Chaotic Utopia

The Value of a Sunflower

Sometimes, reading philosophy is a lot like medieval torture. For some reason, talking about things like objectivity in ethics or the meaning of existence requires numerous dry definitions and explanations. This process causes the reader to be overwhelmed and confused. I’d rather not do that, here. Still, I’d like to approach the subject of values. I’ve spent the last few days trying to decide the best way to do that. So, instead of diving into semantics and logic, I figured I’d just start with a sunflower.


A sunflower seems simple enough, right? It’s pretty enough to show up on dresses and hats or potholders. The seeds are tasty, sold in bags in convenience stores around the world. Farmers rotate sunflowers into their crops to increase the yield of other plants. So, does the sunflower have value? How much? Who says? In some respects, it is a weed. It grows in the ditches behind strip malls, where development turned over soil from old fields. It sprouts in lawns underneath birdfeeders. (The one pictured above sprouted through some gravel in my yard from some spilled birdseed.) They’re hearty and healthy… no one is putting them on the endangered species list.

While we seem to have no trouble ascribing values to things, we typically can’t agree…. not even on something as simple as a sunflower. Perhaps this is because the sunflower is a complex being. The single blossom is actually a conglomeration of parts which work together: reproductive organs, transportation systems for food and nutrients, chemical processing facilities that convert sunlight into sugars, etc. To the sunflower, a working chloroplast has as much value as the car we drive to the grocery store in. Each of those parts is a sum of smaller patterns, of course. Consider a single chloroplast in a cell within the tissue of the plant. It too, consists of a working network of parts, from the membranes to chlorophylls to instructions in the form of genetic code. Only in the past century have we realized the depth of the patterns in these little production factories. Consider the intricate arrangement of proteins, so similar to our own, but so exquisitely different. Consider the complex arrangements of nucleotides, each consisting of individual amino acids, then chemical arrangements, down to the atomic and subatomic levels. So, where do we define values? Do the values in a nuclear reaction, through these scaling patterns, relate to value at our levels of perception?

String theorists talk about a universal law, one equation to encompass all these different values, at least at the physical level. I have to leave that up to them–my experience with equations extends to fractals and tipping the waitress, no further. I still wonder about the implications of a universal law. I think they’ll find it, sure enough, but it won’t give us an answer to the complex nature of something like a sunflower. To do that, we’ll still need organic chemists, geneticists, botanists, farmers, and dress makers, in addition to the physicists. Even then, we’ll have plenty of information about “how” the sunflower exists, but no solid answer about its value. Maybe it is because such answers aren’t meant to be solid. This may sound like a distorted version of the anthropic principle, but if there were simple, solid answers describing the value of something like a sunflower, there wouldn’t be things as complex as sunflowers around.

I’d rather not leave it at that, assuming that things are the way they are, because they have to be. Instead, I’ve tried to understand how a solid law concerning value could give rise to not-so-solid forms. String theorists are doing this at levels beyond most people’s comprehension, describing how fundamental particles (strings or membranes) behave. They turn to dimensions to do this. Next, I’ll explain why I looked in the same direction to find answers about value and existence, although with an entirely different approach. (I don’t disagree with any theories in physics, nor do I have the qualifications to do so. I have simply asked different questions.) There seems to be an intrinsic relationship between our 3-dimensional perspective of the world around us, and the multi-dimensional nature of the world itself. I’ll leave that for the next post, where I’ll merge the subjects of values and dimensions even further, and answer some of the questions I raised in this post.


  1. #1 somnilista, FCD
    August 7, 2006

    Farmers rotate sunflowers into their crops to increase the yield of other plants.

    Say what? Do you have a source for that? Typically legumes are included in crop rotation due to their affinity with nitrogen-fixing microbes, but sunflowers are not a legume.

    In some respects, it is a weed.

    Indeed. I recall a dustup when I was young. The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas. Thus, Kansans were a bit upset when Iowa decided to declare it a noxious weed. This makes the sunflower a good example of relativity in values.

  2. #2 Karmen
    August 7, 2006

    From my Dad’s home state, where they have nothing much to do, besides grow stuff, and see what happens:

    North Dakota University
    Crop Rotations for Increased Productivity
    EB-48 (Revised), January 1998
    Dr. Michael D. Peel, NDSU Small Grains Extension Agronomist

    One immediate economic benefit of crop rotations is improved yields. For example, sunflower yields over eight years at Crookston, Minnesota (24) were often significantly greater in rotation with other crops than when continuous sunflower was grown (Table 1). Wheat yields were also greater with rotation than continuous wheat in an eight-year study (22) conducted with different crops at Fargo (Table 2). A study at the Agriculture Research Service at Mandan has shown that increased hard red spring wheat yields can be expected when an alternative crop is included in the rotation (27).

    I’ve always been fascinated by the amount of variety that was required in farming. You can’t just go in and plant one thing and expect it to thrive forever. You’re right about legumes fixing the nitrogen, but other plants offer other benefits. The strong roots of sunflowers break up thick soil, which gives them an advantage around here, where we have thick, clayey soils.

    I could have used many examples to discuss values, but you’re right, the sunflower is an apt choice. The Kansas/Iowa thing fits perfectly… Thanks for adding it! :)

  3. #3 etbnc
    August 8, 2006

    I like this. It’s an intriguing start. Merging the sunflower photo with a yin and yang symbol is a nice touch, too.

    I’m pleased that you’re willing to explore the concept of value directly and explicitly. Though our values underlie and influence so much of our writing, speaking, and daily behavior, it seems we acknowledge that influence only in passing or in a narrowly-restricted domain of bumper-sticker politics.

    So, thanks for the taking the time to explore with care.

  4. #4 Karmen
    August 8, 2006

    I’ll get more into this in some of the next posts, but the way we tend to perceive the world makes it easy to generalise our concepts of value–or to be confused and angry if we examine them too closely. I think there’s a way around the problem, though… if we can understand why it exists.

  5. #5 rosa
    April 23, 2007


  6. #6 huklerndksl
    April 17, 2011

    The big difference between the corporate- or capitalistic-leaning sects and those of the recently and somewhat jokingly dubbed “edupunk” sect are in the underlying ideology of mashups, a do-it-yourself mentality, and above all affording learners and educators sufficient flexibility and opportunity to guide and discover their own learning paths. They thrive on open source technology, and the the notions of sharing and reuse.

  7. #7 rent a car ankara
    July 6, 2011

    But doesn’t this carry the same inherent flaw as globalization…one site gets compromised and due to their interconnectivity they ALL get compromised…