‘ , ‘ /~` mediums,.’_ ” bodies,.’_ ” ° ∞ logs,∞ ‘ , ‘ /~` ‘ holes, .’ `-. ` .’ — °habitats / /`
‘ * ‘-‘ . ‘ , ‘ /~`want to feel (,) you inside \| * . . * * \| * . . *./. .-. ~ .’ ‘ , ‘ /~` ❅ ☼ ~

Understories

 


Scott F. Gilbert

Department of Biology, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA USA
Finland Distinguished Professor, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

and


Sarah R. Gilbert

Art Field Group, Pitzer College, Claremont, CA USA

The most commonly told story of modern art and science in the so-called West is one of
increasing divergence. If the Renaissance was defined by Di Vincian polymaths equally engaged
across fields of anatomy, art, and engineering, the Enlightenment ushered in the logic of
specialization. As the arts, sciences, and humanities became distinctly siloed in their methods, so
the story goes, “scientific reasoning” also became a dominant social ideology. No longer one
possible framework amongst others— a method of analysis more or less appropriate to a given
problem— scientific reasoning instead became the unacknowledged assumption structuring
modern thinking, living, and even governing. Within such a story, art and science most often
struggle as dueling forces. Within such a story, contemporary artistic practice would seem to
demand relentless, oppositional critique to the scientific worldview.  
There is another story though, which can be pulled from the threads of each field’s internally
defining, and occasionally cross-pollinating, struggles. This is not a story about art and science
as oppositional practices, but rather of their parallel negotiations and generative resonances. It is
a story that unfolds between the autonomy of the work of art and the genetic isolation of discrete
organisms.  And it is a story that brings into focus overlapping tensions between abstraction and
materiality, the universal and the particular, and the all-important question of what spaces remain
open to wonder and contingency. Perhaps most vitally, it is a story that aims, not to distill some
descriptive unifying history between these fields, but rather to speculatively explore what
connections these reverberating struggles might open in our present.

Plasticity
In biology, the focus on organs, organisms, and environments, prominent in the 19th century,
shifted to a focus on genes, as biology became a science of "information, communication,
automation, and systems theory." 1 Evolution went from being the paleontological reconstruction
of ancient fossils to becoming the mathematical analysis of gene frequencies. Embryology went
from being a science of organisms and tissues, to becoming the cellular readout of inherited
genes. But this 20th century view of life, where abstraction provides certainty and the unity
beneath appearances, is being replaced. While many programs in biology continue from one

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century to the next, the biology of the 21st Century stands in stark contrast to the biology of the
20th Century. The reductionist analytical tools of the late 1990s have, ironically, revealed a
world where processes are more critical than entities and where "competition cannot be separated
from numerous flavors of cooperation" 2 . Processes from the periphery of biology have moved
toward the center. These processes include plasticity, mutualistic symbiosis, and extinction.

The Twentieth Century has been called "The Century of the Gene," bracketed at one end by
the rediscovery of Mendel's mathematical "laws" of inheritance and at the other end by the
sequencing of a human genome 3 . It was an incredibly productive and exciting century, a time
when the discovery of DNA structure explained how biological inheritance could be transmitted
through physical molecules, a time when the elucidation of the genetic code enabled us to
understand how proteins were made and how metabolism sustained life, and a time when the
evolutionary relationships of animals and plants could be elucidated by comparing their DNA
sequences.
However, molecular tools revealed that the genome does not encode for a particular outcome,
a particular phenotype. Rather, the genome is a repertoire of possible phenotypes. The sex of a
turtle, for instance, is not controlled by genes, but by temperature (making it vulnerable to global
climate change). Organisms evolved to respond to different environments by activating different
genes. Many organisms alter their development when the embryo or larva senses a predator.
Such organisms will channel their development to make defensive structures (such as larger
muscles, bigger bodies, or lymphocytes), often at the expense of reproductive organs that won't
get used until later. In mammals, a pregnant mother's diet can affect the genes active in her
offspring's liver. Plasticity is not peripheral to life; it is a characteristic of life 4 . The view that
Richard Dawkins proposed, where organisms are just survival machines for the genes that built
them, is so twentieth-century. The environment and organisms have agency, as well as the genes.
Some of the most incredibly plastic organisms are the social amoebae, often known as slime
molds. These are single-celled organisms that eat bacteria they find on the dead leaves of a forest
or field. But when the bacteria are no longer plentiful, the single cells undergo a dramatic
change. They link together, forming streams, then aggregates, then large masses containing tens
of thousands of cells. The cells within these masses organize--some become leaders, some
become followers, and the new composite organism starts migrating. When it reaches a sunlit
spot, migration ceases and the leading cells form a stalk, hoisting upward the posterior cells.
These posterior cells become spores, shutting down their metabolism and acquiring a hard shell.
These spores are then dispersed on the wind, possibly to find new logs where the bacteria are
plentiful. The stalk cells die, having sent the spores on their way 5 . Here, the environment--food
availability--has changed many starving single-celled organisms into a single multicellular
organism that can create new cell types that promote its survival.
Mutualistic symbiosis
The biology of the 20 century rested on two pillars it acquired from late 19th century
biology: a competitive model of evolution and the view that bacteria and viruses are predators.
Bacteria and viruses were declared to be outlaws, dangers to our pure, but susceptible bodies.
The past century saw the eradication or taming of some of humanity's most virulent scourges--

