It seems there’s some new disturbing piece of data every day, and the latest, apparently, is that plants are beautiful, thinking creatures who may even be more intelligent than us.
This latest revelation came to me via an interview on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Life Scientific,’ where some eminent scientist comes in each morning for a friendly chat about their favourite teacups and what they’re up to these days, like redesigning the human genome for extra tentacles or breeding cats who can play the violin.
A recent guest was someone who has gained special eminence through her lifelong study of plants, and all that time spent around the delightful things has led her to conclude that, basically, they’re smarter than us.
Ok, so like many things these days, this is largely a question of definition, of shifting the mental deckchairs around, but one justification for the idea is that plants can grow themselves into just about any shape, both to adapt to whatever physical constraints are around them and maximise the level of sunlight they get and so on, whereas stupid, pathetic ‘us’, and indeed any other primate, are pretty much stuck with a head, two arms, two legs etc.
Our consciousness, which increasingly begins to look like not that big a deal, is centralised in one command centre, generally our head, whereas plants resemble sleek new corporations by being considerably less centralised.
No, apparently there’s a lot more to them than brainlessly seeking to follow the sun. The functions which this eminent scientist believes constitute intelligence are much more efficiently distributed throughout the various shapes a plant can transform itself into.
It would probably have been indelicate to ask why, if plants are so smart, they can’t avoid being eaten by less intelligent animals, but maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe they actually want to be eaten.
But it’s not the first sign of a complete scientific rethink when it comes to our chlorophyll producing brothers, sisters and, er, whatevers. Not so long ago, a forester in Germany came up with the exotic idea that the trees in the ancient woodland he was looking after had actually evolved their own information sharing network, a sort of arboreal internet, if you will.
Apparently, other trees in the forest could tell when one tree had been attacked by a parasite, because these other trees began producing a substance to repel the parasite. When a tree was sick or in need of nutrition, other trees, through their organic sharing network, started directing extra resources and food towards the tree that was in trouble.
To a cynic like me, I’m afraid it all sounds a bit like the half-baked environmentalism which passed for a guiding ‘scientific philosophy’ in James Cameron’s utterly awful ‘Avatar’ (which comfortably holds the award for most boring ten hours I’ve ever spent in a cinema), but this apparently has at least some of the weight of ‘real science’ behind it.
It calls to mind that scene in poor old Douglas Adams’ ‘Restaurant at the end of the Universe’ where a horrified Arthur Dent is presented with a talking cow that actually wants him to eat it for dinner. The cow expresses great disapproval when Arthur defiantly insists on having a green salad.
“Why shouldn’t I have a green salad?” Arthur demands. “Well sir, I know some tomatoes with very definite views on the subject,” the cow informs him.
I used to think this was one of the least plausible ideas in the entire Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (some achievement in itself) but what if the cow was right? If plants are really that intelligent, then surely they have very definite opinions on whether we should eat them or not? Maybe things like poison ivy and mold are their very early ways of fighting back?
The woman on the Life Scientific made the point that we have anthropomorphised, i.e. projected human feelings and ideas, on to animals to an extent which has led to a great deal of misunderstanding about how nature actually functions. It is ‘red in tooth and claw,’ after all, regardless of how much money Disney has made convincing you otherwise.
But my question is far more mundane: if it turns out that plants are now thinking creatures, full of great ideas and beautiful emotions, then what the hell is left to eat? Soylent Green? Are our ‘big brains,’ to paraphrase an idea from that wise old wizard, Kurt Vonnegut, literally thinking themselves into extinction?