Plants, Progress, and Production


Humanity has a core dependency, one that we have never been able to shake ourselves from: Plants. I don’t need to go over their importance, because I’m assuming humans are reading this, and you have probably eaten the product of a plant today. From the dawn of our civilization, we’ve been entirely dependent on these organisms to produce what is necessary to sustain us.

Agriculture is what allows humans to prosper today, even if it is so removed from our daily lives that it is invisible. The miracle of the modern day man is that we are able to sustain so much life with such little (relative) effort, but in some ways, that is also a curse. “A Confession” by Leo Tolstoy, a famous Russian writer, touches on this idea more eloquently than I can:

“But what had I done during the whole thirty years of my responsible life? Far from producing sustenance for all, I did not even produce it for myself. I lived as a parasite, and on asking myself, what is the use of my life? I got the reply: “No use.” If the meaning of human life lies in supporting it, how could I - who for thirty years had been engaged not on supporting life but on destroying it in myself and in others - how could I obtain any other answer than that my life was senseless and an evil?… It was both senseless and evil.”

There is something human about the need to not only get but to give. To me, this is what is at the core of our species survival strategy that bootstrapped technological progression. But as technology progresses, we have increasingly become a species of transactions, with no option to walk away. For all of the perks of an industrial society, this techno-industrial system pushes us towards vauge notions of “progress”. Not progress for the individual or the people we care about, but progress for the system as a whole, so that it might expand to meet the needs of its own expansion. It is my pet theory that much of the depression we see within modern society is actually due to people being intelligent: they believe that their lives are meaningless, and often, they’re right - and of no fault of their own.

We will continue to march towards this systematic progress: The incentives for individuals are far too great. We, individually, are not necessary for humanity to continue - it will continue on, like it always has. Most of us do not work to sustain life, and many of us are, in fact, parasites of the system. We aren’t needed. Science killed God and the technology that promised to bring us closer together has ripped us apart. This is progress, this industrial life, and its consequences may be a disaster for the human race - we are essentially slaves to a system that increasingly gets better at controlling us, which promised more leisure and never delivered, which promised to equalize but in fact empowered the elite.

And yet, I witnessed beauty yesterday. A potato plant I had forgotten about put out its first new leaf of spring. And I saw that beauty in the light green sprouts from my houseplants, and I saw it in some seeds within my germination pots. There is something fundamentally grounding about growing my plants. Before my own eyes I am witnessing the desperate fight of life against entropy, and hey, that’s pretty cool.

In November 2019, on a complete whim, I took a trip to the redwood forests in Humboldt. I decided I wanted to go at about 2pm on Friday, and by 3pm, I was out of lab, driving 6 hours from Stanford up to Eureka. From there, I drove to the redwood forests and took a short hike on The Miners’ Ridge and James Irvine Loop. I remember the late orange sun shining through the redwoods and the sweat on my brow and the cool ocean breeze and the ferns swaying among the lonely trunks. Most of the old growth redwoods were cut down by people looking for lumber - reasonable people, like you and me - in the shameful name of progress. That night, I stayed in an Airbnb down in Ferndale. It was my host’s first time hosting someone. She was a lovely lady - that next morning, she cooked me delicious toast with some locally produced jam while her children tended the rabbits and chickens and ducks in the backyard. During that breakfast she explained to me how the house was made many years ago in Victorian style out of pure redwood and how grateful she was to finally own a house that she and her family could call home.

And what strikes me the most is the symmetry, not the contrast, in the most personal sense possible - of my ability to cynically rationalize the structure of progress with history and philosophy and data, and of my human experience of growing small stupid plants and of connecting with people around me. I could be optimistic in my rationalization, or pessimistic in my stories, or I could choose normalcy in both, or any other combination.

Right now, a few Arabidopsis thaliana plants are germinating in my room under a small light in a metal wire box I bought off of Amazon. I purchased them because of floral dip protocols - there is a possiblity that I can instantiate a plant engineering pipeline that does not require tissue culture (which is hard), which would be easy for me to scale with Sporenet Lab’s Foundry system to people that could never have hoped to touch plant genetic engineering. I believe if I can pull off making a modular bacterial genome, I can pull off making a modular plant genome - to give humanity the control of the 1 thing that we have always depended on and may always depend on. To me, there is a sense of personal responsibility: if a modular plant, free from IP ownership and constraints on use, has not been created within 2 decades, I am to blame.

To me, the beauty in what we rationally build is no different than the beauty of the natural world. There are hundreds of well thought out and rational reasons why you might want to engineer plants in pursuit of progress and in pursuit of production. Unfortunately, those brillant ideas are for other people and other investors. I want to engineer plants because I think they are beautiful. Anything more is a rationalization. Although, in the end, is there a difference?

Keoni Gandall

(And from now on, I think I will add a song link to each essay that I use as my muse.)

(Muse) Jonathan Coulton - All This Time