Friday, June 20, 2014

Creatura - The Sentient Seaweed (the Extended Version)

Live scan of an unidentified seaweed - 2014, DS
Note: This scan is a product of a new flatbed scanner... which, apparently had difficulties
reading the black background, hence the weird color artifacts (unfortunately intensified online).
I've tried - and failed - to correct it. Sorry.
(click to enlarge)

creature |ˈkrē ch ər|
an animal, as distinct from a human being : night sounds of birds and other creatures.
• an animal or person : as fellow creatures on this planet, animals deserve respect.
• a fictional or imaginary being, typically a frightening one : a creature from outer space.
• archaic anything living or existing : dress, jewels, and other transitory creatures.
• a person of a specified kind, typically one viewed with pity, contempt, or desire : you heartless creature!
• a person or organization considered to be under the complete control of another : the village teacher was expected to be the creature of his employer.

ORIGIN Middle English (in the sense [something created] ): via Old French from late Latin creatura, from the verb creare (see create).

"In the philosophy of consciousness, sentience can refer to the ability of any entity to have subjective perceptual experiences, or as some philosophers refer to them, "qualia". This is distinct from other aspects of the mind and consciousness, such as creativity, intelligence, sapience, self-awareness, and intentionality (the ability to have thoughts "about" something). Sentience is a minimalistic way of defining consciousness, which is otherwise commonly used to collectively describe sentience plus other characteristics of the mind.

Some philosophers, notably Colin McGinn, believe that sentience will never be understood, a position known as "new mysterianism". They do not deny that most other aspects of consciousness are subject to scientific investigation but they argue that subjective experiences will never be explained; i.e., sentience is the only aspect of consciousness that can't be explained. Other philosophers (such as Daniel Dennett) disagree, arguing that all aspects of consciousness will eventually be explained by science."

- Excerpt from the Wiki entry on sentience.


The summer solstice (the pagan holiday of Lithia) approaches, and with it, my inevitable trips to the shore. Sometimes there's an agenda; mostly there isn't. But, when the ocean calls, it never needs to leave a message; I just get in my car - sans towels and sunblock lotion... sans beach blankets, beach balls,  beverage coolers and lounge chairs. I'm there for meditative purposes, investigative purposes, or, more generally, no purpose at all. The ocean calls, and that's enough.

Last week, however, there was a method to my madness as I plodded along the sandbars. My mission was to gather bits of seaweed for an image I was trying to rework and, hopefully, finish. Normally sea plants hold no interest for me, but, for the image, I needed the seaweed's specific organic contours...

The one shown above almost looks like human lung tissue in the scan... which is not what I was looking for at the time, but - in that special way that the sea trumps all expectations - it became the perfect lief-motif for a deeper inquiry, and, hence, the star of this post.

First off - and I didn't know this for sure till I googled it - the seaweed is not a plant. Which is not to say I didn't realize this in some fashion, when I first held this unidentified branch of sea-life in the palm of my hand, because, weirdly enough, something about it made me nervous. Consciously I could recognize it as seaweed - and, reasonably, it was just a small portion, not the whole plant - so I wasn't killing anything (!) - but I detected something else. It's as if my sentience was scanning its sentience before it hit the surface of my flatbed scanner... and it didn't really "feel" like a plant. It was not, for instance, something I'd eat, although, no, I'm not a vegetarian. 

So, in spite of their names, seaweeds are not weeds at all. They are, in fact, algae. But, strangely enough, beyond the term "organism" there is no exact definition as to what algae actually is. Go figure. It is described as a plant-like eukaryote... but, then, pretty much all living creatures - including plants and humans - are eukaryotic.

But, it got me to thinking - call it a "hobby" -  about sentience and creaturehood. Because, ultimately, in the absence of brains, blood and mammalian body tissue - a set of baby-blue eyes, for instance -  how do we determine sentience? At what point does living matter reveal its essential creaturehood? Does it have to quote Shakespeare, present a credit card and show several forms of ID?

