funny old fruit

Ken writes:

Did you know that if you take an apple and plant the pips you’ll get a tree, but not one of the same variety as you planted. You won’t get a granny smith or a braeburn or whatever. You’ll get a new variety unique to your tree and it’s apparently very unlikely to be any good at all. It will also grow into a massive tree. Apple trees of recognised varieties that you buy from the nursery are grafted onto different rootstocks that restrict to greater or lesser degree how high the tree will go.

If you buy a tree from a nursery, what you get will be a chimera. The sortal part will have come from a cutting, and the rootstock, I presume, likewise (only cut from a root?).

Isn’t this a curious state of affairs? It makes you wonder what sort of thing a variety of apples is? Philosophers differ of course, but I’ve always been attracted to the Platonist conception of sorts or types of things that sees them as abstract or higher order objects that stand over the various individual objects or entities of that kind. There are many individual Mini Cooper cars, for example, and then there is also the type MINI COOPER, the abstract thing whose form all those individual cars share. I would have said the same about apples, but I don’t think that’s quite right.

Suppose someone cloned me. Then there could in principle be an army of men with my genetic make-up. These men would have a common form, and be of the same sort or type. Even without the clones, there is nothing to stop us thinking of Ken the man and KEN the abstract form (the essence of Ken); only given there are no clones, this is a type that has only one instance.

How, though, is the original Granny Smith tree related to the thousands of Granny Smith trees in commercial orchards around the world? It’s not as mother to daughter, because daughter apples would all be different varieties (an tree grown from a pip is not at all like the apple it came from). Rather, the commercial orchards came from cuttings (with the same genetic make-up) and from cuttings of cuttings and so on. Are these clones? I don’t think so. Clones are related to their original like children to a single parent. This is more a case of say, chopping a hand off and the hand growing into an identical person (attached to a nutrient supply though the rootstock).

It seems to me there’s at least as good a reason as not to regard the variety, not any individual tree, but the variety, as a strange sort individual object with discontiguous parts spread out through time and space. Most things have parts that are attached to them but some, like the United States, have geographically separated parts. An apple variety may be like the USA but having parts that are separated in time as well as space. The United States may seem like a strange sort of object, to be sure, but it’s not an abstract object in the same sense as the essence of Ken or MINI COOPER is. Abstract objects, at least according to the Platonist conception, cannot perish and don’t have a location in time and space. (An individual car may be parked outside my house, but the form of the car isn’t there, it’s wherever there are cars). Individual apple trees like the ones I planted today may perhaps be parts of a larger individual.

Why should we see it this way? Well, go back to the original Granny Smith tree. Suppose we take a cutting off it. Now we have two genetically identical pieces of tree material (albeit one of them is bigger and still rooted to the ground). By what right could we say that the rooted tree is the same tree and the cut branch is not the same tree anymore? (Well, we can call it what we like, but how does the nature of the case determine what is the same tree and what is not). Isn’t it arbitrary? Does size matter? Does having roots matter? The cutting can grow its own roots if we put it in water. Taking the cutting may kill the branch, but it may likewise kill the tree or both. The leaves on the end of the any of the branches haven’t changed. They don’t care where the nutrients come from as long as they keep coming up down the line.

We are dealing with a case of fission: Object A splits into B and C. If the nature of the case doesn’t give us a decisive reason for exclusively identifying either B or C with A, then either A perished, or both B and C are (detached proper parts of) A. It would be absurd for size to be the determining factor of identity. And whether roots are present or not is relevant only for the future survival of the part, not its present identity. (Being instantaneously deprived of its roots is an existential crisis of first order for the plant, but why should it affect what plant it is?)

Perhaps one reason to favour the part/whole or complex individual conception of apple varieties would be to think how we’d describe it if all the examples of one variety suddenly ceased to exist. Would we say that the variety ceased to exist too, which favours taking the variety as a whole composed of its detached parts, or would we say it existed all right, only if had no exemplars anymore, which favours the Platonist position? I think we’d say it became extinct, which is to say that it ceased to exist.


8 thoughts on “funny old fruit

  1. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    Think of each apil tree variety as being a sort of Yggdrasil reaching its branches and roots throughout the three worlds.

  2. Monty's Dad

    Object oriented programming (OOP) mimics this. You write a series of classes ( the abstract form ) define what makes them representative of the form ( their attributes and methods of interaction ). Classes may inherit from other classes – ie a granny smith class inherits some of its attributes and methods from a ‘super’ class of apple. You can also overide inherited methods and attributes if the inheriting class has or does something, different.
    The actual program involves something (usually yet another class) intantiating itself ( creating an object ) and that instatiated object then creates other classes according to its own methods and attributes.
    Every instantiated object of class apple is able to be different due to variations in its initial make-up (caused by conditions at the time of creation) and subsequent interaction with its environment.

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