Today’s “Bee Orchid” strip is a lovely bit of writing and plays to Randall Munroe’s strengths: sweet and sciency. And it even has a bonus: a painting that shows he has some artistic talent behind his stick figures:
But in his quest to tug at the heartstrings, Munroe stretches the science too far out of line for my taste.
First, he contends that the orchid mimicked the appearance of a certain bee which had since became extinct. He doesn’t say that the orchid copied the bee, he did say “as interpreted by the plant,” but, still, he’s implying that the orchid was capable of knowing what its pollinator looked like accurately enough to create itself in its form.
So … orchids have eyes?
By that logic, then, monkeys must have at one time fertilized orchids:
Second, Munroe fell into the common trap of reasoning far ahead of his data (aka “making shit up”). He takes a few data points (“that looks like a bee”, “it self pollinates”) and creates how of whole cloth a connection to create a story.
But self-pollinating plants, while rare, exist among many flowers. It’s a viable strategy for plants in areas where pollination by the usual methods don’t exist. It’s perfectly possible — in fact, much more likely — that the orchid-that-looks-like-a-bee developed its self-pollinating ability at it same time it appeared to put out the welcome mat for an allegedly now-extinct bee.
Think about it. Here’s ophrys apifera, happily welcoming the attentions of a particular member of anthophila. Then, one day, she wakes up (“flowers wake up?” — “Shut up,” he explained) to find nothing buzzing around. Her favorite pollinator is no longer buzzing around. Her pheromone texts are no longer returned. She’s been blocked. Heartbroken, she spends several seasons moodily drooping around the meadow. Maybe she dates a cute apidae, or has a one-night stand with a colletidae. But nothing compares to anthy. She considers going extinct, but the life-urge is too strong in her, and she learns to do it herself.
At the risk of introducing science into an otherwise charming strip, one commenter at the Why Evolution is True blog points out that:
If the bee went extinct long ago, then there is no longer selective pressure on the flower to mimic the bee, so we would expect increased variability in flower color and some loss of accuracy.
Like I said, I love XKCD, but a big part of its attraction is its reliance on science to make its points. That’s why this strip disappoints; it sentimentalizes and anthropomorphizes science. It is, in fact, exactly the kind of silliness — like the Gaia hypothesis — that Munroe would satirize.