Imagine an alien observer of the early Earth, seeing a plant emerging from the ground for the first time. Up until now, the observer’s telescopic sights have only picked up a dull rocky landscape of greys, ochres, browns and blacks. But now, as if out of nothing, a green shoot appears: curvy leaves unfurl, expanding upwards and outwards to form an unearthly shaped, curiously smooth body, coloured all over in a lurid green. More shoots sprout, creating leaf after leaf, and branch after branch, until soon a strange-looking multi-tiered construction emerges, looming improbably over the ground, as if in defiance of the laws of gravity and entropy. So strikingly and indescribably unlike the rocks and minerals of the planet’s natural state, this newcomer might seem like an arrival from a science-fiction fantasy.
But the new arrival is not necessarily some alien organism crash-landed from outer space, or an aberrational geometry emerging from a hidden dimension, but is simply an earth-born vegetable technology that makes itself up as it goes along.
The characteristic structures – the fractal-like branching of stems and veins, the unwinding spiral angles of the leaves and petals, and the intricate reproductive apparatus – were all somehow pre-programmed and packed inside a tiny little seed.
The plant is almost like a natural little autonomous machine, transporting nutrients up from the soil, breathing in and out oxygen and carbon dioxide, and unfurling its leaves like solar panels collecting energy from the nearest star.
Consider its engineering ingenuity: the leaves carefully cantilevered out from the stem, the stem itself that must bear all the weight of the plant, and transmit it to the ground, and the roots that keep the whole plant anchored in the soil. The plant’s fibre has a great strength to weight ratio, that can outperform human-made materials. Consider the bamboo, with its hollow circular stem, that allows it to be as strong as possible in resisting bending in any direction, while minimising self-weight. It is no wonder that bamboo – and timber – are used by humans in their constructions: one might imagine that these natural materials were ‘ready-made’ for humans to assemble into useful things.
We routinely take for granted these miraculous vegetable constructions, that are so handy for human purposes. But just imagine an alternative, alien world in which there was only one kind of living being. Then, everything this alien being would wish to make would have to be constructed – ‘alien-made’ – from alien-invented materials, the alien equivalents of bricks and glass and steel and concrete. And the aliens would also need to invent for themselves something like a tree if they wanted a kind of branchy feathery airy thing to stand outside their alien house for shading against harsh starshine, for cleaning the air, for leaning gardening tools against, or for hiding in. Earthlings are blessed, in that nature has provided us with many readily useful plants – like building-material-plants and garden-carpeting-plants and ornamental-plants – that we can make use of, without having had to dream them up and construct them first.
But we can also imagine another kind of alien world, which has a greater exploitation of its natural resources, by breeding, evolving and otherwise genetically engineering a whole new range of living things to serve their purposes.
Imagine an alien society that grows itself not only plants for food or construction, but for any kind of consumer product. So, sport-loving aliens can play football not with a pig’s bladder, but a specially evolved pig’s-bladder-plant – or a soccer-tree whose fruits are footballs. Scholarly aliens can write using bird-free genetically engineered feathers, dipped in organic ink, on the surface of the continuous-harvest paper-scroll plant.
And instead of cutting down organisms and chopping them up to create buildings to live in, they can simply grow their own homes. A range of house-plants is available, which start growing as posts and then sprout joists and roof-beams. A separate species of rooftiles grows on the roof as naturally as moss on a tree trunk; tatami-plants grow over the floor, while the ceilings hang with light-emitting lamp-fruits.
To such an alien civilisation, this level of vegetable technology could be seen as the hallmark of advancement. But by this standard, humans might be seen as mostly stuck back in one of the pre-organic technological eras – the stone age, the iron age, or the silicon age.
The Earth may be mostly made of stone, iron and silicon, but to an alien observer, the arrival of strange green organisms on the planetary landscape must surely be the most significant visible indicator of the planet’s technological advancement.
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