Plants are people too
The safest generalization one can make about life on earth might describe it as a thin layer of green rust. Much further below the surface of the earth, and even bacteria finds existence made difficult; too high in the atmosphere, and they again become thin. Bacteria represent the oldest form of life, and the most prevalent, but when it comes to multi-cellular life, plants form the bulk of it on this planet. Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis deals largely in the global community of plants, and how they cooperate and share with one another. The entire animal kingdom exists as a kind of auxiliary to the world of plants; laid on top of it, and completely dependent on it. Yet all too often, we turn a blind eye to the secret life of plants, and mistake them for passive, inanimate parts of the scenery.
At the beginning of Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Vision, Theory For Temperate Climate Permaculture, Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier describe an experiment that began with a carefully placed radioactive marker left on a tree stump. A few weeks later, when the researchers returned, they could find that radioactive marker in every plant for a considerable radius from the stump. The roots of each plant connected, one to the next, spreading out around each other and connected by bacteria and fungi. Prior to deforestation, root systems from Maine to Florida connected from one end of the continent to the other, creating a kind of vast super-organism, just below the surface.
Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis ultimately comes down to this kind of plant community, with plants regulating the atmosphere and responding to one another. As Stephen Harrod Buhner explains in The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines for Life on Earth, plants act like chemists.
In 1803 Frederich Seturner isolated the first individual plant constituents from opium and named them alkaloids, some 140 million years after complex land plants created them for reasons of their own. Plant chemistry has not been studied very long in the scheme of things; it is still not very well understood.
Consider: Each of the estimated 275,000 different species of plants on Earth contains several hundred to several thousand unique chemicals. The majority of these species manifest as millions of different individuals, all of them generating different variations, sometimes significantly, on their species’ chemical theme. A plant with one thousand different chemical constituents can literally combine them in millions of different ways. To compound the complexity, these combinations, added to those of other plants or of other organisms, produce synergistic results that are not predictable. Even a tiny change in dosage or combination can produce significantly different outcomes. Basically, the little that people currently know about plant chemistry is not very much. This ignorance is magnified by our tendency (because of our upbringing) to think of plants as insentient salads or building materials engaging in chemical production processes that just happened by accident and, in consequence, have no purpose or meaning. Phytoexistentialism.
Still, here we are. (Buhner, 2002)
Plants regulate the atmosphere, produce medicine for themselves and for every animal species, and form the foundation for the macroscopic level of life on this planet, yet we have only begun to understand their lives. We jealously maintain that they exist only as inanimate, unfeeling, unconscious things. This perspective shrivels up and withers away under the light of the most recent research into the secret lives of plants, giving us evidence that must ultimately force us to ask if we should begin considering plants as people.
How Does a Plant Feel?
One can hardly discuss the notion of plant perception without discussing Cleve Backster. Backster worked with polygraph machines, originally working in interrogations with the CIA. Today, his claim to fame rests with experiments he did hooking up plants to polygraph machines; he claimed that his experiments showed that plants reacted to harm, and even suggestions of harm, even going so far as to suggest that the plants could read human minds, and react to their intentions of harm.
Unfortunately, Backster didn’t understand scientific controls very well. The Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on “Plant perception” lists a host of variables Backster failed to control for, including the possibility that he may have burned the galvanic receptors or other equipment. No one has successfully duplicated Backster’s results with proper controls since then, while his supporters typically contend that they don’t need proper controls.
Backster’s fame has turned the scientific world off of any actual, legitimate study of possible plant perception; the sloppiness and pseudo-scientific light that the affair gathered still makes the idea of plant perception seem like a bunch of New Age, hippy mumbo-jumbo. Fortunately, more serious biologists have continued researching plants, and that has given us a much more solid footing from which to explore the lives of plants.
For instance, researchers from McMaster University published a study in the June 12, 2007 issue of Biology Letters, showing that plants recognize other members of their family.