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smallpox, Rubella, polio, diphtheria, and whooping cough, among them. But as microbiology
became a medical science, the knowledge and study of most microbes, non-pathogenic microbes,
was vanished to the periphery. However, in the early years of the 21st century, detailed
molecular accounts of animal development and health announced that normal development and
normal health depended on having "good" bacteria. Mutualistic symbiosis--the ability of
organisms of different species to cooperate for their mutual good-- is the signature of life on this
planet 6 .
Lichens, of course, are exemplary symbioses of algae and fungi. Lichens don't exist without
the algae and at least two species of fungi coming together 7 . The fungi give the algae a place to
reside; the algae can perform photosynthesis, giving food to the common organism. But lichens
are only the most obvious example of plant-fungal symbioses. Most trees have symbioses
between their roots and mycorrhizal fungi. Such fungi are like drinking straws for the roots.
Extending the roots of the aspen, they bring in nearly 90% of the tree's phosphorus and 80% of
its nitrogen. The tree provides the fungus with the sugars that its leaves make through
photosynthesis 8 . Cooperation must take its place beside competition. Mycorrhizal fungus is
essential when replanting pine forests and may be critical in its surviving climate change 9 .
Sometimes, reproductive fruiting bodies-- Matsutake and chanterelle mushrooms-- appear out of
these underground fungal mats. Algae are also important symbionts. In animals, algae are
critical symbionts in coral. Here, they sustain the coral by providing it with sugars and oxygen.
The coral, in turn, forms the basis for the entire reef ecosystem.
But the most critical symbionts are bacteria, and among them are the organisms responsible for
our planet's life--Cyanobacteria, the photosynthetic blue-green bacteria. About 3 billion years
ago, these organisms caused the Great Oxygenation Event, pouring oxygen into the atmosphere
for nearly a billion years. About 25% of the oxygen in our atmosphere today is the product of
their continued photosynthesis 10 . One species, Prochlorococcus marinus, may be the most
abundant organism on the planet, there are around 3 octillion of them (3 x 10 27 , about as many as
there are atoms in a ton of gold). These bacteria can be a blessing or a curse for the future
inhabitant of earth. As symbionts, Cyanobacteria-plant complexes appear responsible for
creating much of the biologically usable nitrogen in the northern Atlantic ocean 11 . Important and
unseen, some of the these photosynthetic cyanobacteria once participated in the grandest
symbiotic feat of all time, invading cells to become the photosynthesizing chloroplasts that
enable the life of plants, and thus of animals and fungi 12 . However, the warming of polluted
water can also initiate zones of explosive cyanobacteria growth, which has caused the death of
hundreds of thousands of fish. Context determines how we view any organism.
Symbioses also form the basis of animal life. We think of cows and termites as eating grass
and wood. However, the genomes of neither of them have any genes that allow them to digest
these plant cell walls. Rather, the digestion of cellulose and wood is done by communities of
microbes living inside their guts. About 50% of the cells in the human body are bacterial, and we
usually acquire them as we pass through the birth canal or get held. These symbionts don't just
travel with us. They help finish building our capillaries, our nervous system, and our immune
system. And once we develop, they help keep us going, helping to keep our immune systems
and nervous systems functioning 13 . We are never individuals in the old sense. Each of us in not
only an organism, we are also a biome, a collection of ecosystems. The name for our bodies,

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including both the zygote-derived cells and the symbionts, is "holobiont", the bodily consortium
of several species 14 .
We are all lichens, partnerships that are necessary for survival. Twenty-first century biology
has become a science emphasizing reciprocal relationships and processes, not entities. The new
centers of life are cyanobacteria, lichens, mycorrhizae and coral.

