Why that’s so difficult for us to accept – and why we should give them a second look.
In an essay for The New Yorker entitled “The Intelligent Plant,” food writer Michael Pollan explored the evidence that plants exhibit intelligent behavior, and the scientific community’s debate over accepting it. Most plant scientists seem to accept that plants exhibit intelligent behavior, such as remembering events, knowing their position in relation to other objects, hearing, communicating with and sharing nutrients with relatives, and in general making “decisions” based on the complex set of information they sense from the environment around them. (For example, plants will “reroute” their root growth away from an obstacle even before they reach it.) What’s more abrasive for scientists than accepting the evidence, Pollan argues, is grappling with how to interpret it, and what it means about how we label plants. Maybe even more disturbing though, are the questions plant intelligence bring up in terms of how we label ourselves in relation to the world around us.
Whether we can define plants as “intelligent” or “conscious,” Pollan says, depends on what our definitions of those terms are. And since we approach those words with an anthropocentric slant, we’d have to rethink or reapproach our understanding of these concepts in order to grapple with the evidence of plant intelligence in a truly meaningful way.
Anthropocentrism, in the form of brain and neuron elitism, is a main argument for plant intelligence naysayers. Plants don’t have neurons or the central intelligence center we call a brain, some scientists say, so how could they possibly exhibit intelligent behavior? Other scientists argue that (per Pollan) “‘brains and neurons are a sophisticated solution but not a necessary requirement for learning,’ and that there is ’some unifying mechanism across living systems that can process information and learn.’” But how does that “unifying mechanism” work? According to Daniel Champovitz in What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, we know plants take in information from root to leaf and somehow coordinate it to take actions that are optimal for their situation or environment – we just don’t fully understand the processes behind how this happens yet.
(And, having a brain is not desirable for plants in the first place. Plants evolved to be able to regenerate when eaten and manipulated, so irreplaceable parts like a brain are a liability in their situation. We should be appreciative of plants’ difference – without them, we wouldn’t exist. We’re entirely dependent on their abilities to eat light and convert it into the food we eat, to produce the oxygen we breathe.)
Life is a spectrum that has expressed itself in millions of ways over billions of years on Earth – evolving from single celled organisms like bacteria to algae to eventually more complex plants and animals like bananas, monkeys and humans. All life except for that first single celled organism represents a modification from a prior organism, and as a result we all share a similar genetic makeup – as humans, for example, we share about 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and 50% of our DNA with bananas. And while we understand that, genetically and historically, we’ve evolved from plants and animals, that the “stuff” of our bodies is of the same “stuff” as what makes them up, we still hold onto our “otherness,” the belief that we’re separate from, in a way more “special” than, nature.
A carnivorous sundew plant chomping down on an insect!
So for scientists grappling with plant intelligence, there’s a friction between accepting the evidence and threatening the validity of the story we’ve created—that we are “other,” “greater than,” “smarter than,” that our relationship with the other living things on Earth is a dominant one. We’ve created an imaginary boundary between ourselves and “nature,” and we’re not necessarily comfortable with revisiting that assumption. Pollan says, “Since “The Origin of Species,” we have understood, at least intellectually, the continuities among life’s kingdoms—that we are all cut from the same fabric of nature. Yet our big brains, and perhaps our experience of inwardness, allow us to feel that we must be fundamentally different—suspended above nature and other species as if by some metaphysical “skyhook”…”
Why do we perceive ourselves to be so different than nature? In a word, ideology.
It’s difficult for us to see “eye to eye” with plants because we’re on a completely different playing field in terms of how we perceive and experience the world. Let’s approach this through a Lacanian lense, in which nature is “truth” or what’s called “the real”—a concept that’s difficult for us to pin down but consists of the state of nature that we’re forever disconnected from as soon as we enter into language and culture. We perceive the world through a fog we know as “reality,” a version or story of the truth. It’s very difficult for us to experience “the real,” says Lacan, but it can happen by acting unconsciously, such as being scared suddenly or when dreaming. But most of the time we operate in our fog.
(Since our reality is, by definition, a state removed from the “truth,” some of our thoughts, assumptions and symbols are inherently wrong, or are in juxtaposition to what really is. But that’s what makes us human, and ideology is fundamental to our reality.)
Plants, alternatively, aren’t tainted by the veil of ideology. They don’t have language and culture. Yet, they’re living things that are a part of and directly experiencing “the real.” Not simply an inert copy of DNA, each plant is a unique life form that will only exist in that specific form one time, will experience things and learn, will grow and change and has the potential to die. Embodying a form of “the real,” plants are a living form of truth, then, and a truth that we should aspire to knowing.
Plants have the potential to teach us; they present a means to catch bits of truth or knowledge from that realm that is so difficult for us to imagine, “the real.” And while “we” are operating through a modern, Western lens, in which we largely ignore plants except when we’re mass producing, gardening or eating them, many differing indigenous cultures throughout history have claimed that they gained knowledge from plants. For these cultures that lived with a much higher level of interaction with nature, extensive knowledge of the medicinal aspects of plants, for example, including which species to use for what ailment and what to do with the plant to bring out the medicinal properties, they say, was found not through trial and error but from learning what actions to take directly from the plants themselves. [See The Secret Teachings of Plants: In the Direct Perception of Nature.]
Some plants, such as Peyote in Mexico, Ayahuasca in the Amazon or Cannabis in differing parts of the world, are used recreationally or in rituals for healing purposes, for introspection or to enter an altered state where life changing insights may be gained. In his new article for The New Yorker, “The Trip Treatment,” Pollan describes the resurgence of studies using psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), as a means to help assuage fear and anxiety surrounding death in cancer patients. Subjects of the studies regularly report gaining a sense of calm or renewed happiness after their experience with the drug, which scientists say helped them understand “objective truth about reality,” and incited general wonder about and openness toward the world around them. As Pollan suggests, disassociating from the ego, delving into the unconscious and understanding how consciousness may exist in some form after death may explain why these experiences are so life changing and reassuring.
For us here in the modern, Western world, gaining metaphysical knowledge from plants may sound far fetched and whimsical. But in a much different way than indigenous cultures have, we’re starting to appreciate the special abilities of plants through science. How we interpret and use the evidence of plant intelligence is up to us.
We have a power to manipulate nature that no other species does; how we use that power is part of what makes us human. No matter how much power and importance we project onto ideology, the biology of ourselves, the stuff of our bodies will follow the laws of nature, because we are nature, we come from nature. The idea that we are not or that we don’t is imaginary. If nothing else, we should take this opportunity to pay more attention to plants, work with and study their innate abilities, and treat them as a companion on the Earth, rather than an inanimate object to be abused. They could have a lot to teach us about the nature of really is, about love and purpose.
Have you ever paused to feel the presence of a plant? Have you ever sat in a forest, with sunlight streaming through the trees and nature, untouched by the human hand, in all directions, and just listened? Felt the energy? I have a distinct memory from a hike to the hilly areas in Virginia near my college, sitting on a large rock, feeling the sunshine, listening to the wind and birds chirping and the peaceful quiet, feeling the trees surrounding me, and a sense just hitting me, that this place was holy. I felt that I was in a sort of cathedral; a collective life force, an energy that commands a feeling of respect. Of life connecting, starting, growing, living and dying.