If kin discrimination via root-root interactions proves widespread, it will profoundly change how we view competition in plants. Our results, because we used maternal sibships, indicate a genetic or maternally derived mechanism for kin recognition involving root communication. However, the mechanism is probably different from the self/non-self mechanism, because plants recognize genetically identical individuals as non-self. Having found kin discrimination once, we expect to find kin discrimination elsewhere in plants, since variable dispersal, variable competitive situations, and increases in fitness when competing with kin, are found in other plants. Other competitive traits, such as stem elongation and apical dominance, are the most probable candidates to exhibit plastic responses contingent on kinship of neighbours. (Dudley & File, 2007)
A collection of studies titled Communication in Plants studies &ldquolant neurobiology,” and the similarities between plant neurology and animal neurology. Researchers have even begun to move towards a mechanism of plant intelligence. Typically, plant perception has met with immediate dismissal because plants lack brains, or anything like brains. It turns out that such a statement doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny; yes, plants lack an animal’s central nervous system, but we’ve begun to see that plants do have a distributed kind of nervous system.
“This new study is very important,” says Richard Jorgensen, an associate professor of plant sciences at the University of Arizona and also an expert in the field. “What they’ve identified is probably a component in a radically new system for communication between cells and between organs of the plant.”
The current picture of the plant’s transportation, or phloem, system looks something like a bustling subway. The tube- shaped sieve elements of the phloem are the subway lines, the companion cells of the sieve elements are the stations, and connecting tunnels called plasmodesmata allow cargoes to move from the stations into the subway lines.
In the Jan. 1 issue of the journal Science, the UC Davis study introduces the new factor, the movement protein.
In the cells of leaves and stems, the movement protein binds to an informative segment of genetic code called messenger RNA (mRNA). Like a subway ticket, the movement protein lets the mRNA enter the plasmodesmal tunnel to the subway line, or phloem translocation stream. Once in the subway line, the complex of movement protein and mRNA travels very rapidly to distant stations located in roots and flowers.
At its destination, the report suggests, the messenger RNA probably influences the level of some other protein. That level conveys information to local tissues about, for instance, the overall physical condition of the plant, the season of the year or the presence of an invading pathogen. (UCD, 1999)
That may seem simplistic, but our own experience of intelligence has its roots in very similar chemical exchanges. The identification of mRNA in plant phloem means that while plants may not have a central nervous system, they do have the equivalent of a brain: a distributed brain that operates throughout their entire organism, rather than concentrated into a single organ (though, even that idea has come under pressure from the findings of neurologists like Antonio Damasio, who summarized the conclusions of his research by saying, “the mind is embodied, not just embrained&rdquo.
Researchers have even discovered the chemical markers of stress in plants, just like they have identified the chemical markers of stress in humans. Such evidence suggests that plants might even experience some analogue of emotion.
Koussevitzky, looking at the end of the signaling pathway, found the corresponding binding factor known that ABI4, a known plant transcription factor. It prevents light-induced regulatory factors from activating gene expression. Additional work in the project had determined that the chloroplast-localized, nuclear-encoded protein GUN1 is required for integrating multiple stress-derived signals within the chloroplast. This work was conducted by the first co-author of the article, Ajit Nott, who was a research associate in Dr. Chory’s lab.
Many of the nuclear genes that encode chloroplast proteins are regulated by a “master switch” in response to environmental conditions. This “master switch,” like a binary computer, can activate or de-activate certain sets of genes based on stress signaling processes.
“One of our suggestions in the paper is that ABI4 seems like a prime candidate to be the ‘master switch,’” Koussevitzky said. “ABI4 binds to a newly identified sequence motif, and by doing so prevents light-induced regulatory factors from activating gene expression. It has a role in so many signaling processes in the plant, it might actually be the ‘master switch’ that researchers have been looking for.” (Trent, 2007)
This kind of plant chemistry might seem too mundane to compare to human intellect, but we should remember that the electrochemical responses of the human brain—what we experience as emotion, intellect, and thought—appear materially only as similar chemical reactions. Animals use the same basic principles for their own central nervous systems. To see those same principles evidenced in plants to transfer information, respond to stress, and even recognize family strongly suggests that while plant perception must undoubtedly differ from animal perception in vast and important ways, we cannot deny the plausibility of its existence without also denying the personhood of our fellow human beings. Ultimately, we can recognize others only by empathy; by recognizing enough of ourselves in the other, that we become able to assign to them the same kind of personhood, autonomy, thoughts and feelings that we ourselves experience firsthand. In general, this becomes difficult unless we can communicate with that other, and recieve feedback to confirm that personhood. So, while we can see the plausibility for plant perception, the next question remains, can plants communicate?
