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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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The Classic Example


Ariel Singer

Song, poetry, deoxyribonucleic acid, paint, fiction, cells, steel, clay, science fiction, theater, film, photography: for thousands of years humans have been compelled to elucidate the world around them. "Why?" is a driving question for humanity. No matter the form in which our explanations emerge, the core desire is a constant; we are still attempting to explain why things are the way they are. This need is clearly demonstrated through a comparison of two vastly divergent stories on the same topic: the creation of a simple flower, the violet.

One of the more famous collections of object-origin stories is Ovid's Metamorphoses. Ovid was a Roman poet, born in 43 B.C. He was exiled from Rome by Emperor Augustus in 8 A.D. It was during his exile that he wrote the Metamorphoses, among many other works.(1) Each story in this compellation of lightly interwoven tales relates to a physical change that had occurred in mythology. The first story is a tale of the creation of the world and the last is of the deification of Caesar. Of the intervening stories many are famous, Narcissus and Echo, Apollo and Daphne, Arachne. In a myriad of episodes the gods afflict a transformation that results in an already existing object. These do not explain the origin of a species, simply its modification. However there are a few tales that attempt to tease out the creation of a new phenomenon or natural element. One of these is the story of the sun god Pheobus Apollo and Clytie.

Apollo and Clytie are considered early in book four of the Metamorphoses. Apollo spurns Clytie for a more beautiful maiden, Leucothoe. To exact revenge for her bereavement, Clytie reports to Leucothoe's father about his daughter's transgressions with Apollo. The outraged father buries his daughter alive, and Apollo arrives too late to save Leucothoe, finding instead her mangled and lifeless body. Thus Clytie gained for herself the hatred of her adored Apollo. When Apollo, enraged and aggrieved, would not return her adoration, she fled civilization and languished alone in a field for nine days. She neither ate nor drank; her only movement was watching the Sun as he traveled across the vaulted sky. Finally she was transformed:
"Her limbs caused her to cleave to the ground,
A wan pallor transposing her into bloodless petals.
In part, she was flushed red and a violet concealed her face.
Thus she, whom roots held, turns always to the Sun.
Now she watches over him, having been transformed for the sake of love."(2)

On the other hand, the scientific story of violets began about 490 million years ago, when changes in the climate led to alterations in the environment of the world. Eventually a period of glaciation occurred, revealing significantly increased tracts of land. Further changes in the climate influenced the soil, making it capable of supporting plant life. From as early as 470 million years ago there exists evidence, gathered from the fossil record, that plants had begun to have the cellular traits which were necessary for terrestrial life. It is known that by 408 million years ago small vascular plants existed in many areas of the world. These plants evolved from green algae.(3) From these very basic plants came the terrifically diverse selection of flora that we have today. The violet is a flowering plant, a category that has its own story. Flowering plants, or angiosperms, are evident in the fossil record at about 140 million years ago. In terms of evolution this is a very recent development. However angiosperms made up for their late start by promptly diversifying.(4)

The genus Viola is a huge group with many different patterns of evolution, one for each species. Among these, woody Hawaiian violets have been extensively researched. It is believed that Hawaiian violets originated in the Arctic. This is supported by molecular tests and geologic evidence. Genetic evidence has indicated that Viola langsdorffii, found around Beringia ("a large... region of the Arctic comprised of far eastern Russia... and northwestern North America"(5)) is the sister species to the Hawaiian variety. Geologically, during the early to mid-Pliocene era the environment was such that V. langsdorffii was confined within Beringia.(6) However when the climate changed and the temperature dropped a few degrees V. langsdorffii was able to travel. "Birds have been proposed as the most plausible and most common agents of dispersal for carrying seeds and fruits of colonizing angiosperms to the Hawaiian Islands." The seeds would have been eaten while the bird was still in the Arctic; then, during migration the seeds would have been passed out of the bird's system into the new environment in which it was pausing.(8) Then once in their new niche, the violets could grow and evolve separately from their ancestor, eventually forming a new species.

Although the Ancient Greek story is drastically different from the modern scientific one, it is possible to see the parallels between them. For Ovid and his readers the creation of the violet took only nine days, for science it took 490 million years. Still the idea that the creation was a slow (on two very different scales) process persisted. Each story explains an observed fact about the violet. In the case of the Classical tale the observation was that violets followed the passage of the sun throughout the day. The proposed hypothesis was that this phenomenon occurred because the violet had once been a woman in love with the personified Sun. Alternately, the modern observation was that two species of violet, found in vastly distant locales, were very similar genetically. The hypothesis was that at one time the older species had been removed from its natural environment and forced to cope in a new one. Certain traits were selected for in this new location, which modified the violet species from its ancestral genetic composition.

Perhaps the stories that we tell today about the origins of species are more accurate, closer to the unattainable truth. Perhaps in light of the logical and reasonable scientific explanation of the violet, Ovid's story seems foolish and na´ve. Yet we must always remember that the same desire that spurred on our ancestors drives us now. Perhaps through science we are closer to fully understanding the natural world, perhaps not. The point is moot really. As long as we keep striving to explain and understand the world around us, as long as we cherish it and keep an open mind about it, then the form in which we choose to display that knowledge, however inaccurate it might be, is as Ovid would say, pulcher, beautiful.

Bibliography:

"The Beringian Environment." The Atlas of Beringia.

Ballard, Harvey E. Jr. and Kenneth J. Sytsma. "Evolution and Biogeography of the Woody Hawaiian Violets (Viola, Violaceae): Arctic Origins, Herbaceous Ancestry and Bird Dispersal." Evolution 54, no. 5 (Oct. 2000): 1521-1532.

Thomson, Alexander, ed. "P. Ovidius Naso." C. Suetonius Tranquillus, The Lives of the Caesars.

Willis, K. J. and J. C. McElwain. The Evolution of Plants. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

References

1)P. Ovidius Naso

2) Translated by Ariel Singer

3) K. J. Willis and J. C. McElwain, The Evolution of Plants (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 79-80.

4) Willis, and McElwain 193.

5)The Beringian Environment

6) Harvey E. Ballard, Jr. and Kenneth J. Sytsma, "Evolution and Biogeography of the Woody Hawaiian Violets (Viola, Violaceae): Arctic Origins, Herbaceous Ancestry and Bird Dispersal," Evolution 54, no. 5 (Oct. 2000), 1527.

7) Ballard and Sytsma, 1528.


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