The joys and sufferings of plants as sentient beings

| 10th April 2015
Cowslips (Primula veris). Photo: Donna JW via Flickr (CC BY).
Cowslips (Primula veris). Photo: Donna JW via Flickr (CC BY).
Is it 'morally reprehensible' to arbitrarily decapitate roadside flowers? Yes it is, writes Martin Spray - at least in Switzerland. And now we know that plants have both senses and physiology, why not awareness and emotions too? Even legal standing to have their rights defended in court - at least if they are trees?
We have placed H. sapiens at the head of Life's procession, with things less and less like us further and further back. That puts plants a long way behind us. But it has not always and everywhere been like this.

In his Man and the natural world, Keith Thomas (1983) gives a delightful anecdote about a 19th century English country gentleman whose

"greatest pleasure was to sit out of doors of an evening in sight of the grand old trees in his park, and before going in he would walk round to visit them, one by one, and resting his hand on the bark he would whisper a good-night."

More recently Rodney Brooks, in 'The next fifty years' (ed. John Brockman, 2002), writes that

"our goal is to have such exquisite control over the genetics of living systems that instead of growing a tree, cutting it down, and building a table out of it we will ... be able to grow the table."

I do not mean to imply that what used almost to be pets are now just a mechanical resource, though to many - and it is very far from only Westerners - they really are little more than a resource - or a problem.

Plants may be living things, but not like us, nor like animals only remotely like us. Being unlike us, we can do much as we like with them. And so we do. And some people, though not many, do not like that.

Such people are dismayed by our behaviour towards the vegetable world. I remember vividly the reaction of one of my students when I described a quarter-hectare bonsai collection in a Suzhou park. She might well have been in the Bonsai Liberation Front!

The feeling that minimalizing a tree and keeping it in a tiny, shallow, pot is humiliating and cruel is probably beyond most of our society's imagining. Yet the few have real sympathy - and sometimes empathy - with the plant.

Legal standing for trees?

"I never thought of that before!" she said. "In my opinion you never thought at all", the Rose said in a rather severe tone.

Although, as with Alice in Lewis Caroll's Through the looking-glass, talking to plants is common, few expect a reply. To most of us, plants are alive but as inarticulate as the famous house-brick. This, however, may be a slightly harsh judgement.

In the last few years, green plants have become a little more discussed than they were, in some quarters. In 1974, Christopher Stone's Should trees have standing? argued for legal rights for natural objects - for example, that trees in the Sierra Nevada, although they could not speak for themselves in court, and present a case against their felling, had 'standing' in the American law system that should allow them to be represented, and 'their' case to be presented by humans.

"Silly", said many; "Er ... ?" was perhaps the general reaction. "Well ... wait a minute", said a few.

In part, such majority reactions result from the problem of discussing plants in words and meanings that have been developed for discussing animals - just as there are problems in the discussion of 'lower' animals with a language developed for humans.

It is silly to talk of roses speaking; it is not, though, so silly to talk of them conveying messages to us.

In A naturalist in western China (1913), E.H. Wilson describes competition in vegetation, and is grateful we cannot hear the clamour, because "the exultations of the victors and the groans of the vanquished would be too much for humanity to bear."

This is a long way from the tradition of scientific prose, and I read it as an example of poetic style; but what if it was intended as an objective, 'neutral', description?

As such, it is heretical, as it suggests plants feel joy, or suffer pain and anguish - with which we are empathetic. Is the issue here that a writer has only to find more appropriate words and expressions, and a change of literary style, or is there a deeper problem?

Plants as sentient beings

Wilson's description was (let's assume) only imaginary, yet it is not light years from what a minor thread of scientific writing about plants is saying. It is not impossibly far from a rethinking of plants that is establishing itself amongst iconoclastic botanists.

There has long been a trickle of heretical views of plants that present them as sentient beings, and sometimes as having awareness, consciousness, and/or mind, or being ensouled.

