Life without form

Paige Donaghy


In October 2019, news outlets around the world heralded the arrival of “the blob”, a yellow-brownish mass unveiled by the Paris Zoological Park, as a new feature in the zoo. This blob, a species of physarum polycephalum, or slime mould, was reported to move itself without limbs, have 720 sexes, heal itself if injured, and best, or perhaps worst of all, it can learn, despite not having a brain. Blob can apparently move itself through a maze, detect and locate food, and can reportedly problem-solve while in the maze, sliding past foods it doesn’t like (salt, apparently). Blob, the Park said, can also gain information from other blobs through absorption. Blob apparently absorbed a second, smaller blob (let’s call it Blob 2), and began to use the information that Blob 2 had acquired during its separate life, about the location of food in the maze.

Macrophages (Wellcome Collection)

Unsurprisingly, Twitter and Facebook were soon ablaze with comments about Blob’s eventual world takeover, demands that we kill Blob instantly, and some slightly brave, slightly gross suggestions that it be covered in hot sauce and consumed, barbecue-style. Like the creature it was named after, a globulous alien in the 1958 sci-fi-horror film The Blob, people reacted with horror and repulsion but also curiosity and awe. People seemed intrigued as to how a thing without any fixed shape, or without organs we usually associate with movement and learning, could make decisions or propel itself through a maze. How could something with no brain, no eyes, and no nervous system take on information and use this to solve problems?

As an historian of scientific knowledge about the human body and forms of life, I found the language surrounding discussions about Blob’s weird aliveness striking. Director of the Paris Museum of Natural History, Bruno David, who is overseeing the Blob project, was quoted as saying that Blob “looks like a fungus, acts like an animal but belongs to the protist family”. David said that: “We know for sure it is not a plant but we don’t really know if it’s an animal or a fungus”. Essentially, Blob provokes uncertainty about where we draw the lines between different types of life. If definitively not a plant, as David said, could this amorphous, alien flesh be closer to animals? What does that mean for how we think of animals, creatures to whom we generally assign higher intelligence and emotive capacity? What does this mean for how we think about ourselves?

These questions, and this language of in-between-ness, has been a common feature in Western medical and scientific/philosophical knowledge from antiquity to today. One just needs to look to the present, fiery debates in plant biology over whether plants have consciousness and possess brain-like systems. Aristotle, in his De Anima, introduced arguably the most influential and enduring categories of life, dividing all life, or “souls”, into three parts or types. First, Aristotle theorised, there was the basic form of life, the “vegetal” or “nutritive” soul, a kind of life usually associated with plants. The next, more sophisticated life was the “sensitive” soul, which in addition to the elements of the nutritive soul, also had motion, movement, and sense perception, and existed in all animals. Finally, the highest soul, Aristotle wrote, was the “rational” soul, possessed by all humans, because of the capacity for intellect, thought, emotion and reason.

But beginning with renewed attempts in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries to sort and taxonomise types of lifeforms, philosophers and scientists found Aristotle’s categories increasingly blurry and unreliable. These early endeavours to hierarchise the animal/human kingdoms persist in our modern scientific taxonomies, as we can see with the discussions about Blob’s proper category.

In what follows, I want to turn to a phenomenon similar to Blob, but one that is much closer to home: the human blob. Yes, that’s right. Human beings themselves produce what we might call “blobs”, or formless, fleshy creatures showing signs of life. First recorded in antiquity, mola — named for their resemblance to millstones — were also known as “false conceptions”. Mola were small lumps, gestated in women’s wombs, occasionally born alone or alongside infants, and were said to be capable of moving within the womb, and outside of it, independently and autonomously. They became important examples of the possibility of formless life in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century medical and philosophical projects. This was because false conceptions were understood as being conceived like a foetus, through copulation. They often had no discernible human features other than fleshiness, veins, and flaps of skin or, in some cases, the stray eyeball, tooth, or clump of hair. Like Blob, mola could absorb other things; in many recorded cases, women gave birth to infants with mola attached to their heads, or clinging to the sides of their bodies, parasitically.

While such occurrences were undoubtedly awful and confusing for the women and families who experienced them in the early modern period, philosophers, scientists, and medical experts were far more concerned with the false conception’s falseness; that is, its complete lack of form, its potential for movement, and its potential life. For instance, in 1637 the physician Zacutus Lusitanus removed from a woman’s body a large mola,

which being put into a vessel of water, moved itself like a Hedgehog, and lived two days. It was bigger than a man’s head, and so hard that scarce could a knife cut it. In the midst of it there were three eyes, beset round with long black hairs.

Here, a mola presents with some signs of life, alongside, terrifyingly, three eyes in the centre of its fleshy body. And this lump lived for two days, independently of the womb, apparently resembling a hedgehog swimming (if you haven’t seen this before, Google “swimming hedgehog” — it is very cute, and will give you a sense of the mola’s motion, but without the grossness). Consider also the case of a mola which Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius described in his book The Secret Miracles of Nature, published in England in 1658. Lemnius recounted a woman who gave birth to “a rude lump”, which had fastened to it “on both sides, two handles, like arms”. This lump of flesh, Lemnius wrote, “panted and seem’d to be alive, [like] sponges and sea-fish called Viticae, which flote in the sea in summer in infinite numbers”. Again, the mola is fleshy, lacking a form or shape, and seemingly alive, pulsing like the sea sponges or sea cucumbers which amass off the coast of the Netherlands.

Here we can see these authors run up against the failure of their Aristotelian categories to accommodate the central, unsettling fact about the mola: that it was a living being produced by humans and yet not, apparently, human. The question of the mola’s humanness was important to many medical authors, philosophers, and religious writers. Because molae were thought to be created out of the same reproductive materials as “natural” humans, some argued that the mola did have “human” life, but had just failed to develop fully. Others, however, rejected this argument, suggesting that they only had plant-like life: “for”, as the French surgeon Ambroise Paré wrote in 1634, “it is nourished and increaseth after the manner of plants, but not by reason of a soul or spirit sent from above”.

So just as with Blob, molae showed up the slipperiness of categories of life we often think of as stable and immediately identifiable. The discussions around molae (human, or human-plants?) illustrate how the categories of life we still use today were uncertain even in the period in which they were established.

But why do we feel the need to try and sort all natural phenomena into categories invented, as attempts to taxonomise our surroundings? Indigenous scholars and, recently, “new materialist” feminist philosophers, have insisted on turning (or returning) our attention to the interconnectedness, spreadness, and inseparability of all matter. For example, thinkers like Mel Chen or Kim Tallbear and fiction writers like Ellen van Neerven, encourage us to leave behind the binaries of animal/human, living/dead, animate/inanimate, self/other, and instead think about our relationality in and through matter in nature. Might these new (or, indeed, as Indigenous scholars have pointed out, very old) systems of thinking, directed to removing hierarchies of life, help us better understand our relationship to things in nature? Could we instead conceive of Blob as kin, as closer to us than we might think?


About the author: Paige Donaghy is writing a PhD at the University of Queensland on the history of the false conception (also referred to as mola or mole) in early modern European medicine, science and society.

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