The Fig

“By the fig and the olive.” (The Qur’an, 95: 1)


llah (swt) swore by the fig in His revelation. He said, “By the fig and by the olive” (95: 1).  Fig is one of the strangest of fruits on planet earth. In fact, it is not a fruit. It is a flower. But not one, rather, many. Hence its description as a flower cup. And many of those flowers ripen into fruits: albeit very small ones with the seed at the tip. The tiny hard grains that are noticed in the dried fig are seeds of the individual fruits.

So, it is a combination of flowers and fruits. But we are still far from a comprehensive description. Quite a few ingredients are still left out. For e.g., the pulpy base. There are other things that call for inclusion. Appropriately, one scientist has called the fig a garden turned inside out. To most, it represents a complete inflorescence (botanically syconium). To deepen the understanding one will need to do good many years of study and research. Here we outline a few details as taken idly from couple of sources.

The fig, botanically classified as Ficus Carica, is a pear shaped fruit. It has a thick outer skin: green, yellow, rose, black or brown in colour. The inner walls of its chamber are lined with hundreds of flowers. Depending on species, the flowers are either only female, only male, or both male and female. In time they turn into a fleshy delicious fruit that can be eaten fresh, dried or canned.  It is a fruit of high sugar content. But it consists largely of fructose, which is a less harmful class of sugars. It is also rich in calcium, iron, and copper. Bustani has cited several healing traits of the fig including piles. Its mild laxative quality is well recognised. In fact, like dates, it is a poor man’s diet in the Middle East. Substandard figs are used as feed for cattle. People normally eat them as whole, the inner chamber rarely opened and examined closely. If that was done, and we might need a lens, we will discover corpses of biological organisms. Luckily, we don’t know, and ordinarily, we can’t know. The organisms are too tiny, and would have become the fleshy part of the fruit for them to be recognised. We consume the delicious fruit without ever realising the significance of what Allah swore by.

The fig tree is a broad plant whose height can reach up to ten metres and the diameter of its trunk up to one metre. It can also have multiple trunks climbing around the trunk of another tree: squeezing and eventually killing it and then staying on its own. It is primarily a Mediterranean plant grown in the Syrian region, Iraq, Turkey, Algeria, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy.  Its plant was taken to the United States in 1880. But it failed to produce any fruit. Everything was tried. Frustrated, the growers began to pull them out and clear the ground until they learnt from the Turkish experience the incredible manner of its pollination. A tiny insect, the fig wasp, had to be imported. That was unbelievable to many. According to accounts when a scientist Gustav Eisen announced in California the necessity of importing these wasps, he was “hooted down and some of the mob whistled.” But that was true. The wasps had to be brought in.

There are four main type of figs: (1) wild figs (also known as “goat fig”), (2) Smyrna figs, (3) common figs and (4) San Pedro figs. The famous southern-Asian Banyan tree, which is revered by the Hindus and Buddhists, is an example of the wild fig tree. As it grows this tree sends down roots from seeds deposited on its stem and branches, that sink into the soil as new roots. This way it can grow to big heights and a massive size, casting a shadow big enough, as Dawkins has put it, “for the weekly village market.” However, its fruit is inedible. The Banyan tree is only one of the many kinds of wild fig tree plants. Every region has its own species of wild fig trees, especially those regions where edible fig is cultivated. The wild figs (also called Caprifig) are important for pollination. All kinds of Smyrna figs, which are edible, depend on wild fig trees for their pollination. Tiny wasps (a kind of insect), measuring some 2-mm, roughly the length of letter “I” as here, are born inside the wild fig fruit. The fruit has a tiny hole at the outer end through which the wasps leave covered with the pollen. These pollen-covered wasps then enter into the Smyrna figs and pollinate them. (Pollination by the fig wasp is called caprification). Hence, growers of Smyrna figs also grow wild fig plants nearby. Without them the Smyrna tree will not produce any fruit.