Talking to Plants
When we come to the question of plant commuication, we find ourselves on even firmer ground. If we take “language” with all the arbitrary strictness that linguists have added to it in recent years to fight the losing battle of keeping it unique from the most complex and nuanced animal calls, similarly to the battles fought to maintain human uniqueness in the past in the face of evolution or the heliocentric solar system, then we certainly cannot speak of a plant language. Most obviously, plants do not communicate with sounds, but with the release of chemicals into the air—what animals percieve as scent.
While plants can tell when they are being eaten by herbivorous insects, for example, and begin producing compounds like nicotine or protease inhibitors that are unpalatable or harmful to such insects, they can also release chemical markers that attract predatory insects—essentially taking an attitude of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” and telling insects that might eat the herbivore where they can find dinner. Even if that cry for help goes unanswered, the herbivores themselves “hear” that call, know that the plant has discovered them, and will sometimes retreat, or at the very least, find some other place to lay their eggs.
Researchers have been unraveling these complex interactions between plants and insects since the 1980s, when Marcel Dicke, professor of insect-plant interactions at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, says he was “the first to show that plants communicate with the enemies of their enemies. We know that terpenes are involved and also methyl salicylate.”
Plants have learned not to use such signals without cause. In many species, the hormone methyl salicylate is emitted only when the plant is attacked by insects but not when other types of damage occur, Dicke notes. Apparently, plants recognize chemicals in herbivore oral secretions and in that way can discriminate between pruning shears and a herbivore, he says. (Wilkinson, 2001)
In other words, plant perception and communication carries subtlety and nuance, just like human language, or at least animal calls; plants have different things to “say,” differentiating between an insect’s bite and a blade’s cut.
We’ve even observed plants “eavesdropping” on each other, for their own protection.
Insect-damaged sagebrush has a novel way of broadcasting to nearby plants that a predator is in the area: It releases a bouquet of airborne odors and perfumes.
If wild tobacco is growing nearby, it will “eavesdrop” on these chemical signals, and in response, fortify its defenses against such plant-eaters as caterpillars.
In a study published in a recent issue of Oecologia, Cornell University researchers say they have found that the release of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from a wounded sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) primes the defenses of wild tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata) to prepare for herbivore attacks of its own.
But the tobacco plant holds off actually creating its defenses until it is attacked. That’s because the plant pays a price for deploying its arsenal.
Most of the proteins and compounds used for defense contain nitrogen and carbon, which also are needed to produce seeds. So there is a fitness cost for the tobacco. The defenses are only advantageous to the plant if an herbivore actually attacks, because production of proteins and compounds for defense results in fewer seeds.
“By priming its defense response the plant is not investing resources before it is actually attacked,” said Andre Kessler, the paper’s lead author and an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell. “This could be a crucial mechanism of plant-plant communication.” (Ramanujan, 2006)
We can observe similar eavesdropping among animals: monkeys watch birds for signs of predators, and a bird call signalling a particular predator prompts nearly every animal species in the area to react. In that sense, we have already seen how animals engage in a constant, inter-specific conversation on a fairly continual basis. With the dialogue already established between plants and the most abundant form of animal life—insects—it seems fair to ask whether this conversation might go even further, not just among and between all the animals of a particular place, but between plants and animals, as well.
As previously mentioned, animal life evolved on top of plant life; plants form the foundation of all animal food chains, as the only multi-cellular organisms capable of actually creating food from the sun. From trophic level to trophic level, the entire animal kingdom exists as a community built on top of the plant world. But plants also provide more than just food; they also provide medicine, both for themselves and for every animal species.
Antifungal, antibiotic, or antimicrobial (preinfectious) compounds protect the plant from invading pathogenic organisms. For example: The tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) produces a number of strongly antimicrobial alkaloids (dehydroglaucine and liriodenine) that it stores in its heartwood to protect it from invasion by microorganisms. Chicory (Cichorium intybus) produces a number of strongly antifungal compounds to protect its leaves and roots from pathogenic fungi. The compounds are so potent that even when chicory roots are kept moist on a plate for lengthy periods they will not mold. Other chicory compounds strongly protect against damage or infection from nematodes and other small organisms. Plant antimicrobial compounds such as those in chicory are active against microorganisms in exceptionally minute concentrations, ranging from one part per thousand to one part per million. During infection other kinds of compounds can be brought into play. Aromatic coumarins in such plants as potatoes increase rapidly at the site in response to any pathogenic organism. Cyanogenic compounds are also commonly present in at least a thousand plants where they are released as hydrogen cyanide gas to kill invading organisms.
