Recently, as revealed by a report published by the BBC, Richard Buggs, an evolutionary biologist at Queen Mary, at the University of London, brought up the origins of Charles Darwin’s “abominable mystery”.
The naturalist background, when alive, was determined to discover how the first flowering plants evolved, as they constantly feared that the question – which still remains unanswered – would overturn their theories of evolution.
According to a series of historical documents, a scientist who was against Darwin’s ideas justified the emergence of flowering plants through divine force. The rival’s justification bothered – and very much – Darwin, especially in his last days of life.
“The mystery seems to have become particularly abhorrent to him due to the wide dissemination made by the British Museum’s botanist when he argued for divine intervention in the history of life,” explains Buggs.
The abominable mystery
The term abominable mystery was coined by Darwin himself in 1879. The naturalist, in a letter he wrote to botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker – who was also one of his close friends – wrote: “The rapid development, as far as we can judge of all superior plants in recent geological times, is an abominable mystery ”.
The mystery itself, as we explained briefly at the beginning of the article, basically revolves around the appearance of angiosperms, that is, the family of plants that produce flowers and carry seeds in their fruits. These plants, as the experts explain, constitute the majority of all living plants ever studied, ranging from oaks to wild flowers and water lilies.
Also according to the report published by the BBC, the appearance of flowering plants, compared to a geological temporal scale, occurred relatively recently. The incredible thing is that these angiosperms, within the same geological temporal scale, quickly diversified, thus constituting a family of different colors, sizes and shapes.
“In the fossil record, they suddenly appear in the Cretaceous period, dated around 100 million years ago. And there is nothing that looks like an angiosperm before that and then they appear suddenly and in considerable diversity, ”says Buggs.
For Buggs, all the questions that have already been raised regarding the sudden emergence of flowering plants fit into the abominable mystery of Darwin. “Why isn’t there a gradual evolution of angiosperms? Why can’t we see intermediate shapes between gymnosperms – something like conifers – and flowering plants? And why, when they appear, are they already so diverse? ”.
Was Darwin intrigued?
Darwin was highly intrigued by not understanding how flowering plants managed to spread around the world so quickly, after all, other large groups of living beings, such as, for example, mammals, gradually evolved.
Darwin’s doubt raises the question of how evolution can occur quickly and, consequently, ends up contradicting an element that the naturalist believed to be essential within natural selection, the natura non facit saltum – nature does not leap.
Darwin, in the letter in which he wrote to Hooker, said: “Nothing is more extraordinary in the history of the Plant Kingdom, at least for me, than the apparently very sudden or abrupt development of higher plants. I speculated a few times if it didn’t exist anywhere during the feature films it was an extremely isolated continent, perhaps close to the South Pole ”.
The new thinking
Professor Buggs, while in the library at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, south-west London, came across a reprint of a lecture by Scottish botanist William Carruthers, which took place in 1876. In short, the lecture gives a new context to the intriguing issue that was not discovered by Darwin.
In the reprinted document, Carruthers – who was a longtime rival of Darwin – “was using the abominable mystery to launch an attack on evolution itself,” says Professor Buggs. “He thought that God had created angiosperms in the Cretaceous. That they had not evolved ”.
“For Darwin and his friends, this was anathema, basically, because (Carruthers) was trying to bring supernatural explanations to the fossil record, for example.” Basically, “the points that Carruthers questioned about the fossil record were actually very difficult to explain in terms of evolution,” says Buggs.
In the meantime, Buggs believes that this was the reason that led Darwin to coin the phrase “an abominable mystery”. “It gives you an idea of what was going on in Darwin’s mind in the last years of his life and gives an extra romance, almost, a bit like Fermat’s Last Theorem – Darwin’s last mystery, which plagued his mind in his final months of life. ”
“One hundred and forty years later, the mystery has not yet been solved,” reveals Buggs. “Of course, we have made a lot of progress in our understanding of evolution and in the knowledge of the fossil record, but that mystery is still there.”