Part of our Euro white man view of the world is assuming that everything has to be made by some kind of technician or craftsmen. Thus, we assume that humans were made by God, though we know such a “person” is impossible. No one made the planet. It was self-assembled, responding to forces quite unlike what humans do to make things.

So now “self-assembly” has become a Kuhnian paradigm shift and we begin to speak of life itself as dynamically “unfolding” or inflating. It kind of hurts our feelings not to be world-makers after all, but we should be more hurt by realizing how much we’ve done that was wrong-headed simply because our grammar is based on the idea of doing something to something else instead of participating, contributing, or observing. We should be more bird watchers. No one can make a bird except another two birds.

This thought experiment is a little long, but it’s worth it.

Imagine ordering a remote-controlled model car, and it arrives in a big box that says ‘Some assembly required’ on the back. When you open the box, you find hundreds of different parts, none labelled, and no instruction booklet to help you put the pieces together. A daunting task confronts you, not mainly a problem of the nimbleness or strength of your fingers. Its difficulty lies in not knowing what goes where. A carefully written instruction manual, with diagrams and labels on all the parts would be of great value, of course, but only because you could see the diagrams and read the instructions and labels. If you were sent the Russian instruction manual, it would be almost useless if you didn’t know how to read Russian. (You’d also have to know how to attach Tab A to slot B, and thread nut 17 onto bolt 95.)

But then you spot a slip of paper that instructs you to put all the parts into a large kettle of water on the stove, heat the water to a low boil, and stir. You do this, and to your amazement the parts begin to join together into small and then larger assemblies, with tabs finding their slots, bolts finding their holes, and nuts spinning onto those bolts, all propelled by the random roiling of the boiling water. In a few hours, your model car is assembled and, when you dry it off, it runs smoothly. A preposterous fantasy, of course, but it echoes the ‘miracle’ of life that takes a DNA parts list and instruction book and, without any intelligent assembler’s help, composes a new organism with millions of moving parts, all correctly attached to each other.

We already have a brilliant and detailed account of how the list of ingredients — the genes for proteins — gets read and executed, thanks to those remarkable machines, the ribosomes, the chaperonins and others, and we’re making great progress on how the DNA also provides assembly instructions. Won’t this bottom-up research path, which has been so successful, eventually reveal the details of all the processes that do the work in the imaginary pot of hot water? Is this really a problem?

Bioneers have been onto this idea for a while, but they may still be vulnerable to another little glitch, which is thinking that codes and objects have intentions and feelings. It’s a switch that may come with converting ideas to stand-alones but still resisting that they simply develop or relate without being intentional. It’s really just a literary gimmick to think that a broom wants to sweep because that’s its purpose or that a flower wants to bloom because that’s its intent rather than from the reactions of chemicals in a particular setting. A red rose is not sad if it withers — WE are sad and projecting our emotion into a plant.

And yet plants seem to have many abilities to communicate through mycelia or odors or hydraulic swelling. They can turn towards the sun. Mushrooms — neither quite plant nor animal — can form communities with trees and exchange the codes of atoms through tiny filaments in contact with each other. They have no INTENTION of doing it. The event just develops from what is available and the processes that move them. Because we can only think through the nature of ourselves, the way we are — we imagine “fairy rings” guided by tiny little magic people, the same way we once thought brains worked because they had a little tiny man in there though it was unclear how he operated unless he had an even tinier man in his own head.

It is often said that primal people, indigenous people, think every object has a soul and a way of thinking and so on. But what they really knew was that everything had POTENTIAL, the possibility of things happening — that’s good to keep. Someone had to look at a piece of flint and see an arrowhead in it, just like the sculptor saw his subject in a block of marble or the basketmaker saw willow sticks and their potential for being woven into baskets, whether they wanted to or not. It might take a bit of soaking to “get them to agree to being a basket.” That’s one example that is latent in something without a mind but can be described as though it had intentions.

Living things like plants don’t have minds, but someone might see the potential of espaliering a plant against a warm wall for looks and production without it ever “signing on” to make a pattern or produce peaches. Of course, seeing the potential in another human being and acting in a way to develop it, possibly by creating an environment regardless of who benefits, is the work of teachers and good managers. Then the student or worker assembles themselves. No need to throw them in hot water. It’s not about soup. Soup doesn’t yearn to be soup. That was a fantasy to make a point.

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Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.