The wild (or Caprifig) normally produces three crops yearly. The female wasp enters the spring caprifig and lays its eggs (some 200 to 300 of them) in the female flowers. When the new wasps mature and emerge from the caprifig, (the short-lived wingless male remains behind) they are dusted with pollen of the male flowers (the male flowers are usually at the front end of the fruit). They carry this pollen to the developing summer caprifig (of the same tree), where they pollinate sufficient female flowers to ensure seed production. The next generation seeks the winter caprifig (also of the same tree) which their offspring will leave in the spring to renew the cycle.

In contrast, the common fig fruit, (also known as “Adriatic fig”), does not require any pollination to produce the fruit. It is self-pollinated. Hence it has no seeds. But the San Pedro variety produces fruits of both kinds: those that do not need pollination, and those that need to be pollinated. This tree produces two crops a year. The first crop, which comes in early summer, does not need pollination for the development of its fruit. But the second crop, which comes in fall, requires to be pollinated by the wasps. Hence the need of the wild fig plant for the San Pedro variety also. Wasps then are a key to the development of the fig fruits. There are approximately a thousand species of the fig tree, and equal number of fig wasp species. (A species is one, which cannot interbreed with another). Each species of wasp serves only a specific species of the fig tree. And they are interdependent. Without the fig trees, there would be no wasps. And without the wasps, there would be no fig.  We might, therefore, look more closely into the fig-wasp relationship.

There are of course a variety of ways in which the fig wasps (belonging to the family Agaonidae) interact and play their role in ripening the fig fruits. We may first take the simpler life cycle of the Smyrna fig and wasps as representative of a complete symbiosis of the two. In the spring, the wild fig tree produces figs, which contain numbers of both male and female flowers. However, the two flower sexes do not develop together (although within the walls of the same fruit). Female flowers develop first, and are ready to receive the pollen. At that stage the female wasp enters the flower cup (the fig) through a tiny hole at one end. It lays its eggs inside the short-styled female flowers. (Male flowers, also found within the same fruit, have long styles). Flowers, into which the wasp lays eggs, develop into tiny galls, each of which has a developing wasp larva feeding inside. (Sometimes, the wasp also injects a fluid, which induces the formation of galls within which the larvae develop: George Eickwort, Cornell University).

By early summer, the fig reaches its maturity. The wasp larvae too are about to hatch. However, it is the male larvae that hatch first. They munch their way out of the gall. Then they chew holes through the adjacent galls in which the female larvae are still buried and mate with it. When the female emerges from the gall after some time, it finds itself surrounded by male flowers (as mentioned earlier, strategically placed at the entrance of the fruit). So that, when it emerges and is ready to fly out (it has wings, against the male, which has no wings), it is fully covered with the pollen. Once out, the female searches for fig fruits in which it could lay its eggs. It is at this time too that the same fig tree begins to produce edible fruits. (In some cases, at proper times the growers pick the specially cultivated wild figs and place them close to the Smyrna tree). The emerging wasp then enters into the female flower of the edible fruit and tries to lay eggs into its styles. But they are too long for that. (Her egg laying apparatus – called ovipositor, a tube at the end of her abdomen – has to match with the length of the style. It is the inedible fruit, which has the right kind of female flowers with the right length of style. So, unable to lay the eggs, the wasp moves on. But, in the meantime, she would have pollinated the female flowers. The wasp leaves the fruit to look for another fruit with the right flowers (with short styles). Attempting on another edible fruit, with female flowers, she pollinates it also. It goes on in succession until she has pollinated a large number of fruits. Finally, as the time passes, the same fig tree now begins to produce another type of small, inedible fruits in its upper branches. This fruit has both male and female flowers in its inner chamber. It has short styles. The wasp enters into the fruit and is able to deposit its eggs. Young male and female larvae hibernate in them and, with the male hatching out first, the cycle begins again.

