Will You Please Stop Zoomorphizing Plants, Please.

zoomorphize (verb) – to ascribe animal features to something

know (verb) – to hold information in mind; to realize something; to comprehend something

What A Plant Knows.9780374288730

What prompted this blog post was a recently-published book called What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz, which I recently purchased and quickly read (mostly because, as someone who taught plant physiology for years, I was already familiar with most of the information in the book).

I won’t tell you much about this book since there is a nice web page will all sorts of information about it here, including author interviews.

With chapters entitled “What a Plant Sees”, “What a Plant Smells”, etc., this book relies heavily on zoomorphizing plants as a means to introduce the reader to various plant sensory mechanisms.

I enjoyed the book (mostly) and would certainly recommend it to folks who’ve never had a plant physiology class, but statements like “…the Venus Flytrap feels its prey…” made me cringe a bit.

And after having encountered a few more of these “cringe-worthy” phrases while reading the book, I felt like saying to the author: “Will you please stop zoomorphizing plants, please.”

To his credit, however, Dr. Chamovitz repeatedly reminds the reader about the distinctions between plant “senses” and human senses.

These distinctions have been somewhat blurred in recent years by controversial subjects such as so-called “plant neurobiology” and “plant intelligence”, mentioned in previous posts.

Maybe plant scientists invent such concepts in order to get more research money, more respect, or both. Who knows?

But the question remains: What does a plant “know“?

A Plant “Knows” Diddly-Squat.

Even small children can distinguish plants from animals.

And most people would say that plants don’t have a brain or nervous system. And, of course, they would be correct.

Consequently, plants can not, in reality, “see”, “smell”, “feel”, “hear”, or “remember” things, like animals can.

And plants certainly don’t “know” stuff the way that we “know” stuff.

Plants are incapable of holding a thought, “realizing” something, or “comprehending” anything. Simply put, plants don’t “know” anything. (Heck, your smartphone probably “knows” more than the average plant, e.g., please see Which is more intelligent? An iPhone or a plant?).

Despite all this, we plant scientists often feel the need to explain plant functions (plant physiology) through zoomorphizing the plants, that is, by using animal metaphors to which, we presume, most people can relate. (I certainly have been guilty of this myself on this blog.)

For example, I might say that plants can “see” red and far-red light. Plants do indeed have photoreceptors called phytochromes in their leaves to detect these wavelengths of light in order to provide information to the plant about its environment. But, of course, a plant can’t really “see” its surroundings like an animal with eyes can.

But if you think that it’s OK to say that plants “see” or “hear” or “remember” or even “know” things, are you really very far removed from accepting notions about plants like those found in such books as The Secret Life of Plants? (And most rational people don’t want to go that far!)

Maybe it’s time to stop zoomorphizing plants so much.

Sometimes I wonder whether it would be better to both teach about plants and study plants from the perspective of how different they are from animals.

Despite the fact that plants and animals share common cellular ancestors, being quite similar at the cellular level, they diverged over 1 billion years ago. And few would disagree that they are very different life-forms.

Indeed, compared to us, plants truly are “alien” life-forms.

If we approached plants in education and research from this perspective, rather than continue to be restricted by animal metaphors, wouldn’t it encourage more creative ways to teach, to investigate, and to really know about how plants work?

Just a thought……

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