“Nothing in the realm of biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” wrote the well-known evolutionary biologist and geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. Biology can only be understood through the eyes of evolution. From my perspective, evolution is the logical explanation for the amazing capabilities of plants that researchers are currently discovering.
From the historical perspective of earth, plants and animals are very young. Higher plants originated around 400 million years ago when descendants of green algae began conquering the land masses, however, the first ancestors of modern animals lived around 500 million years ago. And three billion years before that, only single-celled living beings existed. During this inconceivably long period, cells evolved and developed optimal flexibility, not necessarily optimal shapes or sizes. All elementary forms for what would later become the metabolic and communication pathways of plants and animals emerged during these three billion years. Cells evolved into dynamic networks of relationships with the aid of signalling substances or electrical pulses. They constantly communicated, acted, and reacted with each other. Plants and animals evolved in parallel but different directions from these highly interacting unicellular organisms.
So plants, animals and humans have common roots. We are related to plants. Our similarities at the cellular level are grounded in a shared history, but plants and animals differ radically at the tissue or individual living-organism levels. But the point is – both plants and animals adapted to an ever-changing environment by developing flexibility over the course of evolution, but in different ways. Animals are flexible because of their brain, nervous system, and capacity for mobility. Plants adapt to their environment by modifying growth and development. A dandelion on the footpath in my little garden differs vastly from a dandelion three feet away in the shady grass. The first one is small with leathery leaves, an almost non-existent stalk and a small flower. The other is tall with big dark green, sweeping leaves and a deep yellow, fragrant flower. It is possible that they grew from seeds of the same mother plant. If so, what amazing adaptive capacity! If a plant’s environment has little to offer, she will hardly grow but will survive. A cat in a similar situation would starve for lack of food and could not adapt by reducing her size to that of a mouse. In contrast, plants are sedentary and cannot simply run away like animals.
Intractable interdependence of humans and plants – Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Over the course of evolution, each carbon atom in the human body has existed countless times before in another living being, perhaps in a daffodil, an oak tree, or a lark. It is locked in the eternal cycle: emergence, transformation, decay. We are part of this life cycle.
The famous poem Metamorphoses, considered the magnum opus of Roman poet Ovid (43 BC–17 AD), addresses evolution and the tales of men and gods who are turned into plants or animals.
For example, a poor old couple, Philemon and Baucis, were the only people in the village willing to host the god Jupiter who had disguised himself as a beggar. The couple feasted Jupiter to the very best of their ability and in return, Jupiter granted them one wish. They asked that neither die before the other and that they could always stay together.
“Old and worn out, they happened to be standing
In front of the sacred steps, talking about the place
And all that had happened there, when Philemon
Saw Baucis, and Baucis saw Philemon
Sprouting leaves. As the canopy grew
Over their faces, they cried out while they could
The same words together, ‘Good-bye, my love,’
Just as the bark closed over their lips,”
Even today “There is an oak tree right next to a linden
Up in the Phrygian hills, ringed by a low wall.”
In another legend, the blood of the self-regarding Narcissus watered the earth for narcissus plants to grow. He had killed himself because he could not bear the beauty of his own reflection. Also, hyacinths sprouted and grew where the blood of the handsome young Spartan prince Hyacinthus had moistened the soil. And the mountain nymph Daphne escaped the passionate pursuit of Apollo only after being transformed into a laurel tree by her father Peneus, a river god.
Metamorphoses: a perpetual growing, transformation, and decay. Moments of transition from one shape to another; states of suspense.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses humans, animals, and plants were not so separate from each other that they could not merge into one another; no harmonic, evolutionarily conditioned order existed. Instead, chaos reigned as “a constantly oscillating game of changing identities that cannot be made sense of”.
These are excerpt from the book “Plant Whispers | A journey through new realms of science.” (Chapter 9) by Florianne Koechlin, translation to English by Thomas Rippel.