Beguiled by Blooms

|| Science Article |

Evolution is a heartless process. Over time, some species become extinct, others flourish.

For the most part, adaptation dictates which species thrive and which die off. In response to environmental stimuli, creatures adapt in different ways. Some creatures become bigger and stronger. Others develop unique defense mechanisms such as mimicry, venom and thorns.

Flowers adapt by being beautiful.

Three separate studies conducted at Rutgers University in the United States not only proves that this is true; they also provide evidence that flowers convey joy and that their beauty has been evolving for the past thousands of years largely because of human fascination.

The first study involved 147 women. Some were given flowers. Others were given candles, a few were handed fruits. Among the women who were given candles, 77 percent smiled. Among those who got fruits, 90 percent did. Both indicate fairly strong appreciation for the gifts. But in the case of the women who were given flowers, all flashed their teeth in pleasure. That’s 100 percent efficiency in bringing out a smile.

Another study made use of an elevator and engaged 122 men and women. The subjects were given either a flower, a pen, or nothing. The results indicate that those who got flowers not only smiled and talked more, they also huddled closer together.

In the third study, florists sent bouquets to 113 men and women living in a retirement community. All subjects got flowers but some received them earlier and got a second bouquet at the same time the others got theirs. The reactions of those who received two bouquets and those who got one were then compared. As predicted, the study showed that more flowers meant more smiles.  

The results of these three pretty simple experiments got some scientists into having more complex thoughts. That flowers are prolific because they have charmed the human species so completely, is one. The multi- billion dollar flower industry, for example, raises and breeds flowers that serve no other purpose than to convey or elicit emotional pleasure. In fact, there is not a single agency in nature that can or will pollinate many of the domesticated varieties of flowers. Among roses alone, there have been quite a number of human-assisted varieties that the flowers retain very little of their original and nature-inspired characteristics.

Clearly, the actions of flower raisers have had a direct effect on the evolution of most commercialized blossoms. But scientists believe that our collective influence has been affecting the evolution of flowers much earlier than the emergence of the flower industry.

Terry McGuire, a Rutgers University geneticist believes that the prettiest flowers nature has concocted have persisted largely because they have already disarmed prehistoric humans. By the advent of agriculture, wild flowers should have been eradicated or cleared because they would have competed with crops for very limited farm space and water but our ancestors opted to let them be. Instead, for more than 5,000 years, people have been cultivating the most beautiful blooms for charm instead of chow.

“Our hypothesis is that flowers are exploiting an emotional niche. They make us happy,” stated McGuire. “Because they are a source of pleasure—a positive emotion inducer—we take care of them. In that sense, they are like dogs. They are the pets of the plant world.”

This idea is detailed in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Among the scenarios or evidence Terry McGuire proposed is that many modern species of flowers used to sprout only when the ground was disturbed (read: plowed). These types of flowers would have been weeds, but unlike what humans did to their less vibrant cousins, flowers were tolerated because of their beauty. What’s more, their seeds were preserved and replanted. You weed out weeds, never replant them, but flowers subverted the laws of survival and evolution by just being lovely.

Perhaps in just this one case, evolution has a heart after all.  

About Flowers
A flower is also known as a bloom or a blossom. It is the reproductive structure in flowering plants and serves as the agency by which seeds are produced. The main function of flowers is to facilitate the union of male and female gametes, through a process called pollination. Pollination can be effected by the action of the wind or by animals such as insects.

There’s no fossil evidence of how flowers actually evolved and their sudden appearance is considered a great mystery by Charles Darwin. A common hypothesis is that the primary function of flowers was to attract then involve other species in the survival and spread of its own. Flower evolution continues to this day, largely through the actions of humans who, for thousands of years, have harbored a helpless fondness for them.