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Deceived by orchids: sex, science, fiction and Darwin


Between 1916 and 1927, botanists in several countries independently resolved three problems that had mystified earlier naturalists – including Charles Darwin: how did the many species of orchid that did not produce nectar persuade insects to pollinate them? Why did some orchid flowers seem to mimic insects? And why should a native British orchid suffer ‘attacks’ from a bee? Half a century after Darwin's death, these three mysteries were shown to be aspects of a phenomenon now known as pseudocopulation, whereby male insects are deceived into attempting to mate with the orchid's flowers, which mimic female insects; the males then carry the flower's pollen with them when they move on to try the next deceptive orchid. Early twentieth-century botanists were able to see what their predecessors had not because orchids (along with other plants) had undergone an imaginative re-creation: Darwin's science was appropriated by popular interpreters of science, including the novelist Grant Allen; then H.G. Wells imagined orchids as killers (inspiring a number of imitators), to produce a genre of orchid stories that reflected significant cultural shifts, not least in the presentation of female sexuality. It was only after these changes that scientists were able to see plants as equipped with agency, actively able to pursue their own, cunning reproductive strategies – and to outwit animals in the process. This paper traces the movement of a set of ideas that were created in a context that was recognizably scientific; they then became popular non-fiction, then popular fiction, and then inspired a new science, which in turn inspired a new generation of fiction writers. Long after clear barriers between elite and popular science had supposedly been established in the early twentieth century, they remained porous because a variety of imaginative writers kept destabilizing them. The fluidity of the boundaries between makers, interpreters and publics of scientific knowledge was a highly productive one; it helped biology become a vital part of public culture in the twentieth century and beyond.

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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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