The above described one of the many sequences, in one of the many species of the fig – although details will vary from plant to plant and wasp to wasp. Here is another cycle and a little bit more in detail. Here too, we can begin with the female wasp laying her eggs in the tiny flowers. As days and nights pass by, one season leaving, another arriving, the wasp eggs mature in what is described by a scientist as “the hothouse” (the inner fig chamber). As the larvae grow, they eat the flowers. In time, the larvae become pupae, and they hatch into grubs. But not all at a time. That happens in two phases. In the first phase, it is the male wasps that hatch out. The male wasp is distinctly different from their mother wasp, or sister wasps still in the pupae stage. In fact, it is so different in its body structure that it is hard to call it a wasp. It has no wings. It has, obviously, no egg-laying apparatus. It has a huge mandible: an apparatus for fighting duels, apart from other functions. It’s tough looking and quite fearsome too. In any case, having emerged from the larvae, they immediately start to feed on the flowers. They feed on and on. At last well fed, the male individual wasp begins to search for the female pupae. That brings it into competition with other males wasps. As usual, fights ensue.  They cut, maim and kill each other mercilessly. Many die out and the triumphant ones set about locating the female pupae.  Having found one, still in its (flower) gall, the male chews open two holes (one at the top and the other at the side) and copulates with the bride within, right as the bride is still concealed in its capsule. A little while later, the female wasp too wakes up, yawns and chewing its way out, emerges as a mature wasp. Thus, every female wasp already carries as it emerges from its capsule, a bag of eggs that it is going to lay in future. It need not copulate anymore as an adult. (The carrying of the eggs from birth is something similar to female human beings who also bring the eggs with them, from the womb itself. The eggs only start to emerge, at the rate of one in a month, upon the woman reaching puberty until about she is 45 years old. But fresh eggs are not made after birth).

To continue, the male wasps are born in the darkness of the fig fruit, grow up, search for as many female wasp pupae they can find and mate with them. When the female wasps later hatch out, they also initially devour the fig flowers around them, but soon gives up. The female wasp is different from the male in many aspects. It has no mandibles to fight, and body structure is entirely different. Also, it has wings. Once grown to full size, the female wasps have no job in the fig fruit in which they are born. Already pregnant with eggs, they must leave the place and look for another fruit to lay their eggs. (They can’t lay eggs in the same fruit. That is because all the flowers have either been eaten by themselves and their male partners, or they have developed into fruits by previous pollination at the hands of their mother. The grower is about to pick the fruits for sale).

When it is time to leave, some species of wasps escape through the hole at the tip of the fig. But some figs do not have these holes. So, how can the female get out of the fig fruit?  Well, it is the male wasp’s turn to labour. But the job of making a gateway for the female wasp is beyond the scope of a single male wasp. The answer of course is in co-operation. The bitter hostilities of the past are forgotten and many male wasps join hands and drill holes in the fig wall. Once the hole is big enough, the female wasps fly out. (Incidentally, “the fresh air entering through the holes bored by the males causes a drop in carbon dioxide within the fig; this, in turn, stimulates pollen formation by the flowers”). As for the male wasps left gasping in the fig after the departure of the female wasps, well, they have completed their life cycle, have performed their functions, and are allowed a peaceful death. They never leave their dark world and never see their offspring for whose appearance into the world, they fought, killed, got killed, or succeeded and mated with unborn female wasps. (In some species of figs, the male lives only about a day and consumes no food. The female emerges from her cocoon shortly after the copulation and immediately leaves the fruit).

