The Secret Life of Plants By Brian Simpson

     When I was in high school, there was a book The Secret Life of Plants, which was popular. I never read it, but I think it argued that plants are not mere mechanisms, but have a mental life. Well, the author was onto something, although mainstream scientists, dismissed the work as pseudo-science. Well, even so, it was more interesting than the unreplicable bs that they produce, usually for big business’ profits.

“In a major breakthrough, Italian researcher Umberto Castiello from the University of Padua gathered together a selection of studies supporting the idea that plants can sense, feel, think and even communicate among themselves. Castiello said he hopes to fuel a discussion regarding the cognitive abilities of plants, such as those often observed in humans and animals. Discussions on plants as cognitive agents could help lead scientists to the “roots” of cognition, he added. His findings appeared online in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Plants are capable of thought and communication
Recent evidence for plant learning continues to accumulate. In one experiment that Castiello found, scientists demonstrated that Venus flytraps conserved their energy by “counting” time and “remembering” triggers. In particular, scientists noticed that the plant closed its trap closure if an insect triggered its hairs twice within 20 seconds, no more and no less. This demonstrates that the plant is capable of both counting time in the conventional sense and keeping track of triggers. The scientists speculated that the plant might be relying on these key factors so that it doesn’t risk losing energy by mistaking raindrops or debris for prey. In another experiment, scientists demonstrated that the Mimosa pudica plant is capable of remembering, too. M. pudica is a creeping plant that droops and closes its leaves in response to touch and other external stimuli. For the experiment, scientists dropped the plant from a six-inch height 60 times in succession. During the first couple of drops, the plant kept folding its leaves in response to the stimulus. But near the end of the experiment, the plant stopped folding its leaves. Castiello noted that the plant could have “realized” or understood that being dropped from that height caused no real damage. He added that the plant’s “learned” reflex lasted up to a month, thus demonstrating the expression of a long-lasting memory, a cognitive ability thought to be unique to humans and animals only. Furthermore, a third experiment found that shrubs can “recognize” their kin. Scientists came to this conclusion after they noticed that shrubs released more chemicals that deterred predators if planted near their relatives. This inter-plant communication also came into play during times of scarcity. In particular, plants experiencing a lack of water communicated this to their neighboring plants through their roots. This then prompted those plants to start conserving their water stores. In effect, this kind of communication benefits all plants, since those with more water could share or ration it to those in need.

Sophisticated plant behavior could indicate cognitive competence
Plants might not have a brain, but these selected experiments prove that plants are capable of “learning,” just as much as humans or animals. Plant responses are still too complex to be fully understood, said Castiello. For this reason, the idea that plants could be cognitive agents, or living things capable of thought and other cognitive abilities, might be baffling to both the public and experts alike. But as evidence of sophisticated plant behavior continues to expand, the idea that plants are capable of various cognitive abilities and, as such, could be considered cognitive agents might not seem as far-fetched as earlier plant studies made them out to be.

“The idea of trees talking – and humans understanding them – is a hot topic in environmental science. But for Suzanne Simard, a biologist and a pioneer of inter-plant communication research from the University of British Columbia, the idea that trees talk isn’t up for debate. In her 1997 doctoral thesis published in the journal Nature, Simard first demonstrated that trees are capable of communication and share an intelligence similar to insect colonies. Decades of research and further studies later, Simard described and elucidated the mechanisms behind these inter-plant connections and ecological relationships in a TED talk on the secret language of trees.

Redefining communication
The concept of a “tree language” isn’t as far-fetched to Simard as it might seem to experts and skeptics alike. Simard has devoted more than three decades of her career among trees and forests in attempting to understand their behaviors, the ecological relationships among them and the mechanisms behind both. For decades, scientists understood little about the supposed connections and relationships among trees. For this reason, Simard’s initial work was groundbreaking at the time, as it had been the first of its kind not only to postulate that there is such a thing as inter-plant communication but also to explore this concept. In her TED talk, Simard describes trees as being capable of communication, thanks to an underground maze of fungal connections. Trees use these connections to exchange signals, she adds, in order to communicate and trade nutrients. She notes that these connections are entangled, such that a group of trees or an entire forest behaves as if it is a single organism. Through her research, Simard established that the complex relationships among trees are reminiscent of the intricate neural connections inside the human brain. In fact, forests even have so-called “mother trees” that act as the central hub or information center, much like the brain. These mother trees are also capable of sending out nutrients to stricken trees. Interestingly, she also found that trees that are too sick to recover can send out their remaining nutrients to their neighbors before expiring. Using radioactive carbon dating, Simard was able to take a much closer look at these interactions. For instance, she found that Birch trees losing their leaves receive extra carbon from Douglas Firs. In turn, Birch trees confer extra carbon to Douglas Firs that do not get enough sunlight. All in all, these processes make it possible for trees to survive through harsh conditions. But on rare occasions, the fungi that trees use to communicate can also be hijacked by selfish trees. However, this type of activity is limited to select plant species. In general, Simard found trees to be altruistic and quite generous in sharing their nutrients. There is a lot more cooperation involved than there is competition, she adds.

The anthropomorphic nature of trees
Perhaps most lauded for his books on trees and other ecological themes, German forester and author Peter Wohlleben also subscribed to the idea that trees talk to each other. But unlike Simard, he took it further, describing trees as being capable of human-like abilities, such as deciding, remembering and demonstrating personalities. He goes as far as claiming that trees are anthropomorphic. People look at nature as if it is a machine and plants as robotic, programmed according to a genetic code, he notes. But much about the ecological communities and connections underground remains unclear. Nonetheless, foresters, biologists and ecologists agree that trees are social beings capable of both competition and commensalism or mutualism. Trees are competitors that struggle against each other for light, space and nutrients, Wohlleben notes, recounting his experiences as a forester. But on the flip side, trees are also capable of sustaining each other, supporting stricken trees, nurturing saplings, and keeping out invasive tree species. Trees use their roots to recognize their “friends” or “families,” he adds. These same roots are thought to be behind trees’ abilities to spot and recognize other trees that are not members of their communities. That being said, these remain suppositions and theories until further research can be done. Nonetheless, these uncertainties just underscore the fact that a host of possibilities remain in attempting to understand the underground connections among trees and entire forests. Taken together, these current studies and research efforts on the “hidden life” of trees and forests confirm at least one thing: Trees speak a language that humans are yet to understand.”

     If all of this is true, then it raises a delightful problem for veganism. If animals are not eaten because of mentation, then the discovery of plant mentation, perhaps of a lower level, would mean that there is a prima facie duty not to eat plants now either.  This leads to the next question of what exactly one would be able to eat … probably nothing, ensuring death, which can’t be good. For me, the entire debate is flawed, since that way of doing ethics, based upon utilitarianism and materialism is flawed. We follow Christianity, which puts humans as number 1, because God says so, so eating animals is no problem at all. It is what God wants us to do. Jesus presumably ate fish, so we know we can at least do that: Luke 5: 6-7. Steak for dinner tonight, and with plenty of plants.



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Thursday, 13 June 2024

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