Looking back at Darwin's 'abominable mystery'
January 24, 2021 | 4 comments
The evolution of flowers weighed heavily on Darwin's mind. Image Credit: PD - Elliott and Fry
The famed naturalist was haunted by one evolutionary mystery that proved too difficult for even him to solve.
Darwin, whose work on the science of evolution would go on to make him a household name, was so concerned with one particular mystery - that of why flowering plants appeared so rapidly, geologically speaking - that he thought it could undermine his entire theory of evolution.
"The rapid development as far as we can judge of all the higher plants within recent geological times is an abominable mystery," he wrote to his friend and explorer Dr Joseph Hooker back in 1879.
The term 'abominable mystery' would end up being quoted time and again in relation to the enigma.
Darwin's intrigue and confusion over the sudden appearance of flowering plants, or angiosperms, was certainly not unfounded. He toyed with several theories, including the idea that flower evolution had taken place over a long period of time on some undiscovered island at the South Pole.
At least one of his peers had even resorted to divine intervention as a potential explanation.
"In the fossil record they appear very suddenly in the Cretaceous, dated at about 100 million years ago, and there's nothing that looks like an angiosperm before them and then they suddenly appear and in considerable diversity," said Prof Richard Buggs.
"Why isn't there a gradual evolution of the angiosperms? Why can't we see intermediate forms between the gymnosperms - things like conifers - and the flowering plants? And why, when they appear, are they already so diverse?"
So what is the answer to this long-running mystery ?
Even today, we still don't know for sure - Darwin's 'abominable' mystery is abominable indeed.
Source: BBC News
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