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 thanks for engaging with these pieces!


hi Chris I appreciate your concerns for the ways in which we are wrecking the biosphere but habits are of course quite hard to replace and we have no real way of hacking cog-biases directly so our automaticity is pretty profoundly a part of what make for human-being. Sure we might make new connections from images/models of plants but I think these matters are open for testing and not just assertion, you might be interested in:

Hey dmf,
I should like to debug your argument here. You state: "we have no real way of hacking cog-biases directly so our automaticity is pretty profoundly a part of what make for human-being."

I want to break that down as:
A. We have no real way of hacking cognitive biases directly, because it is part of what makes us human
B. Our cognitive biases lead to automaticity in our behaviour
C. Therefore automaticity is profoundly tied to who we are as humans

This follows logically, but while A is largely correct, B is incorrect, and therefore C does not follow. It is cognitive bias that is profoundly tied to who we are as humans. But that does not lead to automaticity - this is what I critiqued in Is Free Will Too Cheap?.

What is at stake here is the understanding of 'automaticity' and the understanding of cognitive bias. Those cognitive biases are, structurally, part of our human nature and not subject to change. However, all those cognitive biases work on material that is open to be hacked regarding our imaginative patterns, or mythos. Hacking our mythos is precisely what my philosophy is about.

Personally, I think it's clear from the way that in-group favouritism operates among liberal individuals today that the material that our biases operate on is not only open to hacking but was profoundly hacked by the Enlightenment philosophers, and indeed at several other points earlier in human history. You would not get what I have called 'intolerant tolerance' prior to the Enlightenment because the liberal mythos that drives it didn't exist.

Human behaviour is available to be hacked because our mythos are available to be hacked - that's enough. There's no need for fatalism, and the mythos that leads to fatalism is therefore something we ought to avoid.

Thanks for continuing our discussion!


Where and how do mythos exist/work and are we heading back to structuralism?
I'm with St Turner on these matters, wiki has a nice summary:
" In The Social Theory of Practices as well as in other writings Turner argues against collective concepts like culture: what we call culture (and similar concepts), he argues, needs to be understood in terms of the means of its transmission. There is no collective server by which it is simply downloaded and "shared". What we take as "collective" is really produced through experiences of interaction which are different and produce different results for different individuals but which also produce a rough uniformity through mechanisms of feedback rather than "sharing".
as for the idea that whole cultures somehow shifted because of the work of a few philosophers I found that as dubious a sociological proposition as the current criticism that Derrida and co. led to Trump, confusing the history of ideas with the history of peoples, obviously there is some flexibility/variety across time for us but where is the studied/proven means of making such changes occur intentionally of engineering them if you will?
thanks for the exchange, d

Hey dmf,
You've raised this objection re: practices before, as I recall, but I don't find Turner's objections to be as compelling as you do. Habit and memory are sufficient mechanisms to underpin practices; care must be taken in how these are construed and I agree that you cannot take a client-server understanding of such matters. But personally I've not seen anyone propose a practice view on such a model (other than Turner!) and these concerns read to me as merely a call for a clearer conceptual construction of practices, and certainly not as a knock-dead argument against understanding in this way.

There's no risk of structuralism in recognising the genealogy of conceptual entities, and while the cultural impact of the Enlightenment is certainly up for debate, it is not problematic to say social arrangements were transformed by Locke, Kant, Payne, Wolstencroft etc. This is a relatively simple historical matter, as far as this sort of thing goes. Now, as Hannah Arendt warns, we don't control the outcome of the actions we take, which are always unforeseeable - Kant would be astonished at what his notions of Recht have come to mean today! - but I find your hardcore deflationary stance on philosophy fairly implausible, I'm afraid.

That said, there's a lot of overreach in these areas. My claims about the Enlightenment - or Marx' impact in Russia and China, to give another example - are rather different than the idea that deconstruction 'caused' Trump. But then, we get into a lot of trouble when we will only trade in cause and effect (itself a powerful mythos, largely originating in Aristotle!) and not in influence.

I respect your desire for stricter foundations for conceptual claims... but I fear you may be limiting your understanding of some aspects of life by insisting upon it.

Many thanks for continuing our conversation,


if you start into the genealogies of practices (and not Ideas) like the varied and ever evolving standards of evidence in a period like the mid-late 1700's you will find all kinds of sources and settings (courts, seminaries, natural philosophy clubs, etc) being mashed up.
maybe Pickering and Hacking will be more convincing as they went into lab-life and found out that even the bench sciences aren't drive by common/universal principles/laws or anything as grand a The Scientific Method but (as Stengers also notes) the people and resources/infrastructure at hand, Annemarie Mol and co. (and even never been modern Latour before he started waxing theological) have pointed this out in relation to how techs uses/meaning are likewise dependent only local and in process assemblages, ever onward!

Hey dmf,
Pickering and Hacking won't get any complaints from me... although I don't reference them directly in Wikipedia Knows Nothing, they are also pushing an epistemology of knowledge-practices and so quite compatible with my work. And 'mashed up' is not a problem for me either... this is what I was alluding to in reference to 'influences' rather than 'cause and effect' - it's all intersecting sets (or, if you prefer, networks.)

And this is true also of what I call a mythos: it is a network of texts, humans, terminology, metaphors etc. Although I haven't read it, his An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence looks to me to be very compatible with what I'm doing (as was middle-era Foucault - the bit you're not allowed to reference in academic work because it's not about biopower! >:D).

It increasingly looks as if we don't have a substantial disagreement, you know... It looks more like my way of framing certain discussions is tripping one of your concerns that might not actually apply upon closer inspection.

Maybe you should have a crack at WKN if you haven't already read it? The PDF is free, and you'd be in a much better position to understand where I'm coming from epistemologically at that point. I would be interested in your pushback!

All the best,


great thanks Chris I'll take a look , I'm fortunately beyond the reach of the academic efforts to police thinkers/texts and quite taken with the extensions of work of Foucault via Paul Rabinow and his crew @ the Anthropology of the Contemporary Research Collaboratory (ARC).
I think the AIME project was a lovely idea and I was part of the initial online collaborative efforts but it quickly reverted to the same old same old traps (and trappings) of academia and Latour's own take (and the author-itative text) was pretty unworkable, see:

Hey dmf,
"...beyond the reach of the academic efforts to police thinkers/texts" is a nice thing to be able to say! I am rather headed back in that direction myself (i.e. on my way out from wearing an academic hat), although I like to flatter myself by saying that in all my time working as an academic (whatever my other jobs), I have never simply accepted the status quo and have always fought for ideals. Indeed, this is a large part of what Wikipedia Knows Nothing is about.

I was looking for a good post to have discussion about that text here on Only a Game and the most recent piece is WKN: First Review... after you've had a chance to read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Many thanks for your comments here,


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