Monday, March 31, 2014

Musings: Deep Green

One nice thing about airplane travel – perhaps the only nice thing – is the opportunity it affords to catch up on one's reading, which is how I came to finally finish a months-old New Yorker piece, “The Intelligent Plant.”

In it, author Michael Pollen explores some of the exciting research under way in the new field of plant neurobiology:

Its proponents believe that we must stop regarding plants as passive objects — the mute, immobile furniture of our world — and begin to treat them as protagonists in their own dramas, highly skilled in the ways of contending in nature. They would challenge contemporary biology's reductive focus on cells and genes and return our attention to the organism and its behavior in the environment.

Already scientists have discovered that “trees in a forest organize themselves in far-flung networks, using the underground web of mycorrhizal fungi which connects their roots to exchange information and even goods.” They even engage in interspecies cooperation, with evergreen trees tiding over the deciduous ones when they have sugars to spare, then calling in the debt later in the season.

For the forest community, the value of this cooperative underground economy appears to be better overall-health, more total photosynthesis, and greater resilience in the face of disturbance.

Other researchers are finding that plants can act with intention, learn and remember, and that “roots can tell whether nearby roots are self or other, and, if other, kin or stranger.” They can alter the flavor or texture of their leaves to repel, and even kill, browsers. And some, when attacked by caterpillars, can emit chemical distress calls that parasitic wasps — “plant bodyguards” — follow to find and destroy the caterpillars.

Not surprisingly, the findings are meeting with resistance from scientists who do not want to convey to plants the traits of intelligence, feeling and self-awareness that they are only now, and grudgingly, conferring to animals. As Pollan writes:

Descartes, who believed that only humans possessed self-consciousness, was unable to credit the idea that other animals could suffer as pain. So he dismissed their screams and howls as mere reflexes, as meaningless physiological noise. Could it be remotely possible that we are now making the same mistake with plants?

I believe it's not only possible, it's highly likely, seeing as how we have been so wrong so often when we dismiss or downplay the attributes of other species — especially so can justify our careless and easy exploitation of them. And I wondered how human consciousness would be altered if it expanded its understanding to value the plants that actually make every aspect of our existence possible.

Some scientists, such as Stefano Mancuso, are already thinking about that:

[P]lants hold the key to a future that will be organized around systems and technologies that are networked, decentralized, modular, reiterated, redundant — and green, able to nourish themselves on light. “Plants are the great symbol of modernity.” Or should be: their brainlessness turns out to be their strength, and perhaps the most valuable inspiration we can take from them.

Mancuso and others believe that because plants are sensitive and intelligent beings, we are obliged to treat them with respect, protecting their habitat, and avoiding such practices as growing them in monocultures, training them in bonsai and genetic manipulation. That does not preclude eating them; Mancuso notes plants evolved to be eaten, given their modular structure and lack of irreplaceable organs.

Reading the piece reminded me of my original, and enduring, opposition to genetic engineering, which began as resistance to the practice of using plants to create drugs and industrial compounds. I saw it as essentially using them as slave laborers, just like we've done with bees, to their great detriment, and it felt morally wrong. 

I'm sure some will object to my anthropomorphic terms. But just as we're starting to see it's wrong to turn a killer whale into an amusement park attraction, or a monkey into a lab experiment, perhaps one day we'll realize it's equally wrong to treat plants like expendable commodities that exist only to be manipulated or destroyed, as suits our own narrow purposes.


Anonymous said...

The beliefs you speak of regarding plants will probably, and hopefully, be mainstream in a hundred years. It seems to take about that long for an idea to go from complete rejection, to "well, there might be a grain of truth to it", to acceptance among a vocal minority, to a general grudging acceptance among the general population, and finally, to "of course - it's so obvious!". About how long it took us to reject slavery, separate drinking fountains, accept that the environment is worth preserving, that gays are entitled to respect, and perhaps, one day, a bill of rights and constitutional protections of some kind for animals, at least to be "free" from having to spend it's entire life in a cage where it can't move.

Joan Conrow said...

As it turns out, a Nature episode, "What Plants Talk About," aired just last night.

check it out!

Anonymous said...

"drugs and industrial compounds" aside, what about all that the hemp plant has to offer, ie rope, paper , biodegradable plastics, et al? And for that matter building materials from sustainable tree farms and the medicinals herbs and plants offer wether farmed or gathered. Are we to roam around naked and unsheltered grazing like cattle?

Anonymous said...

Too late. UN climate report: we have a narrow window. Translation: we're screwed.

Anonymous said...

each person take responsibility for how you live your own life and how much consumption each of us can reduce.

Joan Conrow said...

1:34. I was referencing using genetic engineering to turn plants into tiny drug labs and industrial factories.

Anonymous said...

Great stories on plants, but their lives are certainly not secret--we simply are ignorant of how complex they are, and thus, of how amazing they are.
However, to conclude that they were "meant" to be eaten is anthropocentric and trying to justify that we humans, at least, have been domesticating/exploiting them for 10,000 years, are "entitled" to eat them, and they were "created" to serve us and our needs. Attempting to interject the GM argument into this is splitting hairs, and unnecessary editorializing.

