• Phil Tanny
    An interesting article on Quartz entitled....

    A debate over plant consciousness is forcing us to confront the limitations of the human mind

    ...brings our focus on to the inner life of plants.

    The article notes that plants communicate with each other, and can identify and assist other members of their species. A radio program I heard recently on NPR claimed that some trees can identify their own offspring.

    I heard a fascinating interview with Monica Gagliano on NPR last night which discussed her experiments which demonstrated the ability of plants to learn and remember.


    An Experiment

    Gagliano experimented with a mimosa, a plant which folds up it's leaves in a defensive posture any time they are touched. She set up a mechanism which would drop the plant a short distance.

    At first the leaves curled up on every drop. But after a bit the mimosa learned that the small drop was not really a threat, and so it stopped curling it's leaves. Gagliano removed the plant from the experiment for a month, and then tried again. The plant remembered that the drop was not harmful, and didn't fold up it's leaves.

    The point of the experiment was to demonstrate that the mimosa could learn, and remember, even though it has no brain or nervous system. If we were to claim that this isn't really intelligence but just mechanical behavior, then when we learn and remember is that just mechanical behavior too?

    Knowledge Vs. Experience

    In the NPR interview with Monica Gagliano, she claimed that plants had reached out to communicate with her personally. I would be tempted to dismiss this claim as a product of excessive enthusiasm, except that she also said something which I know to be true from my own experience, and that kept my mind open.

    Gagliano pointed to what seems to me to be a very important topic of it's own when she stated that there is a meaningful difference between collecting facts about nature, and direct experience of nature. She claimed, and I agree, that in the age of modern science we too quickly dismiss the insights of those who have spent thousands of years exploring the direct experience.

    Science is built upon observation of nature. Ok, so far, so good. But really, much or most of the time the scientific enterprise is not engaged in observation of nature, but in observation of our thoughts about nature, which is something quite different. To the degree that is true, we aren't really engaging the real world, but rather symbols which point to the real world. This is a big topic, so all I'll say for now is that I get the sense that Gagliano understands fundamental issues like this, and that will keep me listening to what she has to share.

    How To Define Intelligence?

    The article on Quartz seems to correctly suggest that whether one considers plants intelligent or conscious depends largely on how one defines those words. I've been wrestling with this very problem in an article which asks whether reality is intelligent.

    What words can best describe seemingly intelligent behavior like learning and remembering which arise in species so different than our own? To complicate matters further, what words should we use when nature itself acts in a manner which we would label as intelligent if we were doing it? I don't know.

    Science Or Religion?

    Danny Chamovitz, director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University in Israel, claims that plants don't care about us, and the Quartz article replies with the challenge that actually Chamovitz can't prove that claim, no one can.

    It's interesting to me how similar science culture can sometimes be to religion, I suppose because both are human enterprises.


    As example, were I to propose the existence of a God, I would quite reasonably be asked to prove that claim, something no one can do. But if a scientist were to claim, as they typically do, that evolution has no intention or goal, we are apparently expected to accept this statement on faith without questioning, even though this claim too can not be proven. I call this cultural phenomena the "science clergy" effect. More on this later.

    A scientist might reply that no intention, goal or intelligence has been discovered or proven in regards to evolution, which seems a true statement. A philosopher might reply in turn that only a century ago before Edwin Hubble the overwhelming vast majority of reality, billions of galaxies, had not been discovered or proven. And yet those galaxies were still there, in spite of our ignorance.

    As the old cliche goes, absence of evidence is not automatically evidence of absence. Quite often absence of evidence is just evidence of ignorance.

    It seems that a deeper investigation of the relationship between plants and intelligence will require us to keep an open mind, and create new language which can more accurately represent new discoveries.

  • Phil Tanny
    I came across a great article on BigThink called The Secret Social Life Of Trees which provides a brief review of a book by Peter Wohlleben called The Hidden Life Of Trees.

    The article on BigThink reports that trees are continually communicating and examining their environment through a relationship with tiny fungi that combine with the tree's roots. Using this method the trees can determine whether the trees around them are of the same species.

    Trees will assist other trees of the same species when a tree is in trouble by feeding it nutrients. Some trees can identify and assist their own offspring. According to The Hidden Life Of Trees trees even have memories which they can share with their offspring.

    Are trees intelligent? Well, that brings us back to the question of what we mean by intelligence. It does seem clear that there's considerably more going on with trees than we typically think.

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