THE INTELLIGENT PLANT
Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora.
BY MICHAEL POLLAN
Michael Pollan (born February 6, 1955) is an American author, journalist, activist, and professor. A 2006 New York Times book review describes him as a “liberal foodie intellectual.
Can Plants Think?
In his latest piece for The New Yorker, Michael Pollan discusses the scientific controversy regarding the field of “plant neurobiology,” and whether plant intelligence exists. Some plants, he writes, can hear caterpillars chomping on a neighbor’s leaves. Others display altruistic behavior towards kin, restraining their growth to allow relatives to thrive. But is any of that evidence of intelligence?
A new branch of plant science is researching what some call “Plant Intelligence”.
But for many other plant scientists, just seeing the words “plant” and “intelligence” side-by-side is enough to send them into paroxysms.
“Preposterous! It is impossible to think WITHOUT A BRAIN! Don’t spread this foolishness! Next thing you know, bloggers will be publishing ridiculous posts about “Plant Intelligence”, and rational thought will grind to a halt.”
But, the research shows there is something going on—if it’s not intelligence, or intention, then what is it?
Michael Pollan recently published an interesting article called “The Intelligent Plant” in the New Yorker about the new research into plants and the debates it has stirred up. He also discussed the topic with Ira Flatow on Science Friday in a segment called “Can Plants Think?”
According to Pollan, the research data clearly shows that plants are a lot more sophisticated than we ever knew. For one thing, they have more senses than we do—they have all of our five senses (including hearing) plus up to 15 senses that we do not. They “communicate” with friends or enemies, can recognize their own kin, even wage war. They hunt, forage, trick their enemies, and even “care” for their young.
They just do it all so slowly or discretely that we never paid much attention.
So, is this all a bunch of overblown hooey? Some say yes. But it is not the research they argue against…it is the descriptors. Care, hunt, think, communicate…to many scientists, these are terms that belong only to the Animal Kingdom.
And, no one is questioning the scientific data. It is clear plants are a lot more complicated than we knew. The sticking point seems to be how to describe it. Are plants really exhibiting intelligence? How can anything without a brain, without a single neuron, think?
I like the way Pollan turned the debate upside down. It’s not that plants are like us, but that we are like plants. After all, he argues, we have always considered that our brains are the locus of the Self, sort of like a Central Command Center. Yet, when you look at the brain, there is no one location you can pinpoint as being “in charge”. The brain is a network—much like networks found in the plant world. For example, in forests, trees are connected to each other through amazingly complex fungal/root networks that seem to show “behaviors” like awareness and sharing. (I wrote about this in a post last year, called Mother Trees.”
I find the subject fascinating. Intelligence, competence, instinct—whatever you call it, I think we’ll end up finding out the plant world is much richer and more interesting that we ever knew.
I can’t wait to find out more.
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an artistic, imaginative look at nature and the world
DENISE DAHN, ARTIST/WRITER