A Lonely Leaf

Complex fractal vein branching patterns of a single leaf. (Photo by Mark Boucher)

Imagine, you – as a thinly veiled metaphor for early primate consciousness – are wondering the lonely, empty landscape of ignorant oblivion at the beginning of our species’ sentient awakening. You are not aware of your passage through space and time and subjectivity and introspection are, for now, well beyond of your reach.  Now let’s propose that in this hinterland you found a leaf. Let’s also imagine that you’ve never seen one before. Ever. I know, I know. But pretend, if you can. The leaf in isolation provides you with little information beyond that of its physical form: its shape and colour. You know and understand nothing of its inner workings.

Later, with the basic comprehension that the lonely leaf provided fresh in your rapidly evolving memory, you find another leaf, but this time it is attached to a branch. You now discover that you have a little bit more information, visual and potentially behavioral, about what exactly the leaf has evolved to do, even though at this stage you understand nothing of the theory of evolution by natural selection. You now realise that the leaf is part of a larger whole, the stick, but yet you still understand little of the why the leaf, and now the stick exist, aside from the basic fact that they do. Your unwillingly ignorant self cannot yet process the deeper philosophical connotations of this curious observation.

You then stumble across a tree. The tree encompasses many sticks, all playing host to many more leaves. The complexity of the information that you are processing is increasing, as is your understanding of it. You realize that the tree is the sum of its constituent parts, and you may even take a purely hypothetical, completely untestable philosophical stab-in-the-dark at how it works, and why it’s here. You may be right, but it’s unlikely at this stage as all your conjecturing and hypothesising is based on incomplete evidence and basic observational logic. Nevertheless, a guiding torch of rationality has been lit; the match, human curiosity.

You now begin to appreciate the role of the whole organism within the environment – the leaves feed other animals, animals that you in turn can eat. Its fruit can also feed you and your family. You surmise, completely logically, that bigger fruit means more food. You begin to postulate the mechanisms behind what makes fruit bigger, and attempt to exploit this fact to your advantage. You may now also realise that trees only grow in the sun and with sufficient nutrients, and determine that sunlight and fertiliser are directly involved in the process of providing this organism with vitality. Your understanding is increasing, going beyond the purely visible, physical structure of the tree, and into the biology, into the inner workings of the organism. Through trail-and-error and basic observational analysis, agriculture is now within your grasp.

But increasing information doesn’t necessarily correspond to increasing spatial scale. The microscopic sphere increases the possible complexity of the organism by several orders of magnitude. You can uncover the organs and cells of the plant and their constituent parts, right down to the smallest, subatomic particle. You discover that the tree harbours the ability to harvest energy by using photons to split molecules of carbon dioxide and water to form complex sugars and that it emits a metabolic waste product in the form of oxygen gas.

The trend towards increasing complexity continues when you discover that you can increase your computational abilities beyond that of your own intelligence by passing complex tasks on to other organisms, in our case computers, that are better equipped to deal with this greater complexity, thus revealing more and more information, and more and more levels of complexity and interconnectedness. Organic ‘coding’ (DNA) is discovered, and the organism can now be artificially modified and genetically engineered by using our outsourced processing units to suit the basic requirements of an increasingly populous species. Drought and pesticide resistant, larger and more rapidly growing than before, we have altered the properties of the now unrecognisable organism by unnatural selection, not in order for the organism to best exploit its environment, but rather to assist us in exploiting ours. We have moved on from being absorbers of information, to manipulators and creators; we have taken the leap from observational to applied-intelligence.

Our understanding of the complexity of this organism, and by implication the path of discovery itself, has been fuelled by the comprehension of ever increasing information marching in evolutionary tandem with our increasing abilities in information processing. Increased information input, naturally selects for increased processing and computation abilities, if that means that the organism will be better adapted to survive and flourish in its environment. If so, gradually increasing intelligence will eventually culminate in a sentient, highly intelligent species.

That’s us. You and me. Humans: borne from the information gleamed from a lonely leaf.

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