Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fabulous fig story

I'm intrigued by the power of Richard Dawkins as a writer, and I've often tried to determine the ingredients of his amazing artistry.

First, of course, this erudite Oxford professor has a profound mastery, not only of zoology (his basic field), but of neighboring sciences such as biology and paleontology. Besides, Dawkins is quite at ease in fields such as games theory and statistics, and he's even a competent computer programmer. The second obvious ingredient of Dawkins' success as a writer is his virtuosity in the domain of the English language, which he handles constantly with the sensitivity of a poet. His scientific and literary achievements are reflected in the fact that Dawkins, in Britain, is both a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. When appropriate, he can fall deliberately into the casual vernacular of a journalist writing in a popular magazine, just as he can switch on instantly, if need be, the didactic language of a schoolmaster. He can throw a tender personal anecdote into the middle of pages of scientific explanations:

I was driving through the English countryside with my daughter Juliet, then aged six, and she pointed out some flowers by the wayside. I asked her what she thought wildflowers were for. She gave a rather thoughtful answer. "Two things," she said. "To make the world pretty, and to help the bees make honey for us." I was touched by this and sorry I had to tell her that it wasn't true.

Ever since 1976, through ten splendid books, Dawkins has been explaining that many commonly-held beliefs are simply not true. But above all, he has been telling us, more importantly, what is true, especially in the Darwinian domain of evolution.

The first Dawkins book I read was The Blind Watchmaker, which stunned me instantly. That was the first time I had ever heard of the possibility (today, I would say the certainty) that, on the early inanimate planet Earth, a crude mineral self-copying entity composed solely of clay or crystal had evolved into the fabulous DNA replicator that has since become the unique basis of all life on the planet.

Dawkins comes through as a great animal-lover. I'm not talking of the ordinary kind of person who gets carried away (like me) by dogs, donkeys, squirrels, hawks and so forth. No, the love expressed by Dawkins would be better described as awe when confronted with the inbuilt technology found in countless creatures. In the Blind Watchmaker book, he devoted an entire opening chapter to the amazing design of the navigational system of bats.

Several of these delightful creatures are lodged here at Gamone, where they offer me aeronautical shows in the twilight on late summer afternoons... like the fruit bats in my native Grafton.

In Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins expresses his utter amazement concerning another creature of which there are ample specimens here at Gamone: the spider. Their web-building operations, as explained by Dawkins, are fantastic.

Towards the end of the same book, we are presented with an even more amazing story: that of the common fig.

Now, insofar as I'm particularly fond of figs (receiving fruit from Madeleine and Dédé, as well as from Bob's tree... while waiting for my own—given to me by Natacha and Alain—to become productive), I had imagined that I probably knew at least a thing or two about this fruit. Well, it turns out that, before reading Dawkins, I was totally and dismally ignorant on the subject of figs. First, what we imagine as the so-called "fruit" is not at all a true fruit. It's rather a strange garden of countless delicate fig flowers. What we see as the fig's skin might be thought of as the "earth" in which these flowers are growing. And the garden has curved, over evolutionary time, into a concave bulb that hides the flowers. Furthermore, inside this closed garden, the fig flowers live and procreate thanks to the complex services rendered by a community of devoted little male and female wasps, whose entire existence and survival are inextricably linked to the fig tree in question. In order to understand what happens in this mysterious garden, I started to draw a few diagrams like this one, which indicates the four principal actors: male and female fig flowers, female wasps and wingless male wasps.

The female wasps (made pregnant prior to their actual birth) stuff pollen from male flowers into their breasts and escape from the fig garden through holes in the "earth" burrowed by males. As soon as a female wasp locates another "garden" with female flowers waiting to be pollinated, she crawls in through the tiny hole at the extremity of the fig, maybe tearing off her wings in the process. Apparently we crunch such microscopic Agaondae wasps every time we bite into a fig, but they can do us no harm. Within the confines of this blog, I certainly don't intend to try to delve more deeply into the fabulous fig story. In any case, Dawkins has already told this story fully and splendidly. I recommend his book to everybody who's sensitive to all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small.


  1. Bill,
    I suspect that you might still be having problems with receiving email routed via Optus and Bigpond servers, so I'd better learn the ropes for blog commentary.
    You might be interested to have a look on ABC iView at last week's Elders with Andrew Denton episode in which Denton interviewed Richard Dawkins.
    All the best for the new year,

  2. @Ron: It's true that Internet communications between France and Australia can be clunky at times. Concerning the ABC video service, it only works for viewers located inside Australia. Needless to say, I find this restriction curious but understandable... to avoid the extra cost of installing an Internet infrastructure capable of handling an additional volume of viewers from beyond Australia. In any case, it's a distinctly insular way of offering Internet facilities.

  3. Sorry about that, Bill. Obviously I didn't look closely enough at the fine print. Maybe you'll be able to read the transcript instead, if you wish:
    Whether or not that works, you might be interested to check out the progress of the 16-year-old Queenslander now approaching Cape Horn on her quest to be the world's youngest solo round-world sailor. Read her blog via:
    Looking down from the masthead last week, she decided her boat's "cute'.