ChlorophyllIndulge me while I blur a few lines...

We don’t think of biology as technology, except when humans have tampered with it. Even if we’re not comfortable with interpreting the incredible achievements of organisms in terms of technology, we can understand the connection by analogy. The gap here, the difficulty, is that we view technology as something planned and designed, and don’t want to share this feat with other animals, even now when it’s clear that tools are something we share with other mammals, birds, fish, and more than one kind of octopus.

DNA is the original technology, or proto-technology if you prefer, a means for combining atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulphur, and phosphorus into amino acids and forming those into proteins, from which all organisms are founded. Now intriguingly, other atoms are used in biology but solely because of the creation of proteins that happen to fold in such a way as to bond to some specific atom or ion like a key fitting a lock. Magnesium, for instance, sits squarely in the centre of a molecular ring ‘designed’ to make use of it in chlorophyll. It’s a clever piece of molecular engineering, and one that animals would later reuse for haemoglobin, which has the same basic structure but with iron in the centre. For chlorophyll, the magnesium forms a chemical photocell capable of absorbing certain wavelengths of light from our sun and turning it into energy. All plant and indeed animal life on our planet depends upon this specific chemical that algae developed and which later gave rise to plants.

Now if we take the entities built of DNA and its five elemental building blocks as ‘organisms’, chlorophyll can be seen as a magnesium-based photocell technology, and plants can be thought of as a proto-cyborg (accepting this blurring between organism and technology for the purpose of thinking this through). That allows us to ask: what are the cybervirtues of chlorophyll?

Precisely because of their intimate relationship with chlorophyll, plants are punctual and tenacious (proto-)cyborgs that show a potentially admirable commitment to soaking up the sun. Yet they also developed diverse responses to sharing space with one another: while some plants compete to tower above and collect the most light, others settle into spaces below the canopy and content themselves with living in shade. Indeed, they become so comfortable in such places that too much sunlight would be fatal. Still, they remain resolutely committed to collecting sunlight. We can admire the cyber-tenacity of the chlorophyll cyborgs, even without thinking that there is no conscious choice involved in them behaving this way.

If this is a fanciful way of thinking about plants – as photocell cyborgs – it at least offers a way of thinking about contemporary biotechnology that isn’t just about configuring organisms for human profit. Cyborgs or not, plants have their own excellences. We ought to consider that when we decide to tamper with the nature of their being.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #7


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what makes blind/mindless behaviors "resolute" or admirable (without anthropomorphizing), and have you considered that as we get more cellular (even chemical/atomic) in our understandings of how machine like we are (as opposed to how we misperceive ourselves to be) that this brings into question how much control/choice we have in our affairs, how fundamentally cog-biased we are?

Hey dmf,
An excellent challenge! Should we admire the resolution of plants if what lies at the root (pun intended) of their behaviour is 'mere' tropism? Your challenge, however, conflates the behavioural bases of plants with alleged automatism in humans. This slightly obfuscates my purpose in writing this piece which is to emphasise the ways that plants have their own excellences - something that is obscured when we think of biotechnology in terms of 'the benefits to humankind' == 'profits to bioengineering companies'.

I dispute your claim that we are 'machine-like'... one of Descartes most grave errors was to imagine that animals could be understood as machines. We are all, as Allen Wood attests 'recovering Cartesians', and the situation we are currently facing is a disbelief in the mind/soul aspect of Descartes thought and thus a presumption that we can reduce all behaviour to machinery i.e. that we can fix the problems of Cartesian thinking by only making one of his errors instead of both! We are not machine-like, and the understandings we have of our biology does not support this kind of interpretation - at least, it doesn't if we do not fall prey to an overzealous reductionism. On this point, I refer you to my discussion of downward causation in Is Free Will Too Cheap?.

Part of the problem we're facing today is that we seem to have got into a muddle whereby it seems that either we are all individually fully autonomous or we are 'merely machines'. Both involve grotesque simplifications... a thorough understanding of cognitive biases makes it clear that we cannot be understood as mere machines without a gross distortion of the complexity of the situation. But the magical view of each human as making entirely independent decisions is equally misguided... the interrelationships between humans and things channel behaviour in various significant ways. But since those interrelationships can be changed, behaviour can be changed. The question becomes: how is it that we want to live, and what changes would be required to make that possible?

I find the cyber-tenacity of plants admirable because it is for the good of the plant that they diligently seek the sun. That this particular behaviour is beyond conscious influence does not trouble me too greatly because the beauty of our imaginative faculties is to draw from allegories and metaphors through extension and analogy. Our most ingrained behaviours as humans are not for our own good, and are actively degrading both each other and the possibility of our species' continued existence...

I do not think it is completely fanciful that we might learn from plants (and indeed other kinds of being and thing) and work towards a better state of affairs. It is optimistic - but if we do not allow ourselves the possibility of success, that fatalism will surely become a steel cage from which we shall never escape. The very possibility of change is inherent in beings with so great an imagination - it is this hope that I try to keep alive.

Many tanks for engaging with these pieces!


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