Hearts of Stone. From fantastical nature to biological minerality.

I sensed that they contained within their immoveable mass, the entire range of possible material transformations, without excluding anything, not even sensitivity, intelligence or imagination.

Roger Caillois, Le Fleuve Alphé, Paris, Gallimard, 1978.


From ‘pictures of stones’ to ‘dreams of stones’, the mesmerising power of rock is known to induce profound daydreams and infinite visions. Communicating without interreacting with the psyche, mineral shapes display flexible forms that are already organic (dendrites, veins, arborescence, venules, capillaries) which act as a powerful stimulus to the imagination. Roger Caillois describes ‘fantastical nature’, this strange characteristic of minerals, beings that are half alive, maybe already living-dead, visibly self-organised while being devoid of living qualities. Writing about stones is like a magic spell, a confusion of possibilities, it gives a face and a living presence to stone, so effective that the spirit can recognize itself, project itself and even perpetuate itself in them. It is the same with Angelika Markul’s work, which shows us the potential of stone to metamorphose, pursuing throughout the world signs of this undetectable hybridisation of matter and of thought. The fossilized skin of a mylodon from Tierra del Fuego, the mega crystals in the Naica grotto, a Patagonian glacier that melts as we die, a ziggurat[1] in Yonaguni possibly made by natural intelligence, a star that would hold the secret of creation, or the marks left by dinosaurs in the earth in Australia, are just so many images of an organic minerality, that lend themselves to empathy and identification. However, isn’t this imaginative symbiosis a pure illusion of the spirit? In the wake of the psycho-poetic interpretation by Caillois, and from these imaginative works, we can reconsider stones and their relationship to organicity. Can the collision between biology, psychology and geology thus allow a redrawing of the map of living beings? Up until what point can we talk about a biological minerality?

Animist intuitions

The natural distinction between living beings and the inanimate world seems to be so completely anchored in collective representation that bestowing a living force on stone seems to belong to the realm of pure fiction (such as the stone giants in Tolkien or Ende), a means of cognitive hallucination (in contrast to the pareidolia, through which the brain sees faces in random objects) or more generally through the animist process (in which a human attributes an intentionality to an inert object). Used to mitigate a lack of explanation, these psychological mechanisms fed the imaginative legends of the ‘demoiselles coiffées’ (or hoodoos, narrowly tapered rock formations sculpted by erosion), the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland (an area of forty thousand basalt columns) or even the mystery of the Racetrack Playa’s ‘sliding rocks’ (Death Valley, California) which left the scientific community perplexed for several decades. On a dry lake bed these rocks left behind mysterious tracks several meters long, as if they had moved on their own without any perceptible human or animal intervention. The most plausible explanation was that the combination of very strong wind and heavy rain made the surface slippery enough to make the rocks move, but it still left their sudden changes of direction and the depth of the tracks unexplained. We had to wait for the work by Richard D. Norris, James M. Norris et Ralph D. Lorenz in 2014[2] to clarify this version by pointing out that the frost formed on the surface of the lake bed was the first factor explaining their movement. Enough to quash the most farfetched speculation which promoted theories about a concentration of magnetic energy, a secret CIA plot, or ghosts from the valley.

The legends surrounding this phenomenon do however reveal a relationship to stones that doesn’t automatically recognise their inertia. Faced with the sophistication of their graphic forms and the complexity of their make-up, the human spirit doesn’t seem to be able to accept the role of chance. The geometric lines of stones, the perfect circle in agate, the fractal dimension in crystalline development, are so many natural facts perfectly independent from human intelligence, but which adopt its logic, mathematical modelling and creativity. It’s fascinating to note the similarities between synthetic crystalline objects and the shell that encases the nucleic acid in certain viruses, or the siliceous skeleton of certain radiolaria, or even those between the tight spiral of scales on pine cones and the particular structure of certain metals (non-periodic, with a pentagonal local symmetry, that even questions the golden ratio). The ‘writing of stones’ as Roger Caillois calls it, thus designates the system of particularly mineral examples through which the laws of nature express themselves without choice or finality. With complete freedom, the creative capacities of minerals translate a non-intentional intelligence that rivals the human spirit and defies its understanding. For Caillois stones could even devise their own writing, a self-referenced language, a collection of signs “withdrawn into themselves to the point of only being allusions to their own form.”[3]

