There's no such thing as a tree
May 9, 2021 4:45 PM   Subscribe

Carcinization - everything evolves into a crab.
Dendronization - everything evolves into a tree.

Alien spaceship millions of years from now.
"Away team, report your findings on planet Sol 3"
"It's too late for us, Captain, it's a planet full of crab/tree hybrids, save yourselves!"
posted by otherchaz at 5:09 PM on May 9 [23 favorites]

Acknowledge that all of our categories are weird and a little arbitrary
Words to live by, IMO
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:33 PM on May 9 [17 favorites]

As I have said previously plants are BONKERS. They do not care for your "categories" or your "reductionism". When some trees germinate, if the soil will take a tap root they'll grow into a tree and make seeds, if it won't, they'll just grow along the ground and ejaculate into the wind. Fuck off, that's why, you can't tell me what to do. And that's the SAME SPECIES.
posted by Horkus at 5:36 PM on May 9 [33 favorites]

This is great. Enjoyed sentences such as, "A mulberry (left) is not related to a blackberry (right). They just… both did that."
posted by latkes at 6:21 PM on May 9 [16 favorites]

The throwaway line at the end is what's going to capture my imagination for a while: "fish might not be a thing, but it's a strategy". Yeah! Living in the water, being, well, fish-shaped, is a strategy for living! There are sub-strategies involving eating fish vs plants vs bugs, sub-strategies for reproduction, size, and all the other things we think of when we think taxonomy. Is this "strategy" idea in actual use anywhere? I'd love to read more about it.
posted by dbx at 6:26 PM on May 9 [19 favorites]

Trees keep happening because up there is where the sunshine is coming from, duh.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:28 PM on May 9 [8 favorites]

If you like this, you'll love the Triangle of U. Did you know that a rutabaga is a cross between a turnip and a cabbage?

Also, the first known "trees" were actually fungi.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:46 PM on May 9 [9 favorites]

Metafilter: Just grow along the ground and ejaculate into the wind.
posted by Kabanos at 6:57 PM on May 9 [25 favorites]

I always wonder if we ever find life on another world if it would also show these tendencies. Are crabs and trees a universally successful evolutionary strategy, or is that just a quirk of Earth life? Is it wrong to believe alien life will be utterly unlike what has evolved on Earth?
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:12 PM on May 9 [3 favorites]

Edited for: dammit, too late...

*shakes fist at Kabanos*
posted by Hairy Lobster at 7:37 PM on May 9 [4 favorites]

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree
Just kidding, 'cause there is no tree
No, not for you, and not for me

Burma Shave
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:57 PM on May 9 [29 favorites]

The taxonomists might complain, but is there really anything wrong with a paraphyletic group? Would you really believe that moths are an invalid group because one weird offshoot turned into butterflies? If we let the taxonomists get away with these things we'll never be able to stop their pedantry. If the fruit fly isn't Drosophila melanogaster will any genetics papers from the last century make sense?

Changing topics back to the article, wood tissue structure is mostly conserved. The cambium lays down new xylem which becomes the wood, and the phloem and bark are on the outside. By this argument a palm tree isn't a tree, because it lacks the characteristic wood structure.
posted by ockmockbock at 8:02 PM on May 9 [3 favorites]

I thought this was going to be about having moved from southern California to the Pacific northwest. We have all these trees coming up on our property that we didn't plant and don't particularly want and I have to say even after nearly 7 years here it's still wild to me to live in a place where you can just ...have a cedar tree start growing in your yard by accident with no encouragement whatsoever. Why do trees keep happening, indeed!
posted by potrzebie at 8:46 PM on May 9 [14 favorites]

@ockmockblock you might like Lulu Miller's Why Fish Don't Exist, which has this as one recurring thread, that "fish" are paraphyletic and don't exist as a modern taxonomic entity. It's also about the drive to make patterns and the truth excluded in their making; the use and misuse of optimistic blindness; loss and lingering and moving ahead. Also a historical narrative with SECRET MURDERING.
posted by away for regrooving at 10:55 PM on May 9 [12 favorites]

