I like figs. But are figs vegan? I never thought a fruit wouldn’t be, but there seems to be some discussion about that within the vegan community, because it turns out, and that’s the interesting bit, figs and wasps are involved in a very close relationship. Symbiotic? I’m afraid to claim that, because biologists no doubt have strict requirements for such categories. Anyway, a Quora post by Beth Goldowitz decribes the relationship, and because it’s a Quora post, I’ll quote it in full here:

If you aren’t a botanist, the life cycle of the fig is truly bizarre. If you’re a vegan, and you find out that figs contain dead wasps, it probably freaks you out a little.

To begin with, figs are not actually fruit. A fig is an inflorescence, a hollow stem filled with flowers. In order to pollinate the flowers, a female wasp that has gathered pollen from another fig (the one she was hatched in, and in which she mated with her brothers before they carved an escape hatch for her (but alas, not for themselves) must crawl through a tiny hole to enter the inflorescence, shedding her wings and her antennae (occasionally) as she does so. Once inside, she pollinates the flowers, lays her eggs, and dies. When her eggs hatch, the next generation continues the story, males mating with females, females gathering pollen, males making a hole for the females to escape, then, having performed their function in life, dying inside the fruit.

If this sounds odd to you, you aren’t reading enough biology and natural history texts. It’s one of my favorite responses to the anti-Darwinists who like to point to things like Emperor Penguins demonstrating that nature supports biblical families. I’ve often thought the Saga of the Fig and the Wasp would make a marvelous opera, or perhaps a ballet, with its chorus of tragic males spending their entire lives confined within a single fig, while their sisters escape, laden with pollen and possibilities.

It gets even more interesting when you find out that in some species of fig, if the female wasps don’t carry pollen to new inflorescences, the tree will drop its fruit, punishing them by eliminating their offspring from the gene pool. Cue dramatic fig tree aria. Or even more dramatic pas de deux, with sexy, but stand-offish female wasps.

But, and this is a big but, commercial figs aren’t grown this way.

The commercially cultivated fig tree is usually a female parthenocarpic variety of the ancient common fig (Ficus carica) and does not need pollination to produce fruit.

The story of the fig and its wasp

Most commercial figs do not need to be fertilized. They do not contain wasps, other than the incidental bits of insects and other debris that can be found on all fruit and vegetables everywhere. Many varieties of commercial figs are vegan. If you’re really worried about it, you can probably do a little research online.

Even the ones that do contain wasps can be considered vegan in my opinion. Veganism is about reducing harm and suffering, and these wasps aren’t being harmed. After all, no one is forcing the wasps to fertilize the figs. It’s part of their natural life cycle. They aren’t being carted around in commercial hives, like the honeybees that some vegans think make almonds and avocados unacceptable in their diet. These wasps are perfectly happy. They live inside figs, one of the world’s most delicious fruits. They hatch out of their eggs, reach maturity, and indulge in an incestuous orgy before the females go out into the world to carry on their species. They make it possible for the trees to grow more figs, which make it possible for the next generation of wasps to survive. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

I’m not vegan anymore, but if I were, I would eat figs. Figs are delicious.

EDIT: Apparently, a ripe fig is actually an infructescence, which is the fruit that results when an inflorescence is fertilized. Thanks to Michael Williams for pointing this out.

What a story! Biology is so much more than survival of the fittest. It reminded by of a documentary I once watched on symbiosis, in particular the story of Lynn Margulis. She faced a lot of criticism from here (mostly male) colleagues for daring to argue and show that Darwinism is a too simplyfied a picture of evolution. As she puts it:

Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create.

Time for new biology textbooks!