwin’s work on plants had been transmuted into early science fiction, moral fables and Gothic tales of scheming, killer orchids. It was only after Darwin’s botany had been imaginatively reinterpreted by various popular writers, including Grant Allen and H.G. Wells, that it became possible to see that a plant could outwit an insect.
The gist of this argument is in my book, but I was worried that (a) nobody would read it, and (b) that the argument was too scattered across different chapters to be coherent. So, I set out to write a more condensed and clearer version. Writing for a scholarly journal also allowed me to put in more details about the scientific discovery and those who made it. The result, I hope, shows not just how science influences literature, but also how literature can shape science. And it has made me think that in my future research, I need to avoid looking “where the science is”. In addition, to searching in the obvious places (scientists and their archives, institutions, journals, etc.) I will be following objects and organisms wherever they take me – hopefully into some enjoyable and unexpected places.
Main image: Wild orchid called Mirror Bee Orchid (Ophrys speculum speculum or Ophrys ciliata). Arrabida mountains, Sesimbra, Portugal. © Armando Frazao