The animist response of the human spirit when confronted with stones may say less about the vitality of the mineral world than about the relationship of man with himself. Reconnecting with a childlike reflex (in Freudian theory, children are supposed to endow objects with a soul), the man who is enthralled by ‘fantastical nature’ above all seeks to relate to the intelligence of their forms, to make the invisible processes of his own psyche visible. Revealing a narcissistic self-perception, man’s animist conscience allows him, in short, to recognize in nature’s intelligence the mark of his own ingeniousness and, through transfer, to attribute it to his own poetic competence. At the heart of this generalised psychocentric fantasy, man and stone become equal, the psychology of one responding to the ecology of the other, together forming a mirrored commonality.

Crystalline Individuation

The complicity between the living and the mineral in the animist fantasy may therefore be realised, be certified within the heart of the material itself. In the realm of the mineral, crystal, which has the ability to grow and reproduce, specifically tests the permeability of the boundaries between the living by adopting certain aspects of its behaviour. The philosopher Gilbert Simondon, like Louis Pasteur, made it a paradigm for developmental biology. Its processes of self-organisation in effect follow a specifically organic evolution: through arborescence and through dendrites, by adding volume following a metastable rhythm in common with living organisms. At the first stage of nucleation, the morphogenesis of the crystal occurs using a liquid, a mother liquor, whose constituents are initially disordered, before the intervention of macromolecules that stabilize the preformed assemblage. The growth mechanisms then follow an essential logic: the amino acids guide the direction of the structure, while the exchanges with outside factors (temperature, space, the presence of impurities etc) adjust the speed. The Simondonian theory is thus in line with a radical materialism where the mineral and biological types equalise at a base level, matching the reductionist positions of contemporary biochemistry. Molecular biology has indeed in effect shown the shared material identities between living beings and inanimate objects, and their joint response to the same physicochemical laws and properties. But Simondon seems to go even further when he turns the crystalline structure into the model for individuation, that’s to say the biological development of individuals[4]. By associating crystal with a biomorphic shape, not only does he describe a principle of generic development but in fact the genesis of a uniquely living thing. Beneath its enigmatic appearance, crystal shows the characteristics of an individual form, equivalent to an organic morphogenesis, forming unique bodies as only living nature knows how to produce. As with the concentric and sinuous structures within onyx, crystal exhibits forms that cannot be attributed to other fields, vigorously demonstrating its tenacious creativity.

This analogy between crystal and living things has however its limits, for instance when counterbalanced by the argument of finitude. In effect crystal achieves a final state (the ending of its growth, a final size) that is incapable of being biological. By virtue of its fundamental neotenic[5] nature, crystal is never able to completely stabilise, and resembles more a body in constant crystallisation than an already formed crystal. The epigenetic developments of an individual, at least as important as the genetic programme in humans, puts man between “crystal and smoke”, to use Henri Atlan’s phrase[6], in an unfinished state or perpetual metastability which makes him sensitive to large scale metamorphoses like the infinite variations of his environment. A living being can only indeed be described as such on condition of being engaged in a process of transformation which permanently differentiates him from his environment. Leading directly on from the first, the second fundamental difference between stones and organisms lies in the particular methods the living being uses to communicate with the surrounding world. There where the mineral world evolves by juxtaposition, the addition of matter, the living being himself grows through ‘intussuspection’, that is to say that specialised organelles, like chloroplasts and mitochondrion, transform outside energy in order to introduce it into an inner environment. So, if the transformational theory implements the growing complexity of natural bodies, it implements a resolute difference of nature between living beings and minerals just as much. If a stone can spatially differentiate itself from its environment, it remains in fact essentially dependent on its physical properties, while the living being follows a logic of development which distinguishes itself fundamentally from its natural environment. The latter can only undergo a complete return to its environment at the moment of its death, when dust becoming dust again, they end up by being mixed up together. The autarchic circle of the living being, set out by Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana under the name of Autopoiesis[7], thus makes up the essential economic difference through which the biological being frees itself from its natural destiny and differentiates itself from stone. In the poetics of minerals against the auto-poietic of the living, crystal establishes a balancing point between the two domains, positioned on the threshold between ‘fantastical nature’ and a wonderful naturalism.