As for the winged female wasp, there is another thing that it does before leaving. It has brushes on its arms, and pockets on its breasts. It uses the brushes to fill its pockets with the pollen. It is a deliberate act, like that of the female farm workers in the flower fields, collecting flowers for the perfume manufacturer that hires them. Having filled its breast pockets, the wasp departs to fly into the world of sound and vision. But it is not particularly fond of the open world. It has twin objectives for the rest of her life, and none else. It is to dislodge her load of eggs and, secondly, it has to pollinate the female fig flowers. (In her case it is a deliberate act when compared to other pollinating insects who crawl about on the flowers only incidentally pollinating them). Having found a fig, the wasp enters through the tiny hole at its far end. The hole is too narrow for her. In fact, it is too narrow even for ordinary ants to enter.  But she must go in, at any cost. As she struggles to crawl through the narrow tunnel, she loses her wings. But that doesn’t matter. She has a duty to perform. In any case, she will not need the wings any more. She is not going to go out again. She also loses her antennae. (The growers check for pollination of the fruits by inspecting the holes. If they find wings stuck there, they know that the wasp has punched in for its duty). Once having wiggled itself through the hole, the wasp immediately begins to work in the dark, visiting the flowers, to either drop a bit of her cargo of pollen, once again with the help of her brush, doing it very deliberately, like a farm worker taking out seeds from the coat pockets and burying them in the earth. She also drops an egg wherever she feels the spot is right – into the styles of the flowers. Having gone around the fruit, pollinated the flowers, and having dislodged her reserve of eggs, she too has done all that was required of her. She too is now ready to lie down, perhaps do some rosary and die in peace. She does not live long enough to see her offspring come alive either. Nor does she leave the fruit again.  Thus, strangely, none of the offspring ever see either of their parents, as do the parents who never see their offspring. (Here we are reminded of ‘Umar’s words. He went out of town waiting for the messenger to bring him news from a battle front a thousand miles away. As he arrived, ‘Umar began to run by his side and getting the news. The messenger gave the news of victory and on enquiry began to give details. He said, “So and so of the believers was killed, so and so was killed, and a few others whose names ‘Umar doesn’t know.” ‘Umar was in tears, he said, “But Allah knows them”).

As a result of the co-operation between the fig tree and the wasps, we get our figs. If the wasp didn’t enter into a fruit at all, the fruit would not be ripened and, consequently, they would be dropped off by the tree in a shrivelled form. Alternatively, if the wasp happens to lay too many eggs, then too the fruit is dropped off by the tree. If the tree did not drop such a fruit off, the emerging grubs from the larvae would eat off all the flowers, none fructifying into fruits and seeds and the farmer would be sorry for a bad crop. But the wasp doesn’t do that. It lays just enough eggs and pollinates the rest of the flowers for them to develop into fruits. Obviously, if she laid too many eggs, and the fruit was dropped off by the tree, her own offspring would die with it. It is another thing that the wasp would never know, whether or not the tree dropped that fruit off in which she had laid more eggs than necessary. The wasp dies earlier than the fruit dropping by the tree. So, it is a mystery why the wasp does not lay eggs on every flower inside the fig although some do.

Again, the male wasp too knows nothing about where the female goes once it leaves the fig, nor anything about what it does, and how new ones come into being. It doesn’t know any more than its own world, which happens to be a dark one unlit by sunlight. His sole objective is to mate and then assist – if necessary – the emerging female wasps to escape.

To be sure, wasps are not the only pollinators of the fig flowers. Moths, beetles, and other miniature sized insects also do the job in a variety of ways both for the benefit of their offspring – dropping an egg of their own – as well as for the benefit of the fig fruit. In fact, as a scientist has put it (in another context), “Understanding the basic processes of pollination reveals the intricate purpose that underlies the beauty of flower and opens our eye to the amazing natural event going on all around us.”

