Arisen at Faywood Hotsprings. Pleasantly overcast. Tiny droplets of rain float on tiny currents of air — a welcome change after the heat and sun of yesterday as we descended through Little Bear Canyon to the Middle Fork.
Eden down there along the cobbled shores of the Gila River’s wide and shimmering waters. 800-foot cliffs soar abruptly over the meandering currents. Gargantuan piles of ancient volcanic ash reflect the polyphony of a thousand birds. Wildflowers, trees, shrubs, bryophytes and grasses erupt from every crack and crevice.
Though we tend to trace a dark line between the botanical and the geological, I’m realizing plants are not so distinct from crystals that grow in seams and voids deep underground. Like selenite needles or calcite prisms, plants too are made of organized matter. They too boast symmetries and periodicities. They too are constrained by the electrons within in them and by the environment without.
Byproducts And Adaptations
If DNA could code anything — if the medium scale of life-as-we-know-it were as detached from the microscopic as semantics is from orthography — shouldn’t we expect the botanical realm to be a smooth gradient of forms? A gradient that overlies the inanimate geological/meteorological landscape like a thin, undulating hide?
But this isn’t what we see, is it? Or, at least, not exactly. Yes, there is plant life everywhere. Yes, there is a gradient of survival traits. However, there is more going on than adaptation; there is more than current utility and vestigiality.
The leaves of the box elder needn’t be jagged to keep the tree alive, as is proven by the rounded lobes of the gambel oak. The cone of the Douglas fir needn’t have teeth to spread seed, as is proven by the ponderosa. No, these details are superfluities. Design elements stemming not from the exigencies of survival but instead from the way the pieces fit together at the level of Chemistry. Byproducts trickling up from the molecular level.
Continuous Versus Discrete
So instead of the smooth, undulating, continuous hide; we find something that seems much more discrete, spikier. There are complex leaves and simple ones. There are trunks that branch near the ground and trunks that don’t branch at all. By these nuances of geometry, naturalists in the field identify genus and species.
There is, of course, plasticity in the development of individual specimens — nature, nurture, epigenetics and all that — which produces a blurriness in our taxonomies. Still, a given plant can’t look like just anything anymore than a quartz crystal can.
Gould And Lewontin
Perhaps this is what Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin were getting at near the end of their seminal paper, The Spandrels Of San Marco:
“The German paleontologist A. Seilacher, whose work deserves far more attention than it has received, has emphasized what he calls ‘bautechnischer,’ or architectural constraints. These arise not from former adaptations retained in a new ecological setting (phyletic constraints as usually understood), but as architectural restrictions that never were adaptations but rather were the necessary consequences of the materials and designs selected to build basic Baupläne.”
It bears repeating: There is more to life than usefulness. Appearances arise as much from the shape of the building blocks as from the the wind that threatens to topple the building. The lathe of evolution and the reeling body in the lathe. Interplay and pushback between materials and environments. Myriad are the solutions to the puzzle of survival. Myriad are the frivolous ornaments thereof.
- PDF: The Spandrels Of San Marco And The Panglossian Paradigm (University of Washington)
- The Gila’s Sleeping Giants (Farther Still)
(Today’s image of lupines along the Middle Fork of the Gila River is courtesy of Mag Kim.)