Green Light: Toward an Art of Evolution
by George Gessert
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010
192 pp., illus. 30 b/w. Trade, $24.95/£17.95
Reviewed by Craig Hilton
Unitec, New Zealand
Mt Albert, Auckland, New Zealand.
From George Gessert – artist, plant breeder, independent thinker and writer – a more than fascinating collection of notes about genetics and evolution in the context of art, and vice versa, and the aesthetic interventions of Homo sapiens. These chapters are connected by the underlying need for this species to consider more sustainable ways to live with and influence other living beings. Another option/ solution is presented in it's own chapter, The Angel of Extinction.
Before we can improve our relationship with nature, we must understand nature. Even 150 years after The Origin of the Species, natural selection is poorly understood, especially regarding Homo sapiens. All species (and individuals) are a selective force on all bordering species, some more so than others. Homo sapiens is no mean selective force, possibly ranking alongside temperature in its evolutionary effects, provoking the question; what selective forces are there that need to be assigned the adjective natural? The artificial distinction between natural and human is a key discussion point in Green Light. This is timely, as Homo sapiens, increasingly augmenting itself with technology, attempts mass-control of the rest of nature. The apparent success of this control provides the latest injection of confidence into the notion that this single species, in some way, stands apart from nature. Meanwhile, Gessert, in Green Light and in his distinctive genetic folk art practice, questions these anthropocentric tendencies and attempts to participate respectfully with nature — "The path to fulfilment involves growing beyond the infantile belief that we are more important than all other beings to the functioning and upholding of the universe." In Green Light, Gessert discusses the evolutionary selective force of human aesthetics on life focusing on domestic plants, the lifeform most important to him as an artist. Key to his work is the idea that domestication challenges any simplistic dualistic analysis of our relationship to nature.
The misunderstanding of nature goes beyond dualism. Not only are we apart from nature, nature somehow has our well being at heart — "If it is natural, it must be good for you." In Naming Life, Gessert tells the story of Adam's naming of animals. According to Genesis, humans lie between God and nature and God has made nature useful for Adam and his descendants. The Doctrine of Signatures asserts that plants are endowed with signs in order to indicate their intended use. Even King David puzzles about this elect species, in Psalms 8:
"What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea…"
Does this one cosmically self-aware species now control nature? In 1950, Julian Huxley suggested that the trusteeship of evolution now belongs to humans, who have "the duty and privilege...to continue...the advance of the cosmic process of evolution." Is this arrogance, or have we become trans-human as Huxley suggests?
The hyped promises of genetic technology feed our anthropocentrism. A newish Tower of Babel, Synthetic Biology, which certainly has its uses (e.g. vaccine production), carries with it an idealistic and anthropocentric discourse that cross-disciplinary engineers, seemingly ignorant of biology, bring to it. For instance, from syntheticbiology.org —"Synthetic biologists are trying to assemble unnatural components to support Darwinian evolution" In what way does evolution need or ask for support? Craig Ventor did not create life (Mycoplasma laboratorium) as he claimed and the media parroted. He merely copied, without understanding, billions of years of evolution (a timescale not available to 21st century bio-engineers) borrowing a cell to house his copy. In contrast, Gessert tells the amusing history of attempts to breed a blue rose citing a Kipling poem where love is doomed (and possibly reproductive potential) because of the unavailability (perhaps impossibility) of a blue rose.
Green Light tackles a pre-Darwinian mis-location of Homo sapiens apart from nature — "No more powerful blow has ever been delivered [by The Origin of the Species] to human exceptionalism and to the faith that we are outside nature and, like God, immortal." A blow, perhaps as yet unnoticed. Anthropocentrism, Gessert argues, is a recent and Western construct, delaying the full impact of The Origin of the Species. Darwin used how we select for traits in domestic animals to help explain natural selection. As a child Gessert had a revelation of himself as an animal, helping him understand his place in the world. Gessert's art practice blurs species distinctions. In breeding hybrids, nature's continuum becomes more apparent – between species, from domesticated to wild, from non-human to human. Plant breeders are among the earliest genetic artists (Delphinium Blooms, Edward Steichn, MOMA, 1936). It is a frustrating Slow Art that Gessert describes, much like evolution itself, but unlike evolution it is contemplative. Gessert hopes that bio-artists may contribute to how we, armed with self-awareness and technological power, may improve our relationship with other living beings. We should pay careful attention to artists, such as Gessert, who must certainly be in a position to help mature our thinking in this regard. As Gessert reminds us — our fate hinges on it.