Biomineral Illusions

If we can’t achieve a strict reductionism that would eradicate all differences between minerals and biological beings, the fact remains that the study of the biogenetic qualities of crystal allows us to reconsider their origins and their interactions. Although founded on the essential distinction between two groups of substances – organic (bacteria, mushrooms, carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, etc.) and mineral (rocks, mineral salt, water, carbon dioxide, etc.), – this is how chemistry considers the conditions of their respective creation and their ancestral interdependence. The production of minerals by living beings, their biomineralisation, is a consubstantial phenomenon to the creation of life, which goes back at least to the start of the Cambrian period, several hundred million years ago. Nails, bones, teeth, shells, spines, pearls or kidney stones, the living body creates mineral substances of which their magnetic or structural properties are then used[8]. In this sense the human organism is made up of a number of mineral elements (about sixty have been recorded) that interreact in a very active way in the metabolic system, necessary for muscle contraction, for transporting oxygen, the transmission of nerve impulses, blood clotting, fluid supply, tissue building, the activation of enzymes and hormones, the stability of cardiac rhythm or the immune system. Thus established at the heart of the morphogenesis of the living body, bio-minerality can equally be at the origin of the creation of so-called ‘organic’ hybrid stones: marble is thus the result of the sedimentation of sea borne limestone, mellite and amber come from fossilized plant matter, while mother-of-pearl is produced by biosynthesis. However, is the mineral realm able to evolve in the other direction, to be itself an organic creative force? If the possibility of a reciprocal biomineral process doesn’t seem to be self-evident, a few quixotic stones provide an exception by demonstrating not only growth and reproduction capabilities, already seen in crystals, but also that of hybridization and an ability to repair.

The discovery of stones with hitherto unrecorded behaviour thus dislodged certain scientific assumptions from their theoretical basis. The Trovants, the largest group of which is found in Costesti (Roumania), are fascinating minerals capable of growing (from a tiny size to several meters high), able to self-generate and to grow back together, after having been split apart without any outside intervention, through simple contact with water. Beneath the supernatural appearance, this particular method of ‘concretisation’ was however eventually explained, not without difficulty, by scientists. Formed of deposits of sand and gravel, the mineral constituents of the Trovants emerge when it rains, and are uniquely transformed into actual cement, capable of binding together tiny granules and thus increasing the size of the stone. Nonetheless, this explanation will not take into account two troubling phenomena: on the one hand, the presence in the immediate area of the Trovants, the same stones of smaller size that proliferate like roots or buds, and on the other, the presence at the heart of the stones, coloured concentric circles that recall the growth rings of felled trees. A mineral monster, borrowing its forms from living beings, the Trovant is thus a natural entity which combines, in a very singular manner, mineral matter with organic processes, unveiling elements of a disconcerting blend of qualities, and an unheard of semi-biological adaptability.

The second quixotic stone reveals an unexpected evolution within the mineral world, as a result of the ecological disruption caused by man. In a study published in 2014, a team of geologists led by Professor Patricia Corcoran (University of Western Ontario) announced the discovery on the beaches of the island of Hawaii of several rocks of a new kind, made up of sand, volcanic rock, vegetal matter, coral and… plastic waste. Called ‘plastiglomerate’, it visibly assumes an adaptable behaviour, similar to living beings, by integrating elements from the outside to its own body that, if they are indeed from petrochemical production, definitely remain totally artificial. Fighting for its life in an environment increasingly contaminated by pollution, this stone which has bionic capacities, gives the impression of having developed its own evolutionary strategy, in an almost Darwinian sense. A marker of the current Anthropocene period, this geological era dominated by the role played by human actions, the emergence of this category of mineral hybrid, semi artificial, reconfigures accepted natural classifications and launches a period of mineral evolution directly comparable to the evolution of life. Anomalies in stone, initiating a new causality in minerals, plastiglomerates unleash scientific imagination and reinvigorate the world of artistic imagination.