In many instances invading pathogens release their own compounds that are toxic to the plant. Plants immediately begin to identify these compounds and create chemistries designed to counter them. At the same time, the plant will begin to generate unique compounds&mdashhytoalexins—at the site of infection that are never present in the plant until an infection occurs. When fungal spores take hold on a leaf surface, for instance, and begin inserting growth tubes into the leaf, a plant may begin to synthesize a phytoalexin specific for that fungus. The synthesis begins immediately, can be detected after an hour or two, and reaches its highest concentration in 48 to 72 hours. The phytoalexin is concentrated in leaf cells and pushed out onto the surface of the leaf where the fungus has taken hold. (Buhner, 2002)
This creates the evolutionary foundation of herbalism; why plants make such effective medicine, not only for themselves, but also for animals. Chemoreception—the closely-related senses of smell and taste—show evidence of having developed as one of the very first senses in animals. The ability to understand plant communication offered an essential evolutionary advantage animals required to survive: being able to understand what plants “said” enabled them to find which plants they could eat, which plants would cure their illness, and which plants they needed to survive. With chemicals like pheromones, animals even communicate with one another in the chemical “language” of plants. The universal “odornet” of an ecology comes from both plants and animals, and both plants and animals percieve it, understand it, and act upon it. (Watson, 2001)
In other words, the smells of various plants have meaning, just as the vocalizations of animals have meaning; we can understand those meanings, act on them, and even produce similar signals of our own that communicate our own thoughts and feelings. It may occur at a level of chemical interaction we have become unfamiliar with, and it may not fall under our conscious control, but plants and animals communicate constantly. If you have ever smelled a flower and thought the odor was pleasing, you have experienced plant communication firsthand.
Learning from the Spirits
Wild humans claim that they learn about herbal medicines and wild edible plants from the plants themselves, and claim to communicate with them regularly. We normally dismiss these claims as nonsense, but given the communication we have already seen between other animals and plants, might we need to take another look at what we have all too often ignored as primitive superstition?
Such cultures certainly honor their sense of smell more than we generally do. The Ongee people of the Andaman Islands elevate their sense of smell to a cosmic principle, and associate personality with odor, and place the seat of the spirit in the nose, rather than the brain or even the heart. (Watson, 2001) But, if such cultures genuinely do communicate with plants, their primary means of doing so doubtless relies on not relying on smell alone.
There are beings, many of them human beings, that see, smell, hear, remember, sense more than we do. This is not a genetic accident, like being taller than six-foot-five or having an IQ of 150 or high cheekbones. This is a matter of culture. The human beings who maintain these hyper-refined senses are hunter-gatherers. Their impressive powers of perception have been noted and detailed by just about every student of hunter-gatherer groups. It is not only that they sense more than the rest of us do, but that they do so in a qualitatively different fashion. … The term “synaesthesia” describes something every child knows. In fact, Merleau-Ponty believes that we have “unlearned how to see, hear, and, generally speaking, to feel.” Synaesthesia is the mental function (or suite of functions) in which the senses run together, in which colors have a feel to them and tastes have a color. We speak of a loud shirt, of bright music, yet how often do we sense reality this way? For Abram and other observers, the phenomenon marks a total immersion in sense, when the observer is no longer in control, no longer separating and analyzing sight, sound, and texture, and becomes a part of his sensual surroundings. That is, the observer calls forth the world. (Manning, 2005)
This synaesthetic perspective offers the possibility of actually engaging plants in communication; trying to understand, catalogue, and analyze the slightly varying scents by which plants communicate consciously would surely overwhelm us almost immediately, yet we can percieve far more than we can consciously articulate. Much of our brain’s conscious function centers on filtering out the stimuli from our senses. Synaesthesia means that we can “see” and “hear” as well as smell what plants are “saying,” in a process that involves our noses as much as our imaginations. To most of us, the internal, anthropocentric nature of imagination seems self-evident, but ideas about the nature of imagination vary from culture to culture.
