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Nature and digital: A historical view from Geneva

Published on 11 December 2020
Updated on 19 March 2024

Charles BonnetThree hundred years ago, Charles Bonnet was born in the thriving intellectual epicentre of Geneva. Botanist, lawyer, philosopher, psychologist, and politician were but a few parts of what was a rich life of academic pursuits.

This genuine renaissance figure trained in law as a profession, and enjoyed a brief political career, gaining membership to the Council of the Republic of Geneva from 1752 and 1768.

Bonnet’s initial scientific interest was in studying insects and germs. When his interests moved into botany, he made important early observations by patiently studying gas bubbles on leaves that formed when submerged in water, indicating gas exchange (Recherches sur l’usage des feuilles dans les plantes). 

Some current climate change insights can even be traced back to Bonnet. He argued that trees and plants have the power of sensation, which remains an under-researched field to this day.

In psychology, his descriptions of vivid, complex visual hallucinations experienced by people of otherwise sound mind became known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome. In his Contemplation de la nature (1765), a philosophical work, he developed complex thinking concerning the human condition. 

The natural sciences were his great passion, and today his work can help us to deal with one of the main challenges ahead of us: the interplay between digital and nature. 

As we search for ‘formulas’ to deal with climate change, AI and other pressing issues however, we may be inspired by Bonnet. 

For example, his most notable contribution to the field of botany was in coining the term “phyllotaxis” (‘leaf arrangement’ in Greek) as a description of the ways that leaves are distributed on trees. Bonnet discovered that leaves are distributed according to Fibonnaci’s sequence of numbers


Fibonacci, otherwise known as Leonardo de Pisa, was a 13th Century Italian mathematician who expressed in the Liber Abaci (1202), and whose namesake was given to, the sequence of numbers such that each number is the sum of the two preceding.  

0+1=1; 1+1=2; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8; 5+8=13… 

In addition, the ratio of two consecutive Fibonacci numbers tends to the golden ratio (1.61) as they increase:

8/5 = 1.60
13/8 = 1.62
21/13 = 1.61
34/21 = 1.61
55/34 = 1.61
89/55 = 1.61 

Bonnet realised that leaves follow the Fibonacci sequence, and thereby the golden ratio, in order to maximise their exposure to sunlight. Distribution starts with two leaves, followed by three in the next row, and so on. Thus, he discovered an important bridge between nature and mathematics, and subsequently he put the golden ratio in the centre of his enquiries. 


Bonnet was, as reflected in his deep and varied interests, a ‘boundary spanner’ or polymath, a type of person that is badly needed today. We tend to see more and more people with ‘exotic’ specialisations, and ever fewer people with the broad spectrum of talent required to deal with cross-cutting issues.  

Next time you walk in the park, think about two points that Bonnet left for us: a link between mathematics and nature, and the need to think beyond siloed fields in discussing politics or doing scientific research. 

For example, as we are trying to regulate artificial intelligence, we may – at least – consult the way nature has regulated the development of ‘biological algorithms’ since time immemorial. 

If Bonnet could observe a formula in the distribution of leaves, we may discover the formula for dealing with AI and other challenges of modern society. The ultimate aim spans eras in our search for more sunlight, creativity, and purpose. 

4 replies
  1. Maricela Munoz
    Maricela Munoz says:

    I was fascinated by this…
    I was fascinated by this blog entry. It is mind blowing and definitely -boundary spanning, as expressed by Katharina Hone. As ‘biological algorithms’ goes, I think that nature’s regulatory mechanisms are linked to its eternal pursue of harmony and beneficial interconnectedness. And similar to AI, these mechanisms are shaped by constant evolution and adaptation to new environments (self-learning). I would love to hear more about this too.
    I also concur with the author, more holistic approaches, collaborative efforts and multidisciplinary skills are required to tackle humanity’s global challenges.

    • Jovan
      Jovan says:

      holistic approach
      Maricela, you point to a holistic approach as one of the critical inspirations that we can take from ‘natural governance’. A holistic approach related to relations among us, machines, and nature is needed today more than ever before. This month, during our Geneva tours, we will focus on the inspiration that we can get from philosophy and science. More will follow….

  2. Katharina Hone
    Katharina Hone says:


    I really enjoyed this blog post – boundary spanning and thought provoking. The final suggestion is much worth discussing: “consult the way nature has regulated the development of ‘biological algorithms’ since time immemorial” to find guidance on regulating AI. However, I’m stuck with thinking that nature regulates by evolution: chance, trial, and error. Is that what you have in mind? It would be great to hear more about this. 

    • Jovan
      Jovan says:

      Nature and AI
      Kath, nature and society is tricky interplay. It could also be risky. Thus, it needs to handle with utmost care. On the potential side, nature has been long-lasting ‘system’ that survived and evolved and developed. Behind this system, one crucial component is an evolution of DNA (algorithm of nature). Besides, to this ‘mechanic’ aspect, nature has developed a certain level of interaction and communication. Before my walks to Jardin Botanique, I often read Peter Wohlleben’s ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ which explains how – in this case – trees deal with survival, reproduction, and collective memory. They communicate a lot. This is another source of inspiration for a society which is ‘hidden’ from us in plain sight. These are a few examples of why nature can be an essential inspiration in our discussion on AI’s future governance and many other societal issues.

      On the risky side, we should avoid mechanic thinking of transferring natural to human ‘logic’. Nature should be just inspiration and, sometimes, aspiration. The main risk of mechanic moving of natural logic was experienced with ‘social Darwinism’ with survival of fittest as one of the most damaging ideas of 20th century. It was one of the ideological roots of fascism. Unfortunately, survival of fittest extends to our time via ‘radical meritocracy’ as the main guiding principle for running society. Today, people are not killed if they are not fit, but they are marginalised as not being ‘successful’.

      Nature can be just an inspiration but not blueprint for governing AI and society. If nothing else, we can benefit from fresh air and enjoyable walks in parks.

      The Hidden Life of Trees: https://www.amazon.com/Hidden-Life-Trees-Communicate_Discoveries-Secret/dp/1771642483


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