Smarty Plants – On Plant “Intelligence”, the “Vegetal Life” and Philosophical Botany

Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone at home?
” – Pink Floyd

What’s New In Plant Neurobiology?

We’ve had a pretty nice summer here in the upper left-hand corner of the USA. Consequently, I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors, away from my office. But now that the weather is turning cooler, wetter, and more like fall, I’ve had a chance to catch up on what’s new in plant neurobiology (so that you don’t have to).

First off, the Society for Plant Neurobiology that was founded in 2005 has changed it’s name. It’s now known as the Society of Plant Signaling and Behavior. According to its website, the name of the society was changed to “expand its view”, but I suspect another reason for the change was because many scientists were uncomfortable with the concept of “plant neurobiology”. (Please see here (PDF), for example.)

Anyway, this past summer the Society of Plant Signaling and Behavior (SPSB) had a meeting just up the road from me, in Vancouver, BC. I was able to peruse the program here (PDF), including a list of speakers and the titles of their talks. One of the invited speakers, Michael Marder, caught my eye because I had read some controversial articles by him last year in the New York Times, to wit: If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them? and Is Plant Liberation on the Menu?.

Dr. Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz, and he has apparently spent the past few years thinking a lot about the metaphysical nature of plants. (For PDFs of some of his recent articles, please see here.)

With titles like “The Life of Plants and the Limits of Empathy” and “Plant Intelligence and Attention” it looks like we are getting into some pretty deep intellectual waters here. So, I strapped on my intellectual chest waders and sploshed in.

Though much of what I encountered was a bit deeper than I wanted to go, here’s my take on the subject.

secret-life-plants.gif“The Secret Life of Plants” Redux?

Basically what Marder is saying is that plants possess a kind of sentience. Unfortunately, to people over 60 (like me), this notion is reminiscent of a book that was published nearly 40 years ago.

In the early 1970’s, one of the most popular books on college campuses was The Secret Life of Plants: a Fascinating Account of the Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Relations Between Plants and Man, a book that I’ve mentioned in a previous post. (See also Wikipedia)

Briefly, this book was famous (infamous?) for proposing that plants are sentient beings. But the authors go way beyond this idea by claiming that plants can somehow read our minds. Indeed, one of the authors claims that he could control his garage-door-opener connected to a plant that could read his thoughts, even a 1000 miles away.

Of course, this is totally preposterous. Most of their so-called “evidence” was based on plant lore and pseudoscience. But remember, this was the 1970s, the Age of Aquarius. The book reportedly sold millions of copies and was made into a documentary movie, with a Stevie Wonder soundtrack. (If you have 90 minutes you want to kill, you can even view the entire 1979 movie here.)

Fast-forward to the 21st century…

Though we’re certainly no longer in the “Age of Aquarius”, the idea that plants possess some sort of sentience lives on.

A recent example is Prof. Marder’s book Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, published earlier this year.

Though I have not read the book, I have read an extensive review of it here. From this, as well as several other papers I’ve read on the subject of plant intelligence by Dr. Marder, it’s clear that he is investigating the margins of philosophy. Perhaps he should be congratulated for being willing to explore such terra incognita. But I remain unconvinced.

As described in a previous post, I’m skeptical of comparing plants to animals or humans. (But I suppose that I’m just being an old curmudgeon.)

My feelings about Dr. Marder’s ideas are nicely summarized by comment posted in response to one of his articles in the New York Times, to wit: “Those involved in the science of botany and biology have every right to investigate the ability of plants to communicate with their fellows, and it’s interesting to see the ways that all living things have adapted to improve their chances of survival. But let a philosopher get hold of an otherwise interesting scientific topic, and suddenly we’re talking about the who-ness of peas, and the existential lives of salad greens. We’re not at the “frontiers of dietary ethics.” We’re wandering in the foothills of la-la land.” – from comment by “gemli” (Boston) re. “If Peas Can Talk,…” in NYTimes.

Philosophy is a walk on the slippery rocks.” – Edie Brickell & New Bohemians – “What I Am”

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