Geology and Life

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A common origin myth explains that the first human beings were made from clay. The Egyptian god Khnum, a ram-headed deity known as “The Great Potter,” is said to have given life to humankind on his potter’s wheel. The Qur’an tells a similar story in which Allah molds and breathes life into clay. Despite the fantastical nature of these accounts, science reinforces our physical connection with the earth. At least sixty chemical elements are found in the average human body, including silicon, oxygen, hydrogen, calcium, iron, and sodium—all primary ingredients of clay. Moreover, a study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital scientists revealed that montmorillonite clay may have been critical to the formation of life, due to its chemical support of the development of cell membranes. Philosopher Manuel De Landa describes the “mineralization” of vertebrates in the formation of bone, a process that enabled a newfound freedom of movement. A subsequent mineralization occurred in the form of human constructions—the earthen bricks and stone walls composed of the “urban exoskeleton” that appeared about eight millennia ago. By regulating the movement of people and goods, this mineral structure “may be said to perform, for tightly packed populations of humans, the same function of motion control that our bones do in relation to our fleshy parts.” Thus, our relationship to the geosphere is characterized by movement as well as stasis; by freedom as well as constraint. Over time, our attention has shifted from the products of mineralization to the process itself, as humans have become more attuned to mineral flows within the physical environment.

The story continues in Hypernatural, which explores architecture’s new relationship with nature.


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