I’m slowly reading my way through The Malay Archipelago, by Charles Darwin’s contemporary and colleague Alfred Russel Wallace. I’ll probably have more to say later about this rather magnificent piece of scientific Victoriana, but for the moment I thought it would be fun to share a tangential musing of Wallace’s on the subject of tropical fruit.
Poets and moralists, judging from our English trees and fruits, have thought that small fruits always grew on lofty trees, so that their fall should be harmless to man, while the large ones trailed on the ground. Two of the largest and heaviest fruits known, however, the Brazil-nut fruit (Bertholletia) and Durian, grow on lofty forest trees, from which they fall as soon as they are ripe, and often wound or kill the native inhabitants.
Wallace was wildly enthusiastic about the “rich glutinous smoothness” and “exquisite flavour” of the durian, despite his sober awareness of the dangerous qualities of this huge, hard, spiky, scandalously high-growing, notoriously smelly southeast Asian fruit. I’ve tried durian on a few occasions myself, but have never been able to get past the aroma – it’s like trying to eat compost.
The “poets and moralists” whose rose-tinted views Wallace set out to debunk were no doubt looking for examples of divine benevolence in the natural world. The fact that plummeting fruit was almost never fatal in the green and pleasant land of England, and indeed was rumoured to have inspired at least one major discovery in the field of physics, must have seemed like reassuring evidence of Yahweh’s merciful concern for the welfare of sinful humanity. And yet, Wallace’s durians dangled high above the tropical forest floor like the vegetable equivalent of serpents in paradise, massive and menacing. The unsuspecting “native inhabitant” or visiting European naturalist could be struck down at any moment, as if by a divine judgement rendered in spiky rind and malodorous pulp.
An honest poet or moralist accompanying Wallace on his journeys would have had to conclude that Yahweh’s benevolence was more limited than it had appeared from the confines of merry England, or perhaps even entertain the possibility that trees and other plants were not part of a divine plan but rather products of evolution adapted to maximize their own odds of survival and reproduction – with total indifference to the welfare of any poor sap who might be out for a stroll in the woods. Durians are not glutinously smooth because someone upstairs loves us, or murderously spiky because someone hates us. They merely exist, coughed up by an uncaring universe along with everything else.
The lessons Wallace himself extracts from the durian and Brazil-nut fruit are a little more modest, but eminently sensible and well worth repeating.
From this we may learn two things: first, not to draw general conclusions from a very partial view of nature; and secondly, that trees and fruits, no less than the varied productions of the animal kingdom, do not appear to be organized with exclusive reference to the use and convenience of man.