Se­cret life of plants

A new book re­in­forces the fact that plants have in­tel­li­gence and a com­plex sen­sory net­work

Down to Earth - - COLUMN -

Ffol­low­ing Descartes’ ‘I-am-thinkOR CEN­TURIES, there­fore-I-am’ mo­ment, western science looked upon an­i­mals as wit­less crea­tures given to pure in­stinct, nei­ther blessed with in­tel­li­gence nor ca­pa­ble of sens­ing pain or plea­sure. How­ever, re­search in re­cent decades has hum­bled this chau­vin­is­tic view by demon­strat­ing that an­i­mals too can think and feel. The global cam­paign for an­i­mal rights is a clear vin­di­ca­tion of this new par­a­digm.

But what about plants? Since we are all cut out from the same fab­ric of life, shouldn’t we re­vise our view of them as “un­think­ing”, “un­feel­ing” or­gan­isms too, just as we did in the case of an­i­mals? A band of mav­er­ick plant sci­en­tists is out to demon­strate that plants are just as sen­tient and in­tel­li­gent, al­beit not in the same way as we understand it, and hence should have rights.In a re­cently pub­lished book, Bril­liant Green: The Sur­pris­ing History and Science of Plant In­tel­li­gence, Ste­fano Man­cuso, an Ital­ian plant phys­i­ol­o­gist, has laid out the the­o­ret­i­cal ar­gu­ments as well as the ex­per­i­men­tal ev­i­dence back­ing the un­ortho­dox idea of plant in­tel­li­gence. His start­ing point: be­cause plants, un­like an­i­mals, are rooted to the Earth, they have evolved a com­plex and highly so­phis­ti­cated sen­sory para­pher­na­lia to deal with its im­me­di­ate en­vi­ron­ment.He and his fel­low trav­ellers have de­tected at least 15 senses in plants,five of them cor­re­spond­ing to our own.For in­stance, plants can smell and taste by “sniff­ing” and re­act­ing to chem­i­cals present in the air; or they can see by re­spond­ing to light of dif­fer­ent wave­lengths.

Much of this se­cret life of plants is re­vealed by painstak­ing ex­per­i­ments. For in­stance, Heidi Ap­pel, a chem­i­cal ecol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Mis­souri,re­cently dis­cov­ered that when she played the sound of a cater­pil­lar nib­bling on a leaf to a plant never gnawed by one,the plant im­me­di­ately moved into bat­tle-gear by emit­ting toxic chem­i­cals.In an­other ex­per­i­ment at Man­cuso’s lab,a root was found grav­i­tat­ing to­wards a wa­ter pipe, suggest­ing it was prob­a­bly “eaves­drop­ping” on the sound of gur­gling wa­ter. How­ever, can we in­fer from th­ese ex­per­i­ments, as Man­cuso and his Arg­onauts do, that plants have in­tel­li­gence, feel pain, can re­mem­ber, are ca­pa­ble of in­ten­tion,and in­deed have con­scious­ness?

Crit­ics find the in­ter­pre­ta­tions fool­ishly fan­tas­tic. They be­lieve that what Man­cuso calls in­tel­li­gence is sim­ple adap­ta­tion. Clearly, there is a deep di­vide over what con­sti­tutes in­tel­li­gence.The key ques­tion is whether we can imag­ine fac­ul­ties like mem­ory, in­ten­tion, and per­cep­tion,with­out in­vok­ing the brain? Man­cuso be­lieves we can. He imag­ines in­tel­li­gence in plants as a gestalt act, in which mil­lions of cells ex­change sig­nals in a com­plex net­work, not very dif­fer­ent, he claims, from the way an­i­mal in­tel­li­gence arises from com­plex in­ter­ac­tion of neu­rons.

When asked if plants can think, feel, have mem­ory, show in­tel­li­gence or in­ten­tion, in­vari­ably the first re­sponse of Man­cuso and his kin­dred sci­en­tists is to ques­tion the def­i­ni­tion so that they could broaden its am­bit and thereby make sense of what they mean by in­tel­li­gence in plants. As he told the New Yorker, “I de­fine it sim­ply. In­tel­li­gence is the abil­ity to solve prob­lems.” If we do con­cede that plants are in­tel­li­gent and that they prob­a­bly feel pain even, what does it mean to talk about plant rights? Man­cuso clar­i­fies that it doesn’t mean we can’t eat them,for they have evolved to be eaten. How­ever, he be­lieves we don’t have the right to de­stroy them,nor mod­ify them ge­net­i­cally.

Charles Dar­win too be­lieved that plants have a brain and that it is lo­cated in the roots. And just over a cen­tury ago, a young In­dian sci­en­tist, J C Bose, was car­ry­ing out sem­i­nal ex­per­i­ments to demon­strate plants can think and feel pain. Re­gret­tably, while the re­cent me­dia ar­ti­cles on Man­cuso’s work men­tion Dar­win’s name, Bose has been ig­nored by the western me­dia.

TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE

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