Our Fascinations: Evolution, One Orchid at a Time

Issue Date: 
March 3, 2014

WhenEd McCord Ed McCord stands in the doorway of his Squirrel Hill greenhouse, he isn’t just seeing the 40 or so species of orchids he has tucked into the 10-by-12-foot space. He’s not even seeing the specific eight or nine species that need extra attention. Or which native Floridian species he might be missing.

No, McCord—director of Pitt’s Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy—sees far more than that.

“I don’t think of it as an interest in the flower, I think of it as an interest in everything about where it is,” says McCord, who also is director of programming and special projects for the University Honors College and an affiliate professor of philosophy. “Where the seeds landed, historically where they evolved. It’s all of that intersecting of things that fascinates me.”

McCord was 14 when he wrote a letter to leading orchid botanist Carlyle Luer, who was so impressed that he invited the teenager on an orchid expedition in Sarasota, Fla., starting a life of serendipitous journeys.

The power of the orchid, for McCord, is its ecological interconnectedness: specific insects pollinate the flower (differing per species); the seeds depend on a symbiotic relationship with fungi to stimulate their growth—their environment is everything. McCord, who is author of The Value of Species (Yale University Press), can drive down a highway and know whether an orchid could live in the nearby scenery—not necessarily that it is there, but that the possibility is there.

“Wouldn’t you love to go back and watch evolution to find what brought us to this moment?” he asks with such sincerity that it suddenly seems egregious that we cannot.

So that’s what McCord sees when he looks into his greenhouse: he sees the plants as they are in the wild. He sees a boy of 14 tromping through swamps and rivers, swatting at mosquitoes and horseflies, dodging fallen trees and poisonous snakes, a boy taking pictures of orchid species that he’ll turn into slides that he’ll still have as a man in his sixties.

When McCord sees an orchid, he sees the possibility of a marvelous adventure. “If anyone says to me, ‘Do you want to go?’ it doesn’t matter if it’s somewhere I’ve already seen, I always say, ‘Yes! Let’s go!’”

— By Amy Whipple