No, of course not. We know a dog is a sentient creature; it wags its tail and yelps in hopes you'll feed it. Fish, well, maybe not so much - fish do not, after all, possess limped brown eyes and a winning smile. By this we might gather that sentience is present in some creatures more than others, and quantified by degree; degree of engagement with us, participation in our agenda... and placement on the "food chain".

But, I swear I had an exotic fish once who reacted to music - he was a fan of Joni Mitchell - and watched TV...**

Is there really a hierarchy of sentience, and is it really found on a "food chain"? Is it a fact that creatures of higher intelligence and advanced sentience make meals out of those who inhabit the "lower" echelons?

Not really. Let's face it, microscopic parasites can make short work of just about anything - but it's unlikely you'll be electing a virus into public office any time too soon. (I said unlikely, not impossible). Besides which, (logically) it would follow, that an advanced extra-terrestrial race visiting this planet, for example, are less likely to befriend us, and more apt to toss us, our families, (and the family pooch) into a salad.... something like the "algae" below.

So, I guess we're back to this: what determines sentience?  Ultimately, might the true "degree" of ones own sentience be determined by ones ability to detect (and respond) to the sentience - the creatura - and/or a variety thereof, that exists in other organisms?

Just wondering...

A seaweed salad found here.

* Scrolling down the Wiki entry for sentience you will find:
"Sentience quotient:
The sentience quotient concept was introduced by Robert A. Freitas Jr. in the late 1970s. It defines sentience as the relationship between the information processing rate of each individual processing unit (neuron), the weight/size of a single unit, and the total number of processing units (expressed as mass). It was proposed as a measure for the sentience of all living beings and computers from a single neuron up to a hypothetical being at the theoretical computational limit of the entire universe. On a logarithmic scale it runs from −70 up to +50."

(?(Something tells me it was an abject failure.)

** In a timely fashionthis just in from Graham Hancock's news page: Are Fish As Intelligent As Crows, Chimps... Or People?


... And then again, over at boingboing, Xeni Jardin just posted (July 1st) this fairly awesome video of one innovative - and fashionable - little lovebird.

Note: An interesting article about the human digestion of seaweed, can be found here: "Japanese Guts Are Made for Sushi".


Secrets of a Cryptomonad...

"A UNSW Australia-led team of researchers has discovered how algae that survive in very low levels of light are able to switch on and off a weird quantum phenomenon that occurs during photosynthesis. The function in the algae of this quantum effect, known as coherence, remains a mystery, but it is thought it could help them harvest energy from the sun much more efficiently."

In the better-late-than-never dept. (7/5/14): I don't know how I missed this, but, Greg Taylor, over at the Daily Grail posted a link to this article last week (the source of the quote above)Quantum biology: Algae evolved to switch quantum coherence on and off.

No, the article doesn't refer to seaweed, but, instead, refers to a Cryptomonad and/or Cryptophyte (photo sourced from the same linked page), a one-celled algae

Ah, but what circuitous lives we lead, because it was this very Creatura which inspired the star of this post: Creating Art: a Mediumistic Experience.


  1. Amazing amazing post! I love the "how do we determine sentience? At what point does living matter reveal its essential creaturehood? Does it have to quote Shakespeare, present a credit card and show several forms of ID?" also the photo is great - and the Sentience Quotient, well, let us just say that looks like a bit of linear thinking to me. This post, however, was not. :)

    1. Thanks muchly, sweets. The creatura concept is likely to spawn another post or two. Stay tuned... and fasten your safety belts! ;-)

      Ah, yes, The Sentience Quotient... a perfect example of just about everything that's wrong with science. And let's face it, those who stick to the linear are those who can't handle the lateral... and they are, most certainly, fighting a losing battle.

    2. PS I just added a Wiki link for "new mysterianism"... very cool.
      (I love Wiki - the holy grail for lateral thinkers!)

    3. On the other hand, the problem with lateral thinking is that the "journey" tends to become the destination. In the last analysis, when trying to reach a concrete goal, linear thinking is probably the way to go... which is next to impossible for a lateral tinker! ;-)

  2. Not sure - I think lateralists can reach a kind of Moebius strip point of linearity. Check out my post on original great sites of the Web, 'The Strip'