This was a great article. Good catch curious nu!
posted by CCBC at 10:57 PM on May 9

The linked paper is interesting though I can't say I've absorbed all the genetics. I've always wondered why laburnum trees (related to peas and clover, as goldenchain flowers show) should look anything like maple trees.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:09 PM on May 9

you might like Lulu Miller's Why Fish Don't Exist

The blogpost "The categories were made for man, not man for the categories" by S. Alexander, linked at the end of the FPP article, touches trenchantly on a few adjacent points, too.
posted by progosk at 2:11 AM on May 10 [4 favorites]

Well this is why Darwin is still so distressing to some. Beyond the simple idea that the Genesis creation story is contradicted; a whole worldview is threatened.
posted by thelonius at 3:48 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

I started my field botany course this spring with a series of photos to test the boundaries of what my students would consider to count as a tree, and start a discussion about plant morphlogy and classification, which was great fun.

In a course focused on field ID, we are often walking the line between "a group of related things, because this taxonomic group is defined based on monophyly, despite diverse appearances within the group" and "a group of similar-looking yet relatively unrelated things, that we're talking about together so we can learn how to tell them apart". It can be challenging to hold both of these things in your head at once - it's not immediately intuitive which traits are things that evolve over and over again, and which are more reliably diagnostic of belonging to a particular taxonomic group.

We also look at a group of plant images and I ask students to sort them any way they like, and then we explore different methods we might use to sort them - taxonomic groups, growth forms, whether or not they're edible - all meaningful groupings used in different contexts! The point of all this being, as stated in the link, to explore how all of our categories are weird and a little arbitrary.
posted by pemberkins at 4:14 AM on May 10 [15 favorites]

I am not a huge fan of hair, do ya tink, could CRISPR-CAS9 or some other CAS tweak my genes enough to give me a full head of tiny blue and dark purple blossoms?
posted by sammyo at 4:55 AM on May 10 [8 favorites]

I (want to be) Groot!
posted by sammyo at 4:56 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]

is there really anything wrong with a paraphyletic group?

There's nothing wrong, per se, it just challenges the layperson's understand of evolution. They imagine clean groups that break off from one another and remain closely related. Cows being more closely related to whales than to horses is not "wrong," it's just unintuitive.

Convergent evolution can be fun to see once you accept that it happens. For example, hyenas looking distinctly dog-like, despite being feliformia.
posted by explosion at 5:00 AM on May 10 [3 favorites]

This is why plant identification guides that are organized by taxonomy are not optimal for beginners. You would end up with many groups of mixed trees, herbs and shrubs that are not obviously connected to each other. I think that’s why many guides do group by form instead of taxonomy. With animals, organizing by taxonomy is going to pretty much match up with layperson groupings.
posted by snofoam at 8:10 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Dendronization - everything evolves into a tree.

and then those trees evolve into both not-trees and different-trees, which then evolve into sorta-trees and not-trees, which then in turn evolve into trees and sorta-trees, etc. That's the wild part to me. Tree as convenient.
posted by FirstMateKate at 9:11 AM on May 10 [4 favorites]

"While natural selection is commonly thought to simply be an ongoing process with no “goals” or “end points”, most scientists believe that life peaked at Welwitschia"

Welwitschia is named after the Austrian botanist and doctor Friedrich Welwitsch, who was the first European to describe the plant, in 1859 in present-day Angola. Welwitsch was so overwhelmed by the plant that he, "could do nothing but kneel down [...] and gaze at it, half in fear lest a touch should prove it a figment of the imagination."

Guess I've got a new role-model now.

The talk about axolotls and getting herbs to grow woody stems was intriguing. I first heard of epigenetics reading Seveneves, and it was a bit mind-blowing then. I think this is basically that process? Axolotls can "go epi"?
posted by rubah at 9:30 AM on May 10 [5 favorites]

Axolotls can "go epi"?

