A gender-confused tomato plant?
A botanical discovery shows how science can be misused in arguments about morality
Botanists who discovered a new tomato species in the Australian Outback are using its unusual anatomy to suggest sex confusion is normal in nature.
The structures in a plant’s blossoms determine the flower’s sexuality. Female flowers contain a long stalk—the pistil—that sports a pollen-receptive head and attaches to an ovary at the base that contains potential seeds. The male reproductive part of a flower—the stamen—harbors a long tube with a pollen-producing structure on the tip.
Some of the new tomato plant’s flowers contain either male or female structures, while others are bisexual blossoms containing both. Usually a species produces all bisexual blossoms or plants with a variety of male and female flowers. But the mix-and-match sexuality of the new tomato species is unusual because it produces both unisex and bisexual blossoms.
“When considering the scope of life on Earth, the notion of a constant sexual binary, consisting of distinct and disconnected forms is, fundamentally, a fallacy,” the scientists said in a study published June 18 in the journal PhytoKeys.
Nearly 85 percent of Earth’s quarter-million flowering plant species produce bisexual flowers, researcher Christopher Martine said in the study.
“Plants really make an excellent example for what’s possible, and what’s normal,” Martine later told The New York Times.
But the way in which the researchers interpreted their discovery exemplifies “how in strange and sometimes unpredictable ways the authority of science … can be transformed into an engine of the moral revolution,” said Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Seminary and a WORLD News Group board member, on his podcast The Briefing last week.
The discovery does not represent normal plant anatomy, or else it wouldn’t be news, Mohler said. Sexual abnormality in an exotic plant does not indicate what is normal for all living things. “It’s not normal of skunks, it’s not normal of spiders, it’s not normal of giraffes, it’s not normal of human beings,” he said. “When you see the word ‘normal’ in studies like these you need to ask, ‘normal for whom?’”
In another display of creativity in creation, scientists recently discovered some birds’ brains synchronize with each other so the group’s dominant couple can sing a perfectly timed and precisely pitched duet. Other members of the group serve as a background choir in a performance that helps the birds defend their territory.
According to a study published June 12 in the journal Nature Communications, researchers outfitted a group of white-browed sparrow-weavers—small birds found mainly in southern and eastern Africa—with tiny backpacks containing mobile recording devices. They also implanted electrodes into the birds’ brains to record neural activity before releasing them into their natural habitats.
Scientists analyzed data from 650 duets and discovered the dominant male usually initiates the song, then the female partner joins. Her response triggers a change in the brain activity of the male, whose song in turn affects the brain activity of the female. The result is a precise synchronization of the brain area that controls vocalization in both birds. It allows the birds to sing perfectly in tune with timing so precise researchers noted only a one-quarter of a second delay between one portion of the duet and the next.
Researchers suspect a similar process may take place in certain human interactions, such as coordinating movement when dancing with a partner.
The birds live in groups of up to eight. As well as serving as vocal back-up for the dominant pair’s duets, other group members help build nests and raise young. —J.B.
A real-life Monterey cypress tree that likely inspired a beloved Dr. Seuss book died earlier this month.
The tree was most likely the inspiration for The Lorax, a Dr. Seuss tale about imaginary, colorful Truffula trees that has delighted children for nearly half a century, according to the La Jolla, Calif., community website.
The tree was somewhat of a botanical oddity with large, zany-shaped tufts of greenery and a wind-bent trunk. It grew in the Ellen Browning Scripps Park in San Diego, where the children’s picture book author—whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel—could see it from his mountaintop home in La Jolla.
The Lorax, published in 1971, was both popular and controversial. Some believed Seuss wrote it as an attempt to brainwash children into becoming environmentalists. Its hero—a fuzzy, orange creature named the Lorax with a bushy, yellow mustache—tried to stop the greedy Once-ler from cutting down all of the Truffula trees for profit. Some schools and libraries, particularly those in areas dependent on the logging industry, banned the book.
Unlike Seuss’ Truffula trees, no selfish Once-ler felled the century-old cypress in California. It mysteriously fell over. City officials knew it suffered a termite problem, but its sudden collapse at the roots surprised them. Though some have talked of repurposing the tree, perhaps they should follow the advice of the Lorax to “plant a new Truffula, treat it with care. Give it clean water and feed it fresh air.” —J.B.
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