"Aristotle's dogma that plants have souls but no sensation", say Tomkins & Bird, introducing their controversial 1973 book 'The secret life of plants', "lasted through the Middle Ages and into the eighteenth century ... "

Work by scientists such as Jagadish Chandra Bose, and Raoul Francé (Germs of mind in plants, 1905), carried the trickle into the 20th century, and The secret life - which was extremely popular but scientifically uncritical - took it towards the present one.

Views were not necessarily coherent: not all saw plants as sentient, thoughtful beings, that preferred Ravi Shankar to Bach, and shrivelled from rock.

But it is really not so absurd

In the last few decades, a more coherent stream of discussion has arisen, for such things as the 'awareness' plants have of where they are and how they are faring, the similar ways plants and other living things 'sense' their world, and the 'communications' both within and between individual plants. (Fairly clear for humans, 'individual' is an unclear term for both many animals (e.g. corals) and many plants.)

Various places in Networld host thoughts on these things, and there is a growing stream of academic discussion. It is two academics' books I want to touch on now.

'What a plant knows' is written for lay readers by an internationally respected botanist. Dan Chamovitz, director of the Manna Centre for Plant Biosciences of Tel Aviv University, gently, and with technical details fairly well under control, reviews up-to-date interpretations of what a plant 'sees', 'smells', 'feels', 'hears', what it 'knows' about the world it is growing in, and what it 'remembers' about what happened to it.

These words can seem odd when applied to plants, but if we can get past the chauvinism that boxes us out of the lives of almost all other life forms, it is pretty clear that to 'do' anything, it helps a plant to gain information about its surroundings via 'senses', and to react to its circumstances.

While making it clear that a plant is not "just the same" as (say) a slug or a frog, one of Dr. Chamovitz's concerns is that we blunt the sharp distinction between green plants and other living things.

Plants, like us, respond to stimuli: that is, they 'behave', sometimes apparently showing choice of appropriate response. We tend to down-play plant behaviour, arguing that they don't 'think about' their situations as we do ... And something of this attitude is, of course, applied to slugs, or frogs - and even cuddly, comical rabbits.

If some / all of this seems silly, that is partly because we have placed H. sapiens at the head of Life's procession, with things less and less like us further and further back - and that puts plants a long way behind us. It has not always and everywhere been like this.

Theophrastus: 'plants are volitional, minded, and intentional'

In surviving traditions around the world, plants are frequently on a par with animals, and sometimes with humans.

And there are instances where plants are placed morally ahead of humans - romantic echoes of which, perhaps, we can find in our own literature, such as the virgin whiteness of the lily and Edmund Spencer's advice in The Faerie Queen (1596), that the flowers of the field are a mirror of our tribulations,

"Yet no man for them taketh paines or care, Yet no man to them can his carefull paines compare."

Matthew Hall's Plants as persons is not a scientific botany, but, as its subtitle says, a philosophical botany. It is a rather less easy read than What a plant knows, its style distinctly academic.

Like Chamovitz, however, Hall, a researcher at the Centre or Middle Eastern Plants of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, is concerned with signs of a shifting attitude to plants, in his case mostly building a picture of attitudes in the past, with an eye to their reestablishment amongst thinkers today.

His aspiration for the book is to seek our "most appropriate behavior towards plants", in the face of an impending ecological collapse, and our general plant ignorance and predominant zoocentrism.

In chapter one, we go back to the Greeks of Aristotle, whose teachings on plants were based on their contrast with animals, and of Aristotle's successor Theophrastus, who saw plants as volitional, minded, and intentional.

In the subsequent Western tradition, a systematic devaluation of parts of nature began long before Descartes's philosophy. Subject to Christian theology, our relationship with plants has tended to be instrumental, and today we talk of the 'services' they offer us.

This encourages the relegation of plants to the bottom of the hierarchy of life, and their exclusion from moral consideration. Chapter three details the 'Passive plants in Christian tradition'.

A valid object of moral concern

By contrast, in Eastern traditions, a hierarchical separateness is less evident, and plants are more readily accepted into the human orbit. In parts of the Hindu tradition, they are seen as sentient, and having mental activity. They can be harmed by human actions, and are therefore seen as being subject to our moral concern.