If science fiction author Larry Niven is right, humans can go epi. The Pak Protector.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:45 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Worth reading the linked Dan Ridley-Ellis Twitter thread
As an example - the conker tree - horse chestnut - is more closely related to broccoli than it is to the sweet chestnut tree.
...& sweet chestnut is more closely related to baked beans. Trees are not a branch on the tree of life. Ironically. (6/15)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:08 AM on May 10 [3 favorites]

*shakes fist at Kabanos*

No, not at me — "into the wind"!
posted by Kabanos at 10:08 AM on May 10 [5 favorites]

I’ve often quoted the thing about trout being more closely related to humans than they are to sharks, because it’s surprising and interesting. But I think I’m right in saying that if you traced all the ancestors of trout back to the common ancestor with sharks and then traced the descendants forward to modern sharks, they would all be ‘fish’. They haven’t independently converged on the fish design.

Which seems conceptually rather different to the example of trees, where if you trace the path from one species of ‘tree’ to another, you have to pass through things which are definitely not trees.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 10:12 AM on May 10 [3 favorites]

I've got a Saskatoonberry/Serviceberry tree in front of my house and when I was looking them up I learned that they could be bushes or trees. I've seen both in my neighbourhood and look quite different from each other even though they both give the same fruit, and in fact that's the only way I would know they're the same plant.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:52 AM on May 10

First of all, this article was really interesting and mostly well-written.

Second, I have a complaint.

“convergent evolution is a hell of a drug.”

Can we stop calling everything "a hell of a drug?"

It comes from Chappelle's Show where Rick James referred to cocaine as a hell of a drug because he made a series of crazy decisions while heavily using cocaine. Cocaine is a drug. It screws with your brain chemistry and makes you feel good while causing erratic behavior.

Convergent evolution is not a drug at all. What does calling it a "hell of a drug" mean? Does it mean that trees become trees because... they're high on convergent evolution? What does it mean?
posted by Quajek at 12:28 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

What does calling it a "hell of a drug" mean?
It's... a saying? Derived from pop-culture? Like many sayings, they don't necessarily make sense if taken literally or traced back to their origins. What does "Don't have a cow, man" mean? How many people do you know who have cows with them at any given moment?

In this case, it's an informal intensifier. Convergent evolution does wild things, particularly to the author's expectations.
posted by CrystalDave at 12:40 PM on May 10 [5 favorites]

I think folks nowadays use "hell of a drug" to describe something with powerful and non-intuitive effects, which isn't so different than what Chappelle's original use implied. In this instance, I'd say convergent evolution is a hell of a drug because you wouldn't necessarily expect trees and crabs to be ideal strategies for plant and animal life respectively, but the fossil record indicates that dendronization and carcinization have been observed many, many times throughout the history of life on earth.

Thanks to google, here are some other things that can (allegedly) have a powerful and unexpected effect: ego, desperation, perspective, apathy, drugs, depression, white supremacy, sobriety, overconfidence, adrenaline, death.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 12:43 PM on May 10 [4 favorites]

The classification of trees was recognized as a puzzle by the ancient Greeks — Plato's Republic alludes to the riddle of the "tree which is not a tree" (the giant fennel or narthex).
posted by cyanistes at 1:37 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

When I first started looking around on the internet I was stunned by images of Galapagos Prickly Pears with long, thick trunks.

Some of the pictures made it pretty clear why they had them, but that they had the ability to evolve them is truly amazing to me.
posted by jamjam at 1:39 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

Plato's Republic alludes to the riddle of the "tree which is not a tree" (the giant fennel or narthex).


