Smarty Plants: Research Shows they Think, Feel, and Learn

An essay in New Scientist called "Root Intelligence" is a fascinating read

Posted Dec 09, 2014

I just received the latest issue of New Scientist magazine and discovered a most fascinating essay by Anil Ananthaswamy called "Roots of Consciousness." The online version, called "Root intelligence: Plants can think, feel and learn," is available only to subscribers, so here are some snippets that should whet your appetite for more. Subscribers to New Scientist can find the entire essay here

I hope this essay receives a wide readership because it shows how, when we keep open minds, both the nonhuman animals (animals) and plants with whom we share Earth are fascinating in their own right. Based on this essay, there are some compelling reasons to refer to plants as "who" rather than "that" or "which," and I'm sure this claim will generate some serious discussion and debate, as it should. 

Some intriguing snippets from Mr. Ananthaswamy's essay:

It begins: "Had Aristotle hung out among redwoods, he might not have consigned plants to the bottom rungs of his 'ladder of life'. But he didn't, and botanists have been tormented by his legacy. For centuries, few dared challenge his judgement. Now that's finally changing. In the past decade, researchers have been making the case for taking plants more seriously. They are finding that plants have a sophisticated awareness of their environment and of each other, and can communicate what they sense. There is also evidence that plants have memory, can integrate massive amounts of information and maybe pay attention. Some botanists argue that they are intelligent beings, with a 'neurobiology' all of their own. There's even tentative talk of plant consciousness."

"Charles Darwin would have approved. He was the first to seriously question Aristotelian ideas that plants don't have the stuff of life that animates us and other animals, simply because they don't move. One of his books, published in 1880, was provocatively titled The Power of Movement in Plants. But despite this patronage, plants didn't catch the fancy of biologists pondering intelligent life for more than a century."

"Take the parasitic vine Cuscuta, also known as dodder. In time-lapse, a dodder seedling seems to sniff the air looking for a host, and when it finds one, it lunges and wraps itself around its victim. It even shows a preference, choosing tomato over wheat, for example. 'It is remarkably snakelike in the way it behaves,' says [the University of Edinburgh's Anthony] Trewavas. 'You'll stop doubting that plants aren't intelligent organisms, because they are behaving in ways that you expect animals to behave.'"

There's also what researchers call "underground intelligence." "A root is a complex assemblage. There's the root cap, which protects the root as it navigates through soil, but also senses a wide range of physical properties, such as gravity, humidity, light, oxygen and nutrients. Behind this is the meristem, a region of rapidly dividing cells. Further back is the elongation zone, where cells grow in length, allowing the root to lengthen and bend. And between the meristem and the elongation zone is a curious region called the transition zone ... Traditionally, it was thought to have no purpose, but Baluska and Mancuso think it is actually the nerve centre of the plant."

While there is some skepticism about just "who" plants are and what they are capable of knowing and feeling, even the skeptics "don't dispute that plants are extremely aware of their environment, and are able to process and integrate information in sophisticated ways. In fact, a plant's awareness of its environment is often keener than an animal's precisely because plants cannot flee from danger and so must sense and adapt to it." In another essay in New Scientist called "Rooted in experience: The sensory world of plants," you can read about research that shows that plants see light and have a sense of smell, taste, touch, and hearing.  

People are beginning to seriously discuss what this new research means, including for vegetarians or vegans. I like to say when animals are served up as a meal it's a matter of "who's" for dinner, not "what's" for dinner. Perhaps some will want to reconsider how they refer to a plate full of vegetables.

I found this essay to be a fascianting read for a number of reasons. Plant philosopher - yes, this is really what some scholars are being called -- Michael Marde, of the University of the Basque Country in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, notes, "the sessile nature of plants means they don't exist in opposition to the place they grow. Rather, they become a focal point for myriad organisms." He goes on to say, "Maybe we can use that model for ourselves, to temper a little bit the excessive separation from our environment that has led in large part to the profound environmental crisis we find ourselves in."

The free teaser image can be found here

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also)Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also)Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also), and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistenceThe Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) will be published in 2015. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff