What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by DANIEL CHAMOVITZ
Scribe Publications (2017) RRP $29.99 SOMETIMES SCIENCE IS about being wrong, and sometimes honesty is about admitting it.
The first condition is an unavoidable consequence of inquiry: you make findings and build theories on the available evidence. Later, if more evidence becomes available that doesn’t fit, the theory must change.
Us-born biologist Daniel Chamovitz, now dean of the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University, is an honest scientist.
His pop-science book What A Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses was first published in 2012. A detailed and witty examination of plant genetics and physiology, it became a global hit, arguably the best-selling botany book since The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird in 1973.
Given the book’s success, it is not surprising Chamovitz and his publishers opted for a revised edition. However, what does raise eyebrows – and elicits respect – is the statement by the author in the prologue “that the new edition contains groundbreaking information that completely contradicts conclusions made in the first”.
The details of these contradictions need not concern us here, but something more general should be underlined. Despite altering his analysis from time to time, Chamovitz does not alter his approach, which is that of a rigorously disciplined geneticist. There is much enthusiasm in his writing, but it is always bolstered by research, broadly conducted and meticulously referenced.
As with the original edition, Chamovitz explores plants ranging from algae to Douglas firs, characterising their responses to environmental stimuli and genetic mechanics in terms of five human senses, as well as memory and sense of place. It is a device that works very well.
What A Plant Knows is a fascinating read. “My book is not The Secret Life of Plants,” Chamovitz writes. “If you’re looking for an argument that plants are just like us, you won’t find it here.”