I’ve only ever heard the word “narthex” in one specific context, and so now I’m in a different riddle...
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:55 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

I'd rather be a tree than a crab
Yes I would
If I only could
I surely would.
posted by heatherlogan at 2:52 PM on May 10 [3 favorites]

the word "narthex"

Giant fennel "was known in antiquity as Laser or narthex." (emphasis added) - wikipedia

OK, the questions keep on coming.
posted by moonmilk at 3:14 PM on May 10 [3 favorites]

Surely, you meant wood?
posted by iamkimiam at 3:29 PM on May 10

Trees? Plants aren't even a thing.

It's all just brassica oleracea.

Wake up sheeple Vegetable Lambs of Tartary!
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:04 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

Awesome. As a tour guide for the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, learning the nuances of this discussion is very practical for me. For sure I am digging through the original article and its assorted links over the next few days.

Currently, my tour schtick leans on two ways to classify plants: (1) observing basic differences in form within a plant family, and (2) recognizing the hierarchy within a very reduced evolutionary tree, similar to the one in this tweet (linked from the original article).

(1) In the conservatory's Palm House, the first room they enter, I typically let folks take it all in, and then I invite folks to share cursory observations. I encourage the anthropomorphic perspectives ("this palm is the big-man-on-campus", "these palms are BFFs, growing together as a team", "this one is a diva, small but colorful"). I'll offer some easy scavenger-hunt-type observational challenges, and I'll highlight some non-palm families around the room. I completely ignore phylogenics; the emphasis is that each plant has its niche... and that visitors are roped in with universal "hey can you find X" prompts.

(2) If I play it right, folks are intrigued enough for a more science-y take in the second room: the Fern Room. There, I hand-wave an evolutionary progression: algae --> liverworts --> saleginella (club moss) --> ferns --> cycads --> (big handwave) angiosperms & gymnosperms. It's as close to formal categorizing as I might get on a tour. My impression is that most folks enjoy a small "aha!" moment from this evolutionary/classification aspect of plants, but are eager to get back to the "hey look at that!" show-and-tell game from our more high-profile species. (Chocolate tree, vanilla orchid, tropical fruits, carnivorous plants, showy flowers)

It's only been a few times, but I have gotten more insistent questions on "so how /do/ you categorize plants?" My stock answer (I stumbled into my role at the conservatory; I am NOT a botanist!) is "it's all about how it reproduces". Spores? Seeds? Flowers? (oh and let's talk about the multitude of flowers!) If a tour guest is still interested/following this discussion, I'll specifically point out our "living fossil" collection of cycads, gnetum, and welwitschia: plants that reproduce with seeds, but without flowers. I've never had a tour ask about "wood" or "trees" -- though I have talked about primary vs. secondary growth. I'll use the info from this post to educate myself; this topic is absolutely adjacent to the info in my tours.

To be sure, though: I'm a tour guide at a free cultural institution in Chicago. My knowledge of minutae regarding plant classification is 5% of the gig; 95% is being able to connect with the folks you're greeting at the front door. I've had groups clutching fruity drinks telling me they were promised a trip to a tropical oasis. Yeah, I'm not too concerned with phylogeny in that case: "raise your drink if you see a 'fan' palm tree..."
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 9:37 PM on May 10 [7 favorites]

I have just finished re-reading "The Ancestor's Tale" by Dawkins and Wong, which is pretty much this article but for 800 pages.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 7:41 PM on May 11

As a tour guide for the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, learning the nuances of this discussion is very practical for me.

I just want you to know that I read that as “Garfield Park Cemetery” and then read the rest of your comment and was very very impressed with this fancy cemetery in Chicago, and maybe I should visit sometime and reconsider my end-of-life plans because this place sounds wonderful, and they have tour guides? but oh it’s a conservancy, that makes more sense never mind.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:34 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

dbx, maybe not quite what you were looking for, but one of the central premises of NVC (non-violent communication) is that people often confuse strategies with needs, and will use strategies that aren't actually that successful in meeting their needs, relationally speaking.
posted by dancing leaves at 5:09 AM on May 16

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