A Wasp's Story

Think again, Mr. Darwin

by Paul Carline
I never knew my mother or my father. I will never see my children. I was impregnated by one of my brothers even before I emerged from the womb. My birthplace was a secret garden full of flowers on which the sun never shone. The garden was my mother's tomb, and would be mine also but for the help of my brothers, who gave their even briefer lives to allow me to make the escape which they cannot. Once free, I have only a few hours in which to accomplish the purpose for which I was born. I will neither eat nor drink. I may be captured and die before I reach my destination. But there are many of us and some will get through.

We are tiny - only 1mm long - so tiny that we can pass through the eye of a needle. Yet giants a billion times larger than us are entirely and exclusively dependent on us for their survival - giants upon whom many others in turn depend for theirs.

My mission is to find another secret garden with its wall-to-wall carpet of white flowers. I may find one close by, or I may be carried by the wind to another garden far away. Somewhere there must be a garden whose flowers are waiting expectantly for a visit from one of us. If the giants' gardens did not flower randomly several times a year, our race of couriers would die out and the race of giants would also eventually perish, spelling death for countless other species.

The garden's flowers produce a delicious scent which draws me irresistibly to the garden gate. But the gate is tiny, only just large enough for me to squeeze through. I have to use all my strength to enter, but so tight is the entrance that in doing so my wings and antennae will be ripped off and my body sac may even burst under the strain. I am carrying two high-priority packages which are vital to the giant and to my race - eggs, and the pollen which I scraped off the white flowers my brothers so obligingly chopped down for me and which I packed into special pockets on my breast. But I also bear within my body some mysterious passengers - deadly stowaways who use me to enter the garden, whose offspring will use my children's bodies to escape, and who will ensure that I never leave the garden alive.

To reach the flowers I am driven to seek, I must first force my way down a long, narrow and winding passage. My struggle can take as much as an hour and I am already weak from the effort of forcing my way through the gate - and from the attentions of my stowaway, who is consuming me from the inside. To achieve my mission I must do two things, one for my race and one for the giant: entrust my eggs to the giant (which will protect and nourish them within the gall it creates around each egg) and return the compliment by unpacking the precious cargo of pollen I brought with me from the garden in which I was born so that the flower-garden can become a fruit with seeds which will ensure the future of the giant's race (and thus also of mine).

I am a humble fig-wasp, one of perhaps 500 species which have extraordinary symbiotic relationships with the 1,000 or so species of fig tree in the world. The “giant” is the Sycomore Fig, which thrives along river banks in Southern Kenya and which supports more species of animal than any other tree in Africa. It is unusual in fruiting several times a year at random intervals. If the fig-trees were to fruit all together only once a year, as is normal for fruit trees, the fig-wasp could not survive and the trees themselves would also die out because they would not then be pollinated. The deadly passengers are microscopic nematode worms whose life cycle depends entirely on the fig-wasp.

The story of the extraordinary relationship of the tiny wasp with the sycomore fig (and of the many other creatures which play a role in the wider story) is told in intricate detail in an exquisite 52-minute film entitled “The Queen of Trees”, originally made for television and shown in the USA on the ˜NATURE programme of the PBS channel. Readers in the USA and Canada can order copies (both VHS and DVD) at:http://shopthirteen.org/product/search?terms=queen+trees

Sadly, the film does not appear to be available as yet in the UK or the rest of Europe. I managed to obtain a copy through my brother who lives in Canada. Though both the BBC and Granada International were involved in the co-production, I am disappointed that it does not appear to have been shown so far on television in the UK.

Perhaps predictably, the background narration takes the dominant Darwinian evolution theory for granted. It acknowledges the extraordinariness of the behaviours, but simply asserts that this “has evolved out of millions of years of mutual dependence between wasp and tree”. It seems to me, on the contrary, that the complete and incredibly complex interdependence of the tiny fig-wasp and the large sycomore fig presents prima facie evidence that the Darwinian mechanism cannot be true. No evolutionary biologist could ever present a convincing explanation as to how such a relationship could have evolved by the “natural selection” of random genetic mutations in both wasp and tree. As E. L. Grant Watson remarks in his classic The Mystery of Physical Life: “Our wonder at this complementary service, the elaborations and economies, as manifested both by the wasp and the plant, prompts us to question: How could so complicated and perfect a reciprocity have come about through the action of natural selection? What unit-characters, both in fig and wasp, could have become so synchronised - even though it be supposed that countless generations may have contributed to such an adjustment?

This remarkable and beautiful film should be seen by everyone - in particular by all students of biology.

Paul Carline lives in Scotland. He offers talks and courses to interested groups and particularly young people, in schools and colleges, about the issues raised between evolutionary theory and the interdependence, co-operation and symbiosis about which this article has been an example. Anyone wishing to discuss this may contact Paul at [email protected]

He enered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore fig tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of a sinner." Zaccaeus stood there and said, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much. Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." (Luke 19, 1-19) [Ed.]