When we think of biotechnology, the image it conjures up is typically of lab coats and test tubes and tinkering with DNA. But of course, humans have been tinkering with plant DNA for millennia as part of agriculture, even though genetics was not understood until Gregor Mendel's 19th century work on pea plants. The plants were at it long before we got involved: I already explored how chlorophyll, upon which the existence of plants is predicated, can be poetically seen as allowing plants to become some of the first ever cyborgs.
Flowering plants formed cybernetic systems with insects in the Triassic, and we are the inheritors of those plant-animal relationships today. Thinking of ‘biotechnology’ focuses our thoughts narrowly upon the human capacity to shape plants to our purposes – and this for both good and ill. Against such achievements as pest-resistant plants and increased crop yields ought to be weighed those cases of agricultural corporations bioengineering seeds that were cursed with cyber-despair, contributing to the epidemic of farmer suicides in India. But there is more to our cybernetic relationship with plants than this purposeful interference – especially when we consider trees.
At the start of the Bronze Age, the British Isles were completely covered with wildwoods. By the end of the iron age, these were cleared back to about 20% coverage, making room for agricultural fields. Yet despite this arboreal apocalypse, the human-tree cyborgs of this time were cyber-prudent; land was cleared, but woodland was protected from intrusion by grazing animals since trees were highly valued as a source of wood – for both building and for fuel – and venerated as a sacred part of the world. Ironically, despite knowing far more about trees than ever before, we have a worse relationship with them today than at any prior moment in time. There are very few human-tree cyborgs left: mostly, wood appears in our lives as a mere raw material for making furniture, although we have at least started caring about ‘sustainable’ sources of timber.
When humans lived intimately with trees, the situation was beneficial for both species. Today, we prefer to use building materials like concrete and steel that are far less conducive to our long term survival as a species, and fuels that are order of magnitudes worse than burning wood – although with solar power, at least, we seek to emulate the ‘chlorophyll cyborgs’ in their sustainable life practices. For all the talk about striving for a ‘circular economy’ today, where nothing is ‘waste’, it seems we have completely forgotten the cyber-efficient, cyber-prudent world of the tree-human cyborg, who for millennia were able to work together for mutual benefit. Yet tree breeding (which has only been going on for about fifty years) isn’t just about increasing fruit yield, but also about helping trees survive the environmental impact of our species. Perhaps our relationship with trees still leads to a future worth hoping for.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #21, requested by Patrick Davis (@PatrionDigital)