This article weighs cultural perspectives about imagination’s location and function as the exclusive domain of human cognition in conventional theories of educational development and developmental psychology. From a Haudenosaunee or Mohawk perspective, we notice that minds colonized by these assertions concerning the universality of imagination’s origins and functions are contributing dimensions to larger conceits maintained by anthropocentrically biased cultures. Cultures colonized by these conceits tautologically confirm the interior sources of their intelligence. Minds colonized by such conceits think and conceive of themselves in this grammar of possessive individualism. Onkwehonwe (unassimilated, traditional Haudenosaunee), in contrast, regard any assumption concerning the existence of autonomous, anthropogenic minds to be aberrations that violate the unity, interrelation, and reciprocity between language and psychology, landscape and mind. The ecology of traditional Haudenosaunee territory possesses sentience that is manifest in the consciousness of that territory, and that same consciousness is formalized in and as Haudenosaunee consciousness. Of course, other beings manifest that consciousness in their literature of tracks,chirrups,and loon calls.
Onkwehonwe mind everything because everything minds Onkwehonwe.
Haudenosaunee minds are composed not just of visible ecological domains but also by the numinous qualities of those domains that, allowed to mature, express the fullness of traditional territory. Old-growth minds and cultures mature, emerge, and encompass the old growth of their traditional territory. Haudenosaunee minds are congruent with their traditional territories but more important, Haudenosaunee minds are required to accomplish that symmetry in accomplishing their authenticity. (Sheridan & Longboat, 2006)
“Old growth” societies do not see imagination as an illusion or strictly internal human idyll; rather, they see imagination as a form of communication, by which a human can percieve what a given environment says. If we take a moment to consider such claims seriously, we can see a number of points that add up to a plausibility that we have systematically denied and turned a blind eye to:
- Plants communicate with chemicals released into the air. These chemicals carry mutually-agreed meanings understood even by other species of plants, and even other animals, especially insects that live in a close community with plants.
- The animal sense of smell provided an evolutionary advantage precisely for understanding plant communication.
- While the human sense of smell lacks much of the precision some other animals possess, humans do experience synaesthesia naturally; allowing imagination to wander and freely assign mental images and feelings to particular smells would thus follow evolutionary pathways, naturally relying on the mutually-agreed meanings of various smells. Just as dreams try to match mental images to internal body states, imagination would try to match mental images to a wealth of subconsciously and synaesthetically percieved sensory stimuli.
- Or, put more bluntly, imagination represents, at least in part, the human perception of plant communication.
This can seem very suspect to us, with our habit of dismissing imagination, but we should remember that neurologically, our brain constantly matches various sense impressions to memories and patterns it has previously encountered; thus, we can percieve a particular pattern of light and shadow, and recognize it as a human face, or a tree. Autism arises precisely when this pathway breaks down; an autistic person percieves a human face only as a collection of objects, failing to match those impressions to the pattern of a human face. When we dream, internal body states run through our brain, and become matched against these same patterns; a dragon in a dream might simply come from the best representation found to match the burning, painful feeling of acid reflux. Likewise, synaesthetic imagination allows us to understand what plants tell us, as our brains scramble to match the chemical signals to the best patterns it can fit. If we can learn to trust our imaginations again, it certainly seems plausible that we could find in it a pathway of communication with the more-than-human world.
The true test for such a claim must lie in repeatability: if we both listen to the same plant, we should “hear” the same message. Cultural differences present a major hurdle to such a study, though. Our culture has not just neglected this kind of perception, it has actively demeaned it. What even earlier civilizations called “the discernment of spirits” has become relegated to mere superstition, thanks largely to our inability to understand “spirit” apart from our anthropocentric superstitions. If we can compare our ability in this regard to playing an advertising jingle on a kazoo, then “old growth” cultures play Mozart with a full orchestra. To ask that question properly would really require a cross-cultural inventory.
The answer we find can seem astounding; separated sometimes by vast gaps of time and space, indigenous herbalists report astoundingly similar experiences with the same plants, even in places where cultural transmission seems impossible. They describe precisely this kind of encounter with plants, and it serves as the basis of fully functional ethnobotanical systems. Regardless of the epistemology we wish to assign to it—we can understand this equally well in our own scientific terms, or in the terms of the native epistemology that takes plant personhood for granted—the repeatability of plant communication resounds clearly across thousands of years of human experience.