Simple fact is that humans need plants to survive. They do not need us--nor any other living thing that consumes them--for their survival. Plants are the only self-sustaining organisms alive on earth. Yes, indeed, plants!

Anonymous said...

Plant suffrage now!

Luke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Luke said...

As far as communication and self expression, plants don't do much that computers can't do. Releasing chemical signals in response to stimuli isn't evidence of sentience or intelligence. Same goes for biochemical "memory" of past conditions.

The members of that group of researchers are engaging in creationist-style mystification. It's disingenuous to imply that neuroscience is required to understand these phenomena.

Using their logic, computers should be treated as sentient beings. Computers can pass the mirror test these days- find a plant that can do that.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone see the Mayor's budget?

Vote this clown out before he will bankrupt Kauai.

Why he no furlough the county workers instead of ask for a 5 million dollar budget increase to pay for their salary increases.

Vote all these clowns out of office ASAP.

All the people who was apart of Gas Gate should have to pay back the 14+thousand gallons that they stole in that one year.

What about the other years, how much GAS was stolen?

Anonymous said...

Lots of county gas not used for county business.

Anonymous said...

The excess in the Mayor's budget is from the raises granted in union bargaining. He has to abide to that.
Personally, I'm tired of hearing about the gas BS.

Joan Conrow said...

Yes, Luke, Michael Pollen did mention that many people find it easier to accept the notion of intelligence in computers -- possibly because we created them. ;)

Luke Evslin said...

Thank you Joan, as always, for sparking an interesting conversation.

Anonymous 3:07:
"Simple fact is that humans need plants to survive. They do not need us--nor any other living thing that consumes them--for their survival. Plants are the only self-sustaining organisms alive on earth. Yes, indeed, plants!"

Michael Pollan is actually most famous for saying the opposite. That the most successful plants (corn, potato, cotton etc) are those that have evolved (with our help) to satisfy our needs. And without us, they likely wouldn't survive as they would be rapidly outcompeted by their hardier ancestors. And, those that did survive would do so by evolving into hardier forms. Which, for the most part, means less edible. Look at the produce section of a supermarket, almost none of that existed pre-human and won't exist post-human. Though there are exceptions, almost every plant that we currently rely on for our survival needs us just as much for its survival. We have a mutualistic relationship with what we eat.

Michael Pollan actually uses that argument to justify meat eating. In the Omnivore's Dilemma he uses Polyface Farms (Joel Salatin) as an example of how we can raise animals humanely and sustainably. He uses Polyface's example of intensive rotational grazing practices (as would be in place at Maha'ulepu), that both revitalize soils and produce meat. The end result (according to Pollan and Salatin) is happy cows, happy people, and a happy planet.

Personally, as a vegetarian, I can't take the argument that far. But, I think, when it comes to the ethics of what we eat, there is a huge amount of grey area. Obviously factory farming is unethical. But is Polyface Farms, the antithesis of factory farming, ethical? The cows have the best life possible until the instant that a bolt to the brain ends it. And, those same cows inarguably would immediately go extinct if we didn't eat/milk them. There is definitely room for argument on both sides. Here's an interesting debate on this topic:

And, the gray area on plants/bacteria is even larger. If we can genetically engineer an HIV vaccine, or bacteria to produce carbon neutral petroleum, are they acceptable uses of the technology? And on, and on, and on.

Add in the grey areas of land-use questions and the debate gets even murkier. As Joan highlighted in today's post, which is more acceptable, cows or resorts?

There are no definitive answers. And by drawing a line in the sand on any of these issues we are limiting effective dialogue. As a community, I think the ethical grey area is really important to acknowledge as we collectively evaluate things like GMOs, dairies, and resorts.

Thanks again Joan for bringing up such an interesting topic. (As a point of clarification, I'm not the same "Luke" as posted above).

Joan Conrow said...

Thank you, Luke Evslin, for your very kind words and your deep, thoughtful comment. It's always a pleasure to have you in the conversation, and I know that others share our hunger for more dialogue in these ethical gray areas.

Anonymous said...

Joan, Luke, and Luke E.:
I very much enjoyed this article and contributions. Thank you. Just a couple things to add. One, Botany has always been a step-child within Biology, just as Biology has historically been viewed with barely veiled disdain by the hard (i.e. more reductionist) sciences. However, it is precisely the advances in biology made possible by a reductionist approach (genes), that has led to a appreciation of the complexity (genomes) and recognition of plants as an expression of that complexity. So I guess I would be a bit more sanguine about science and scientists then you come across on this post Joan. Two: I can respect the moral argument against tinkering with genomes in a lab. It does not necessarily mean, however, that this is the best public policy. As Luke E. points out, philosophical purity has a cost and one which our society has decided is too high on many issues. We are not, I would hope, going to take away insulin (GMO derived) from diabetics, for example. We similarly have settled in a grey zone on the topic of when human life begins.