Peaceful coexistence* has been in short supply in a week which has seen protests against an anti-Islamic film no-one has watched reach murderous heights, and the continuing civil war in Syria. No, I haven’t decided to make this a political blog – just that the theme of coexistence seemed to emerge from the content that I’d planned.
Firstly, the plant: Cistus monspeliensis. Like most of the many species in the Cistus genus, this is a low shrub mostly seen in the borderlands between the Mediterranean plain and the mountains, in the dry garrigue and the sauveplaine (wooded plateau). The petals of the flowers look like crumpled tissue paper, and only last one day. This species, first described near Montpellier, is one of the smallest and lowest, and is distinguished by the long narrow leaves which give it its name.
The name Cistus comes from the same root as chest, meaning that the seed capsule is like a little box (not very like, in my opinion). Rose originally meant any beautiful flower, not necessarily like a member of the Rosa genus. So you have Corn Rose (=poppy) and Rose of Sharon (= a Hypericum species from Sharon in Israel). Keeping this connection to the Middle East, species of Cistus were among the first plants brought back from the Eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe in the 17th century by the early plant collectors (such as Pierre Belon), including C. creticus, which produces a fragrant gum called ladanum, one of the components of myrrh. I’ll come back to this topic with other rockrose species.
The production of gum or oil is just one of the clever adaptations of this species to very dry rocky hillsides. Many species develop associations between their roots and a truffle fungus of the Tuber family. This is mutually beneficial: the fungus gets the nutrients produced by the plant, and the plant benefits from the wide-ranging fungal threads and their ability to extract minerals from very poor soil. The fungus also produces a toxin which inhibits other plants from germinating, giving the Cistus a clear field.
One oddity of Cistus is that its seeds are very water-resistant, and so can’t absorb water to germinate unless they have been first cracked open by heat, usually from a wild fire. Thus after a fire when all else has been frazzled and cleared, the seedlings again have a clear field. In fact Cistus is so successful that the white-flowered species are often parasitised by another plant, Cytinus hypocistus, which lacks chlorophyll.
I’m also using the rose connection to present some of the ideas of a biologist I very much admire, Steven Rose, Open University Professor of Biology and Neurobiology. He has been a longstanding opponent of the use of genetics as a simple explanation, for example in psychology, and was a co-writer of the radical book Not in our genes (1984). Why is he – a biochemist researching memory – in a botany blog? Because I think that, like Stephen Jay Gould (a friend and colleague of Rose’s), he explains evolution and how all living things grow in a more convincing way than most (there’s a video of Gould doing that here). I wish that I’d been taught by Rose (born 1938) when I went to university to study physiology in 1970, since he answers many of the objections I felt then to reductionist science.
In his book Lifelines (1997) – which I recommend strongly – he outlines his approach of seeing every organism, plant and animal, as having an evolutionary and developmental history – a lifeline – without which its present biology cannot be understood. He quotes the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky: ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’. He views the genes as only part of the inherited DNA (a view amply borne out recently by the Encode project), and achieving expression only in cooperation with the biochemistry of the cell – and beyond that, with the wider environment. His analogy is that the DNA may be the sheet music, but the cell contains the orchestra which must interpret it. This puts him on a collision course with those he calls ‘ultra Darwinists’ such as Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene, among other titles), who view the gene as paramount, as if it were a CD and the body merely a machine for playing and copying it, like a CD player. This emerges in a video I found (here) of the two of them debating on a balcony poised high above Tate Modern’s turbine hall.
I watched, anxious that one might become so angry he would push the other off – particularly because in Lifelines Rose uses the metaphor of a cliff to describe reductionism (the idea that biology can be reduced to biochemistry, that to chemistry, and then that to physics) and imagines that Dawkins has wandered off this cliff. Luckily Rose doesn’t try to demonstrate to Dawkins the literal truth of this image, and in fact what we get is peaceful coexistence between scientists.
To conclude by returning to the political dimension: Rose was brought up in a Jewish family, but says he became an atheist at the age of 8. He has interpreted the application of Marxist ideas to biology, and came to controversial prominence recently by calling for an academic boycott of Israel, arguing that Israeli universities discriminated against Israeli Palestinians and collaborated with the Israeli Army.
* The phrase was coined by Khruschev, the leader of the USSR after Stalin, during a visit to Britain in 1956. He said: ‘You do not like Communism. We do not like capitalism. There is only one way out – peaceful co-existence’. This was before the Cuban crisis – probably not the first example of the gap between words and deeds of politicians.
The music: I thought longer and harder about this than usual. I’ve decided on a track from the remarkable album Blue Camel, by the oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil. He was born and brought up in Beirut, then went to Germany and now lives in France. The musicians on the album include the Anglo-Canadian Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, Americans Charlie Mariano on sax and Steve Swallow on bass, and Puerto Rican Milton Cardona on congas, among others. It’s a really successful fusion, all players in touch with both their reflective and swinging sides: musical coexistence. I recommend the whole album, but here’s one of the more upbeat, jazzier numbers, Tsarka.
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