Of course, full communication requires not just listening, but response. That end represents far less of a challenge; we communicate with plants all the time, whether we want to or not. We produce scents that animals and plants can easily decipher constantly, telling our sex, age, health, condition, diet, even emotional state. We broadcast these things continuously, in the form of constant chemical releases from our skin, our mouths, and the whole of our bodies. Just as plants can understand the chemical markers given off by one another, we know also that they can detect, for instance, the chemicals of an herbivorous insect’s mouth. Why should we assume that their ability to smell our own state would prove any less sophisticated than, say, a domesticated dog’s? As any dog-owner can attest, they retain the ability to smell even emotion from the pheromones, and various other chemicals we continuously emit. Given their complex defenses and communication, it seems terribly unlikely that a plant would fail to smell a larger animal’s hunger, say from the slight scent of its salivating mouth, when it smells smaller animals so easily.
What does it mean to call someone, or something, a &ldquoerson”? In recent years, abortion, “corporate personhood,” artificial intelligence, and animal rights have all challenged civilization’s usual concept of a &ldquoerson” as simply an individual specimen of Homo sapiens sapiens. Does a fetus count as a person, or not? Can a sufficiently “intelligent” program count as a person? Do great apes count as people? If rationality represents our defining criteria, we must recognize that a significant overlap exists between the most intelligent great apes, and the least intelligent people. That criteria even opens the floor for crows, ravens, dolphins, and other animals, even bears. Noting the problem of keeping bears away from garbage cans designed with more complex locks in Yosemite National Park, one ranger there noted that while bears could still get into them, some campers could not, saying, “There is considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists.”
Graham Harvey defines animism as “the label given to worldviews in which the world is understood to be a community of living persons, only some of whom are human. (An older use of the term to label a putative ‘belief in spirits’ is less useful.)” The usual reference to “tree spirit,” for example, seems redundant; “spirit” simply indicates a person. Trees represent a particular kind of person (or “spirit” referring to a “tree spirit” simply projects Western dualism onto a monistic perception. This older view of personhood has obvious advantages over the more recent, anthropocentric understanding that civilization has developed, now that critical “edge” examples have begun to break down that model.
Irving Hallowell introduced the term “other-than-human person” in his description of Ojibwe animism, noting that notions of animate or inanimate took center stage in Ojibwe language. Hallowell famously asked one Ojibwe elder if “all the stones we see about us are alive.” The elder responded, somewhat amused, “No! But some are.”
Ojibwe specifically, and animists generally, accept and treat as persons everything they encounter that acts like a person—regardless of its nature. This includes humans, but it also includes animals, plants, and even some rocks, weather systems, stories, and so forth. In this understanding, recognizing persons has much more importance than the objective state of “being” a person. Ultimately, existentialist and post-modern skepticism proves difficult to entirely refute; we cannot know anything beyond our own experience, not even the personhood of other human beings. True communication always eludes us. All communication proves imperfect and fallible. The escape from this spiral of existential doubt exists only in empathy. Only empathy allows us to recognize the personhood even of other humans. When we draw our circle of empathy too close, and withhold the recognition of personhood from those who deserve it, we call such a person a sociopath.
From the “old growth” perspective, a fairly good description of civilization would focus on the systematic normalization of sociopathy. Our attitudes towards deforestation, the environment, pharmaceuticals, mass extinction, global climate change and a host of interrelated issues all contribute ot the overall picture of a sociopath. According to Jean Piaget, animism and the &ldquoathetic fallacy” represent cognitive deficits that children grow out of. Without anyone to tell them so, “old growth” cultures encountered other-than-human persons and treated them as such. Plants can recognize their family; they communicate with each other and with other species, both plant and animal; they experience stress; in short, they act like people. To not recognize that requires specific and significant effort. We must methodically train our children to withhold their empathy, or they will continue treating all manner of non-human things as people. Animism comes from humanity’s natural condition; we have to teach anything else.
By withholding our empathy, we act like sociopaths. If we trust our sensuous experience of the world, the way the world presents itself to our senses, then the personhood of plants becomes self-evident. They act like people, as we can plainly see. So why would we not treat them as people?