In some forms of Hinduism, reincarnations may, apparently, include plant forms. For Jains, non-violence to all organisms is of central concern, and Jainism "is particularly significant for its prominent inclusion of nonhuman interests within the sphere of human consideration."

For Jains, plants have, like other organisms, a 'sentient soul', and sensation. They are also thought of as emotional.

The main development from Hinduism, Buddhism, seems to have an inordinate complexity in which attitudes to plants vary from sidelining them to considering them of superior worth. Early texts appear to indicate sensorily aware beings afforded considerable moral standing.

Later, in some forms of Buddhism, plants' sentience was left ambiguous, and this tended to exclude them from beings that are "appropriate recipients of virtuous actions": they are not protected under the 'first precept', not killing - or sometimes harming -sentient beings.

Friendship with an oak tree

Looking at a variety of 'indigenous animisms' around the world, Hall feels that here may be insights to help us be more open to other ways of knowing the world, not least because of their inclination to see 'other-than-human persons'.

Shortly after we moved to the Forest of Dean, I befriended a half-mature oak stranded in ranks of youngsters, on one of my regular walks. 'Befriended' is, I admit, a provocative word - not least because my interest was (I was not surprised) not reciprocated.

I had, though, a simple ritual to enact whenever I went that way, if not for the tree's then for my sake: it was like restating a vow to try to live in accordance with my conviction - that we should live lightly on the Earth.

In Europe's pre-Christian cultures, plants were commonly regarded as kindred, requiring relationships of "care, solidarity and responsibility". Perhaps with my friend the oak I was echoing that ...

Hall, in Chapter 7, explores pagans, plants and personhood before Europe's Christianising, looking at such sources as the Icelandic Eddur, descriptions of the Druids , and the Welsh wonder-tales of the 'Mabinogion'.

Hall's final chapter highlights some of the new botanical thinking, for instance on what is now called 'signalling' by plants, and 'plant neurobiology', and notes that over the past century or so, science has gathered evidence that plants are not passive and insensitive. He raises the question of mind in plants.

At one or two points, e.g. page 13, the book appears to show its mission of finding the "most appropriate behavior towards plants" by suggesting conclusions that are not immediately obvious.

This may be from a carelessness of wording, or it may be overzealousness in giving a 'voice' to plants. this is a little worrying, though minor, given Hall's intention to look at plants anew.

In Switzerland, arbitrary harm to plants is morally impermissable

Both these books deserve wide readerships: the first not least amongst naturalists and gardeners. References in it lead to more technical writings. The second is an antidote to zoocentric environmental philosophy, and obliges us to examine plnts from new viewpoints. Again, there are detailed follow-on references.

Are there any signs of (as it were) our being nicer to plants? Dan Chamovitz refers to the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology, one of whose documents is 'The dignity of living beings with regard to plants'.

Issued in 2008, this booklet's conclusions include unanimous or majority agreement that an 'arbitrary harm', such as the beheading without rational reason of roadside flowers, is morally impermissible; that the complete instrumentalisation of plants "requires moral justification"; that plants may not be owned absolutely; but that any action serving human self-preservation is justified, if it is "appropriate" and done with precaution.

And is this silly, too? Chamovitz says of it: "Maybe the Swiss attempt at bestowing dignity on plants mirrors our own attempt at defining our relationship with the plant world."

The attempt may not seem a great deal better than unclear and very uncertain. But... it's a start, much as forty years ago 'Should trees have standing?' started something.

Considering, however, the struggle that even dignity for apes is having - let alone dignity for most of humanity - don't hold your breath.



The books:

Martin Spray
is an editor and writer for Ecos - A review of conservation.
He retired early from the University of Gloucestershire, England, because of Parkinson's disease. He taught aspects of ecology, landscape architecture, environmental philosophy, and professional ethics, and has contributed to a wide variety of conservation, landscape, gardening and education magazines and journals.


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