The fig defies the theory of evolution too. This theory states that after the appearance of the first gene machine, the DNA, which has the characteristic of self-replication, life has been developing in various forms, acquiring new characteristics in accordance with the changing surroundings, and thus being selected for survival by a process called natural selection. The theory, although superficially very attractive, has some holes, indeed quite big ones. It was envisaged that these holes could be plugged with the advancement in research. But that has not happened. After more than a hundred years, the holes have widened. It had to be abandoned. But that could not be done publicly, since, that would be the biggest defeat ever for science and scientists. Therefore, efforts are on to quietly replace it with another theory known as neo-Darwinism, which endeavours to work at the genetic and molecular level, rather than at the organism level. However, with massive amount of data coming in from researches all over the world, this new version of Darwinism is also facing challenges. More the data, the less convincing neo-Darwinism seems to become.

As if explaining the existence of a single species is not difficult enough, the pressure now, with the expansion of knowledge, is to explain the combination of organisms: animals, bacterial, viruses and plants acting in conjunction to make possible the impossible. Life organisms seem to be acting in manners that are of no particular advantage to them; they could very well act in several other ways. One acting in a particular way could be somehow explained. But how to explain when several join together, with each concerned with its own agenda, and quite oblivious of several other courses of action possible and open to it? Surely, the process and the results speak of a design, knowledge of the entire environment, an understanding of the needs of various elements, central planning, and finally, conscience execution to perfection. God is the only entity that fits into this role.

The evolutionists advance the idea that the fig-wasp relationship is an example of co-evolution, or mutualism in evolution. In the words of a scientist: “The fig and fig wasp story is an extreme example of the co-evolution of plants and their animal pollinators. Without the wasp, the fig would not be pollinated; without the fig, the wasp would have no egg-laying site or food for its larvae. And the timing of the fruit maturation on the part of the fig, and of larval development and egg laying on the part of the wasp, is incredibly precise and precisely co-ordinated, as it must be for this mutually beneficial system to work. Each species has become adapted through natural selection to better exploit the other, influencing the course of each other’s evolutionary trajectory through their interactions.” (Pollination, the art and science of floral sexuality, Nancy C. Prat and Alan M. Peters, Zoogoer, July/August 1995).

Statements of this sort completely ignore the difficult questions that arise. The big question is why? Why should the fig and fig wasp have evolved together to get locked to each other? There are millions of species of plants. They all have open flowers. The fig is unique. It is a flower turned inside out. Why? For what evolutionary advantage, when none of the millions of flowers are having any problem getting pollinated? They are happily replicating their DNA without the aid of the wasps or any other agent. Again, why did the fig tree choose only one pollinator, and that too, of it only one species. By various stratagems, it locks out not only a variety of other insects, but of the wasps too: allowing a single species to enter in? What is the evolutionary advantage in limiting itself in that manner? Does the survival chances of the fig increase or decrease by this exclusiveness?

Again, gradualism is the key to evolutionary theory. It is suggested therefore that once the fig would also have been an open flower: millions of years ago. In the words of Dawkins: “Imagine a time-lapse film built up as follows. The first frame is a modern fig. Frame two is a similar fig from a century ago. Carry on through the centuries, fig on fig, frame by frame, through a fig that might have been eaten by Jesus, a fig from the land of Nod; back before the time of cultivation, back to the wild figs of the forest and beyond. Now run the film and watch the modern fig transform into its remote ancestor. What changes shall we see?

“Undoubtedly there’ll be some shrinking as we go backwards, for cultivated figs have been plumped up over the centuries from smaller, harder, wild ancestors. But this is a superficial change and, interesting as it is, it’ll be over within the first few millennia of our backward journey. More radical and startling is the change that we’ll see as we run the film further back through millions of years. The ‘fruit’ will open out. The tiny, almost invisible hole at the apex of the fig will pout, gape, yawn until it is no longer a hole but a cup. Look carefully at the inner surface of the cup and you’ll see that it is lined with tiny flowers…Pressing on. Our fig cup turns inside out until the florets are on the outside, as in a mulberry tree (the fig is a member of the mulberry family). Further back, beyond the mulberry stage, the florets separate and become more recognisably distinct flowers as in a hyacinth (although hyacinths are not closely related to figs).” [Climbing Mount Improbable, pp. 272, 273, Penguin Ed.]

