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.