A Compassionate Subtlety In Nature
The idea that plants produce some animal hormones sounds like science-fiction, especially when you consider how different the hormone system is in plants and animals.
Animals produce hormones in special endocrine glands which store the hormones or release them into the circulatory system. According to their chemical structure, animal hormones are classified as peptidal or steroidal and are easily sub-grouped according to their effects. In plants, however, the production of hormones occurs as a result of many cells co-operating. Since plants do not have any circulatory system the hormones are present only in certain parts of their structure and may travel short distances. Plant hormones can be classified chemically as purine based (cytolunins), amino acid based (auxins) or tespenoid based (dolmins, giberellins). The well-known compound, ethylene, is one of the major plant growth hormones doing its work through the air spaces between plant tissue and cells.
Although animals and plants are in most ways totally different types of living things, they produce or synthesize the same chemical compounds, with hormones often the common link. Now we know that plants have some animal and human hormones, and animals have same plant hormones. The hypothesis of hormonal interaction between plants and animals is supported by results from entomological studies:
‘There are hormonal interactions between plants and animals which are possible at many levels and depend on the ability of physiologically active chemicals to interact between the different types of living organism. In some cases the animal is the dominant partner in the interaction; for example, when leaf-cutting ants add auxin hormone to the fungal colonies on which they feed in order to maintain their growth and vitality. More frequently, the plant is dominant, exerting its effect by synthesizing animal hormones and pheromones and thus influencing the life and survival of its animal predators.’
Early reports of the presence of female sex hormones in seeds of the date-palm and pomegranate were received with scepticism and at times rejected. The reports were accused of relying on findings based on the use of crude research apparatus. However, the use of better equipment and more accurate analytical methods has clearly corroborated the early findings. The one issue still not resolved is the precise amount of animal sex hormone in plants.
Reports of unidentified oestrogenic materials in many plant tissues, based on their ability to upset the normal menstrual cycle in woman, cows or ewes, suggest that oestrogens may be much more widespread in plants than has ever been formally recognized. During the Second World War for example, women in Holland attributed menstrual upsets and ovulation failures to the eating of tulip bulbs (forced on them by food shortages). Among the more usual sort of foodstuffs that have affected oestrus in women and cows are garlic, oats, barley, rye grass, coffee, parsley, potato tubers and sunflower. It is possible that some or all of these plant materials do not themselves have the hormones but have, instead, compounds which mimic their effect. At the moment it is not known why plants produce these compounds, nor the precise function they have in the internal functioning of the plant.
The subject certainly calls to mind the incident in the Qur’an’s account of the birth of the Prophet ‘Isa, upon him be peace. Maryam, the mother of the future prophet, is suffering the pains of labour:
‘And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree. She cried out: “Ah! if only I had died before this! if only I had been a thing forgotten! But it was said to her from below (the palm-tree): “Grieve not! for your Lord has provided a stream of water below you; and shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards yourself: it will let fall fresh ripe dates to you. So eat and drink and cool (your) eyes…”’ (Maryam, 19:23-6).
It is now known that the fruits of the date-palm contain oxytocin hormone, which is an oligo-peptide containing nine amino acids, the principal uterus-contracting and lactation-stimulating hormone. Thus, we can now understand that Allah was directing Maryam to eat the dates in order to encourage the birth and to ease the labour pains and to assist in the production of breast milk for the baby.
The verses can be read straightforwardly as a most moving moment in a moving story, expressive of Allah’s sublime compassion. But our recent knowledge adds to that some intuition of the depth of compassion in Allah’s creation as a whole, its extraordinary subtlety and complexity which by far exceeds the ability of our merely human knowledge to catch up. However, as our scientific understanding of natural phenomena matures we begin to grasp the wisdom of the Qur’an, to see more deeply into the meaning of its Divine Words. It is in that sense that the Qur’an gets ‘younger’ as time grows older.
By Dr S. E. Konuk