The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
The fig tree is the gateway of man’s expulsion from Eden. It has been identified from early neolithic sites as the first deliberately cultivated plant. About 10,000 years ago, before even wheat and rye were tamed, the fig initiated hunter-gatherers into a world of agriculture. And with agriculture came the architecture of permanent settlements and new social structures. It was one of the first great technical innovations of our species and one of the key shifts in the balance of our relationship with the rest of nature.
Since then we have been moving gently, almost imperceptibly, generation by generation, decision by decision, over thousands of years, from a participatory relationship to a domineering one. Perhaps this generation will be the one to wake up and realize that it’s a foolish fight, because it’s a fight we can never win. Perhaps, after 10,000 years, it’s time for a new global revolution.
So far a willingness to share has not been our greatest quality as a species. One aspect of our harnessing of the fig for our own use was to make the fig wasp redundant. Until Adam and Eve came along the fig tree and the fig wasp were one organism. One could not survive without the other. Is it even accurate to call them separate organisms? When life weaves and interpenetrates and shapeshifts before us with such dazzling complexity where can we draw the line between beings? Over millions of years streams of DNA have branched and diverged and flowed together again and, in this case, wasp and tree, separated by hundreds of millions of years of evolution have, in the last 60 million years or so, again converged.
Not content with covering them only with its leaves, the fig tree turns its sexual organs modestly inwards, away from public gaze. They grow on the inside of a sac on the stem of the tree. These baskets of flowers are what we think of as the fig fruit. Only the fig’s associated wasp is permitted entry to this boudoir and there’s nowhere else it wants to be. There are at least 750 species of fig tree and particular wasps are associated with particular figs in an incredibly intricate dance that we still do not fully understand.
We do know the general principles, however, whereby a wasp squeezes through a special passage in the flower cluster to lay her eggs, pollinate the fig, and then die. The eggs hatch and once the males have fertilized the females they chivalrously chew a way out before dying themselves. The fertilized females then exit through the hole made for them and fly off to find the right species of fig at the right stage of development in which to lay their eggs. They only have a few days of life in which to do this. The trees meanwhile call their wasps by perfumes released just when they are aching to be pollinated.
You can watch the whole process here. It’s a perfect example of poise and timing and complexity in the music of nature. Little wonder that this is Eden’s Tree of Knowledge and the sacred Bodhi Tree under which Buddha became enlightened.
But Man has cultivated self-pollinating varieties of fig, and thus made the fly redundant. Perhaps he didn’t like the crunchy bits.
Why not follow through the logic of efficiency and utility in our exploitation of nature? We don’t need the wasps. Why not get rid of the whole messy business and do away with the fig altogether? After all surely as the lords of nature we now have the prowess to engineer far more efficient sources of nutrients. Maybe, since we’ve almost used up all the soil anyway, it’s time agriculture grew up. Perhaps we should cultivate algal blooms in the oceans, package them like tofu, and flavour them by electrical stimulation of appropriate centres in the brain. Why stop there? Once we’ve finished off all the resources of this limited planet we’ll need to invent nano-agriculture to synthesize the intravenous nutrient drips that will keep our brood growing while we swarm beyond this solar system in our search for new Paradises on which to feed.