At forth-five years of age, Pierre Gittleman’s laboratory is now also his bedroom; a cot lines one wall, along with a bedside table, reading lamp, writing desk and comfortable sitting chair. Not exactly a hermit, Pierre largely keeps his own company, his work too ambitious and potentially controversial to reveal to others.
The past ten years marks enormous progress in his quest to reengineer humanity so it can cope with an earth that’s not what it’s been for the past 40 years, or for that matter, the last 800,000. But progress happens not in successive, sudden leaps but at a slow, grinding pace. The problems inherent in creating Homo botanicus are prodigious, namely cranking evolution backwards to before the separation of plants and animals while maintaining the currently beneficial character of both. The rooting problem, for example.
Plant tropism governs both rooting and the direction of direction growth. In this way, both gravity and sunlight act simultaneously upon most plants, producing responses that anchor plants with roots that also absorb and transmit water and nutrients and encourage growth of leaves or other sunlight absorbing tissues. Multicellular plants, in addition, maintain cell wall structures that provide cell protection, strength and flexibility as lignin and cellulose tissues, what we commonly call wood in trees, is added to each cell. In addition, each plant cell is connected to its neighbor through a structure devoted to that purpose, similar in purpose to the chemical communication connections at gaps between animal cells.
Living plant cells are protein rich, and like all proteins willfully pursue their agenda. That agenda, as it is in all living things on earth built with proteins, which with other substances such as amino acids form chromosomes and/or genes. Genes are not absolute, but rather more of a blueprint that can be, and often is, modified in its adaptation to living conditions. Over the course of millions of years, mutations have diversified the plant world exponentially, but the underlying core of plant protein imperatives remain active. His work is a contest of wills: Pierre’s and Mother Nature’s. No matter how diligently he tries to prevent it, his Kermits want to set down roots.
Alone, Pierre has taken to talking to himself, but wisely records his conversations. As he thinks out a problem and its possible solutions, his mind dissects his observations and ideas; having a recording helps him get back on track when he’s lost his way.
“OK, so you want to root, my little chimeric friend. Let’s talk about why. Is it your habit, who you are, or is it about what you want to be? Are roots literally making you feel secure, or as I might say grounded? Is your rooting simply a fixation or does it go deeper than that? Hmmm? What say you, little one?” Pierre’s respect for plants is so great he treats them like dear friends with an opinion.
Pierre’s convinced his problem is not that the plant kingdom doesn’t communicate, but that he simply does not understand, that nature’s language eludes him. The arrangement of white spots on a green stem of his favorite Gasteria plant, for example, what is it trying to tell him? His research and study have taught him that such leaf spot pattern arrangements are not genetically predetermined; to the contrary, their emergence within a gene-based, general design framework are random, indeterminate due to conditions of resonance between cells at the active point of growth. In other words, the appearance and location of white leaf spots is a reflection of how plant cells are reacting to their environment and are, or are not, getting along with each other. Freedom in that cellular relationship begins in the quantum realm, uncertain moments of choice or random operations of chance at the jittery, sometimes here – sometimes not subatomic level; the outcome is then revealed in the visible, varied arrangement of white spots. Turns out Albert Einstein was wrong; God does play dice with the universe.
Pierre is convinced that such spot patterns, as well as other aspects of plant morphology, represent a form of information, “The Morse Code of Heaven,” his father Leonard Gittleman called it, but Pierre’s been unable to crack and translate it, to be able to read nature’s source code like a book. He knows plants are communicating constantly; he’s desperate to understand what they’re saying.
Suddenly, as if responding to Pierre’s entreaties, the image of Kermit on his display changes; a small bud appears, usually precedent to root formation, but instead the bud retracts. It oscillates this way for several minutes, something Pierre has never seen before, as if Kermit’s cells are in the midst of making a choice.
“What are you doing, little one? What are you trying to tell me?” In a moment of excitement, Pierre grabs the sides of the small tank and begins to gently jostle it. The watery contents jiggle. The image of Kermit on the display jiggles too, and the budding oscillation stops. It hits Pierre: the rooting impulse seems to be connected to a lack of motion of the water in the tank. Move or root, Pierre intuits; the animal part of Kermit needs to move!
“Of course! OK! I get it!” Pierre exclaims, falling back into his chair, stunned by the sheer simplicity of his realization. He’s been focused so thoroughly on morphology that the resonant impact of environment and cellular relationships have slipped his attention. He suddenly knows exactly what his next steps must be; moving to his desk he begins to plan the redesign of Kermit’s environment, one based on motion in the watery tank rather than stability. It is precisely this alteration that changes everything about his project: freedom. Freedom of movement within a dynamic, watery medium, or for that matter any medium, is a determining factor in suppressing Kermit’s persistent rooting and is key to determining the optimum plant/animal balance of his chimeric hybrid. He feels foolish for not seeing it earlier.
“I am so blind. Of course! If the character of animal life is movement, then in order to subordinate the plant rooting tropism, promoting movement is essential. The animal element in my little friend needs more stimulation, its freedom tested and increased, not passively constrained. I am such a fool!” A wave of excitement accompanies Pierre’s feelings of foolishness. He feels that now he can make real progress.
“You showed me. I understand what you are saying. I’m beginning to crack your code, Kermit!” Uttering a line his father used to quote from an old movie, tears of joy on his cheeks, Pierre turns to the creature in the tank and speaks directly to it, “Kermit, I have the feeling this may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”