The question is, if the fruit, once open, millions of years ago, decided to close in, then, in how many steps did it do it? Obviously, not in one step, since that goes not only against evolutionary principles, but would also kill the plant since the wasp would be looking for an open flower and not a closed one, refusing to enter, being not adapted to the new development. So, the closing should have been in stages. Let us say, the flower closed in by a degree at each stage, all in all 180 steps to complete 180 degrees of closing over tens of millions of years. Now, what can be the evolutionary advantage for a flower to close in by a degree? Obviously, none. If pollination in the earlier stage was inadequate, how did it become adequate with the closing in of the flower by a degree? Obviously, with the futility of the first step of closing, the second step wouldn’t be taken. Evolution falters at the first step. Another question. Why do a few hundred of fig species need pollination by wasps when there are so many varieties of the same plant around that can manage without external pollinating agents?

However, the issues are more complicated than a few questions raised above. We need to explain the various synchronised actions and characteristics of the two, fig and wasp. For e.g., (1) the intricate hole at the far end (ostiola), which permits only specialised pollinators to enter and excludes predators such as ants. In other words, the fig locks out all except the entry of a specific wasp. (Does the fig fruit have a complete list of predators, small and big, every one of those hundreds of millions of species, including their inability to bore holes)? (2) The perfect adaptation of the female flowers for development of the larvae in the galls. (3) Asynchronous development of the two flowers sexes, male and female at different times. The female flower ripens at the time the female wasp enters for pollination. But the male flowers ripen with the emergence of the new adult wasps. (4) Ripening of the fig is delayed until the wasp has emerged. (5) Mandible among the males. (6) Telescoping abdomen for the males for copulation with the pre-emergent females. (7) Emergence of more of females than of males.

Now we can move another step forward on the road of confusion and talk about the wasp parasites. Fig wasps justify their existence by providing pollination service to the fig. In turn, the fig provides the wasp with the specially designed galls to lay their eggs in. Arrived at a happy agreement between themselves, the wasp lays eggs only on about half of the flowers. The other half then can develop into fruits and seeds. But the drama takes another turn. No sooner has the wasp laid its eggs, and found a niche to die off within the fruit, than a parasite appears on top of the fruit. This is also a wasp, but not the kind that can or will enter the fruit. It has got its own ways of exploiting both the fig as well as the wasp, without offering any service to either of them. This one is well equipped. In fact, it is another wonder of nature. It has a long, tough ovipositor, cum drilling machine, cum sensor, cum egg-laying apparatus. With this machine, the tiny creature is capable of drilling a hole (on her scale equivalent of a 100 foot well: Dawkins) through the fig from the outside. Having drilled a hole in the fig, the operation itself conducted almost in the manner of drilling rigs, the tip of the long ovipositor locates deep inside the fig the flower galls in which the fig-wasp has laid its eggs and deposits one of its own eggs on top of it. Her offspring will now feed on the developing wasp-egg. It does not pollinate any flower.

Going back to the story of stages in evolution, the parasite wasp would have been entering through the fig fruit hole as it shrank, over millions of years. It would have had no problem laying its own egg on top of the fig wasp’s egg in the flowers open and exposed to the world. That would have gone on for million of years until the fig had a hole say just enough for it to enter and lay its egg. In the following stages, the hole would have gotten too small for it to enter. As it visited the flower, it would be at a loss. It would have needed a long ovipositor, and a pretty strong one for that, plus the holding equipment to drill a hole through the outer skin of the fig. But, unaware of the fig’s plans, it would not have gone on simultaneously lengthening its ovipositor as the fig fruit gradually closed. The millions of years of gradualism that the fig fruit had at its disposal, were behind the parasite to do anything about. It would have had no option but to abandon the fruit and look for other flowers: to be sure, there were millions of them.

About YMD

Past Issues