The Animal’s Dilemma
The animal kingdom evolved on top of the plant world; the bottom of the animal food chain, herbivores, simply eats plants. Carnivores eat them. That forms trophic levels, as energy flows up and down, but in the end, the world belongs primarily to plants. Animals, one might say, simply exist as plants by other means.
If we recognize the personhood of plants, then we throw ethical vegetarianism into crisis. Peter Singer provided the philosophical basis of much of the animal rights movement by his argument that because animals can suffer, causing their suffering entails a moral cost. Thus, we should prefer vegetarianism on ethical grounds, because vegetarianism causes less suffering.
Yet we have seen that plants experience stress. Having never experienced life as a plant, none of us can say what that feels like, even though an exercise of basic empathy makes it as clear as the suffering of other animals. Stress arises in animal bodies as a flood of cortisol. We see very similar responses in plants under stress—as animals eat them, or they dry up, or otherwise suffer. We can empathize more easily with animals, because we have experienced that flood of cortisol and understand t not just as a chemical reaction, but as an emotion. Why should empathy not suffice to recognize that simply changing the particular chemicals in a different form of life makes it substantially (or, more to the point, ethically) different? The experience no doubt differs, as the whole plant experience of the world must radically differ from our own, but we can still empathize, and we can still recognize that whatever form it takes, the plant obviously still suffers.
That means that vegetarianism has no greater ethical claim than carnivorism; in either case, some living thing, some person, suffers and dies. That presents us with the basic dilemma of animal life: all animals live only by killing others. The dying and rising god, the ouroboros, even the supposed Paleolithic shrines where cave bear skulls sat with their own femurs stuck into their mouths, point to an ancient understanding of that inescapable truth of animal life.
How, then, do animals justify their existence? We should note that in the hundreds of millions of years that animals have evolved, plants have found ways to make them useful. Animals give back more than they take. Their existence has made ecologies richer and more vibrant. By taking its life from others, every animal binds itself with every meal to the most sacred covenant: the living community has laid down its life for the animal, and that binds the animal to the living community, to use that life given as a gift to enrich that community, to defend that landbase, to give back more than it takes. Civilized mythology often anthropomorphized the land as a dying and rising god, and just as often restricted that god to wheat alone, but echoes of that basic notion can still be seen even in modern Christianity: “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’” (Luke 22:19-20) Long before Christianity proclaimed that Jesus had died for our sins, animists understood that with every meal, the persons in the land around them—their own siblings—had given their lives for them.
Thus, every animal kills to live. That rules every animal’s inescapable fate. We cannot escape that basic truth; if we try, we only serve to delude ourselves, and forget the responsibility that animal life comes with. Because we kill to live, we buy our lives at the cost of that sacred covenant to justify our existence, to give back more than we take.
Every animal gives back more than it takes; that veritably defines sustainability. Modern civilization, however, does not. That does not mean that humans have become innately fallen; even today, humans live in ways that give back more than they take. Humans created the Amazon rain forest and the Great Plains, and after thousands of years of harvesting salmon in the Pacific Northwest, more salmon lived there than before. That kind of legacy follows from a sustainable culture, and a thousand years of human life when every generation understands their place in a more-than-human world, acknowledges and respects other-than-human persons, and takes seriously the covenant that the animal’s dilemma creates, and gives back more than they take.
- Buhner, Stephen Harrod. (2002). The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines for Life on Earth. Chelsea Green Publishing.
- Dudley, Susan A. & Amanda L. File. (2007). “Kin recognition in an annual plant,” Biology Letters, vol. 3, no. 4
- Manning, Richard. (2005). Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization, North Point Press.
- Sheridan, Joe and Roronhiakewen “He Clears the Sky” Dan Longboat. (2006). “The Haudenosaunee Imagination and the Ecology of the Sacred,” Space and Culture, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 365-381.
- Trent, John. (2007). “Researchers Help Find Master Switch In Plant Communication,” Terra Daily, 3 April 2007.
- University of California, Davis. (1999). “Researchers Probe New Depths In Plant Communications.” Adapted from press release.
- Watson, Lyall. (2001). Jacobson’s Organ and the Remarkable Nature of Smell, W.W. Norton & Co.
- Wilkinson, Sophie. (2001). “Plants to Bugs: Buzz Off!,” Chemical & Engineering News, 30 June 2001.