Fossil Memory

These last two examples confirm Claude Bernard’s teaching, for whom life doesn’t define itself, but which experiences within itself the impossibility of defining the boundaries of the biological realm, producing, in effect, the difficulty of delivering a definitive formulation. The similar evolution of the geological and organic worlds, recalls the possibility of their original lack of differentiation[9], and that of a return to a state where stones and organisms maintained a compatible relationship, if not a complementary one. Current research in exobiology (the study of life beyond earth) concurs with the assertion, being made more and more openly, that the mineral world has a prebiotic dimension. Scientists seem to be more and more aware appreciative of the active role played by minerals in the construction of the earliest bacterial life, by providing protection for carbon molecules and by allowing the selection of those that offer the greatest biological advantages (capable of self-replication). After having been for a long time relegated to the background, behind water and air, minerals are today emerging as a major factor in biogenesis. Several researchers no longer hesitate even to think of the aquatic model of development as a geocentric premise, which will make researchers blind to other possible scenarios, in relation to the existence of microbial life in the methane lakes on Titan[10], to the supposed presence of amino acids on the comet Tchouri[11] or the discovery of self-organised micro-structures in plasmatic material (stellar dust particles of which the helicoidal structure recalls that of organisms)[12].

However true these discoveries may be, the possibility of inorganic life considerably extends the boundaries of the biosphere beyond the limits of individual lives in time and space. The mineral world lies within a cosmic periodicity, an amplified temporality, inhuman in a way, where the question of mortality is subsumed by that of memory. The natural world of stone has the fantastic quality of taking back to a memory without a conscience, which links it directly to the most essential organic functions. Stone certainly does not have a living memory, not even the vestige of one, but there is no doubt that it is part of the make-up of the memory of living beings. As much as the evolution of biological beings, fossilisation in effect allows us to keep a record of the passing of life, in a way that all the inscriptions, all the markings on rock surfaces “shroud in a mysterious moire pattern an immeasurable mineralistic bereavement”[13]. Sedimentation appears to be like a process of clearance and the tracing of certain limits, comparable with the processes of cerebral marking by mnemonic traces: “In stone (…) each image is fixed as if the density of the mineral preserved the swarm, the flare or the flow at every moment of its kaleidoscopic metamorphosis. Each one, an immortal witness, is recorded for a longtime: forever, according to the brief human season[14].” A monument to life as much as to death, this fossil memory is the touchstone for a panspermatic vision of the cosmos, at the heart of which organicity will not be enough to enumerate all the formulations of living beings. Far from being concerned with what is exterior to life, the mineral world, highly flexible, appears finally to be the metabiological originating point from which the living form takes on and loses shape, itself a living space where the origin of life coincides with the expanse of its eternity.


[1] A religious edifice from Mesopotamia constructed as superimposed terraces.

[2] R.D. Norris, J.M. Norris, R.D. Lorenz, J. Ray, B. Jackson, « Sliding Rocks on Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park : First Observation of Rocks in Motion », PLoS ONE, 9 : 8, 2014.

[3] 3 Roger Caillois, L’Ecriture des pierres, Geneva, Skira, 1970, p. 87.

[4] Cf L’Individuation in the light of notions of form and information, Grenoble, Millon, 2005.

[5] The neotony of the individual (Kapp, Canguilhem, Leroi-Gourhan) assumes the structurally unfinished nature of man. Nature includes an ‘epigentic opening’ for man in his environment, which consists of the biological basis of his form.

[6] Le Cristal et la fumée. Essay on the organisation of the living being, Paris, Seuil, 1979.

[7] They introduce the notion in 1973 in « De máquinas y seres vivos » (reproduced in Autopoiesis and Cognition, Boston, Reidel, 1980), as well as in « Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model », BioSystems, Vol. 5, 1974, pp. 187-196.

[8] Bacteria, algae and animals use magnetite crystals, which contain iron oxide working like magnets, to find their bearings in the world.

[9] The history of life encompasses a sequence of several tens of millions of years during which intermediary forms, neither living nor inert, were abundant in the oceans.

[10] J. Stevenson, J. Lunine, P. Clancy, « Membrane alternatives in worlds without oxygen: Creation of an azotosome », Science Advances, vol. 1, 1, 2015.

[11] Notably by the astrophysicists Chandra Wickramasinghe and Max Wallis during the National Astronomy Meeting 2015 in Llandudno, but their thesis was promptly criticised.

[12] V. N. Tsytovich & al., « From Plasma Crystals and helical Structures towards inorganic living Matter », New Journal of Physics, 9: 263, 2007.

[13] Roger Caillois, L’Ecriture des pierres, op., cit., p. 87.

[14] Ibid., p. 121.