Extinction and survival
Whereas 19th century and 20th century biology had assumed lush and vibrant ecosystems,
Twenty-first century biology is a catalogue of continuing loss. We live in the Age of the Sixth
Extinction 15 , the Anthropocene, not in the robust nature of Darwin or von Humboldt. In the past
50 years, more than 97% percent of bluefin tuna are gone and probably 80% of all flying insects.
Our narratives of nature went from those of a dramatic novel to those approaching apocalyptic
horror. "There are the functional extinctions, the extinction cascades, the extinction
vortices...Relationships unravel, mutualities falter, dependence becomes a peril rather than a
blessing, and whole worlds of knowledge and practice diminish. We are looking at worlds of loss
that are much greater than the species extinction numbers suggest" 16 . Biologists are left studying
DNA sequences and the sickened survivors of an ongoing mass extinction. Biologists who have
studied a certain species for decades mark the extinction its last member and become "speakers
for the dead" 17 .
The organisms becoming emblematic of the Anthropocene are fungi. Lacking the locomotion
of animals and the photosynthesis of plants, fungi are the archetypal detritovores, metabolizing
dead animals and plants back into soil. Throughout the West, they have been emblematic of
decay and degeneration. Now, they are being revitalized as emblems of the obstinance,
resourcefulness, and regeneration. For Anna Tsing 18 , fungi are the embodiment of sisu: clever,
resilient survivors. Fungi are moving from the periphery to the center of biology. They know
how to play with others to form holobionts, and they can live at the extremes and in depleted
environments. As the extreme becomes the new normal, we behold fungi.
And yet, fungi have not traditionally been given much space in either biological science or
the fine arts. Neither political humans, active animals, nor beautiful plants, they defy easy
definition and so are found only lurking in the margins. Stroll a few blocks from Kiasma to the
Ateneum and view Ferdinand von Wright's 1886 masterpiece, The Fighting Capercaillies. It is
Darwinian sexual selection at its climax: the contest between two taut cocks, their feathers
flying, being observed by us and, more importantly, by the well-camouflaged hen in the
background. But look in the foreground, on the fallen birch. There is a third observer, a
beautifully rendered polypore fungus, quietly converting the dead tree into soil while the animals
perform their frenetic mating ritual. The contest is framed by a perimeter of Cladonia,
Hypogymnia, and Rhizocarpacae lichens. Alma Heikkilä brings these same fungi and lichens to
the center of her work, not only through descriptive observational rendering, but also through the
generative operations of her creative practice. Heikkilä does not shape inert matter into some
predetermined abstract form, but rather facilitates a space in which we’re able to perceive the
inherent liveliness of these materials and the force of their comings-together.

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Fungi are marked by ambivalence. While some fungi are necessary symbionts of lichens and
pines, other, pathogenic fungi are the agents of putrescence and death. Fungal pathogens are
spreading rapidly throughout the warming world, leaving dead forests and dead amphibians in
their wake 19 . Mycosphaerella pini, which kills Scots pine, had not been seen in Finland before
2009, when it arrived here from central Europe 20 .
Nature has changed, and with it, humanity. Says Tanya Steele, chief executive of the World
Wildlife Fund 21 , "We are the first generation to know we are destroying the planet and the last
one that can do anything about it." We have helped make the world safe for fungi; we are
causing the Sixth Mass Extinction on this planet; and we bear the anxiety that we may have
become our own executioners.
To be sure, responsibility is not shared equally. As Heschel 22 said, "In a free society some
are guilty, but all are responsible." Can and how do we redeem ourselves? Can art and science,
together, support an ethic of "being in right relationship" and "becoming with the other"? 23 And if
it can, will it matter? Is this new relationship we recognize in symbiotic earth, Gaea, mirrored in
our holobiont bodies, which are themselves, complex ecosystems? Becoming with the other
always involves recognition, maturation, and transformation. "Relationship between all things
appears to be complex and reciprocal, always at least two- way, back and forth. It seems that
nothing is single in this universe, and nothing goes one way." 24 In the hidden parliaments of the
earth, in the grand interactions of the understory beneath our feet, in the accumulated wisdom of
slime molds, mushrooms, lichens, and cyanobacteria, may reside the stories of reciprocity,
cooperation, competition, and integration we need for survival. Can art and science, together,
mediate that?
Acknowledgements: We wish to thank Satu Oksanen for this invitation, and we thank Elina
Lehtinen, Vincent Formica, and Donna Haraway for their perceptive emails and critiques.