Human Smart. Tree Dumb.
Ahh yes, long hast it been the argument used by vegans in favour of not partaking in the consuming of flesh. And it's a good argument too, perfectly valid. Plants cannot feel things, they are not sentient, certainly not in any way we or other animals feel and experience. Or are they?
(Fear not, there shall be no vegan mockery here, I just needed a segue into talking about plant intelligence).
I will often stand and observe a tree, noting its static rigidity. Having planted itself firmly in the earth beneath us it stands resilient, seemingly defiant in the face of other species, weather, and time. On the face of it, that is certainly true, but delve a little deeper into that abstract concept of time, and contemplate this, are they really all that static? To us perhaps, but to them?
We know that, bizarrely enough, the rate of one's metabolism directly correlates to one's experience of the passage of time. This is why, for example, it proves quite the challenge to swat a fly. They appear to hold up their proverbial sleeves a proverbial ace in their ability to, at a moments notice, dart out from under your looming hand of fatality. Their perception is of a hand fairly slowly and gradually encroaching into their space, as such they take their time to figure out which direction is best for them to dart off in, they adjust their stance accordingly, maybe check their little watch one last time, and then bound forth to pastures greener.
The same could be said of us in comparison to the tree. Our perception of the tree is one in which it grows reeeeeaaalllyyy slowly. But to it, it is growing as fast as we perceive ourselves to walk. Stretching out it's branches and unfurling it's leaves as fluidly as we stretch our arms and yawn upon awakening. It's roots squirming through the soil as similar in occupation and gait as a worm.
We humans have a tendency to assume that everything must function as we do, and anything that does not falls short of our imposed model of what is and what is not. Not many people consider how trees and plants, as the living entities that they are, perceive themselves, and perceive time. Likewise, we do not think of them having feelings, nor communication, nor cooperation. But some people do, and some people have, considered such far out notions. Some have even carried out experiments to seek conclusive proof one way or the other... With some astounding results.
Monica Galiano in particular has carried out a variety of such experiments. She started by observing root growth. She set up a plant that was growing in a beaker that resembled an upside down Y so that the plants could 'choose' which way to go, left or right. On one side, nothing additional, just the soil that filled it. On the other side though, she connected a pipe to the outside of the beaker in which, was running water. The majority of the roots grew towards the side with the running water pipe fastened to the outside. Pretty incredible. But in order to eliminate the possibility that somehow they could in fact detect the presence of physical water, she took it a step further. She set a plant up once again in the same beaker, but this time, instead of attaching a water pipe to the outside of one side of the beaker, she simply placed a speaker to it, which was playing just the sound of running water, and again, the roots grew towards it.
But how?! They can't hear! Well, how do we hear? We hear due to tiny little hairs in the inside of our ear drum that pick up the vibrations caused by sound, which then relay them through a series of bones and liquid and pipes to the brain, which then interprets it as sound. But it starts with those tiny little hairs. And as it happens, those tiny little hairs are resembled very closely by the fibres and hairs that make up the roots of a plant. But how do they interpret those vibrations, they have no brain. Well...
I have often toyed around with the idea that plants are the highest form of life. The most spiritually awakened, and the final form which a soul takes before merging with the godhead. If you have ever observed a tree on mushrooms or acid, you will probably have an inkling as to what I mean. And if that is the case, I do not think it is any more whacky to believe that they have a 'brain' stored not in this physical universe, but manifesting somewhere metaphysical that they can tap into. To most, I realise, this will sound ridiculous. But I imagine so would the idea of plants learning, and yet that is something else that an experiment of Monica's seemed to confirm.
There is a plant called 'Mimosa pudica'. It has this neat little reflex where, upon being touched or becoming aware of a grazing deer nearby, closes up all of it leaves as to defend itself from an un-ideal fate.
To some it is exactly that, a reflex. But to test this, she took it and dropped it in a controlled environment (onto something that would not damage it) and observed as the shock caused the reflex to occur. She did this numerous times, until after a short while, it stopped closing it's leaves when dropped. Was it simply that they had become tired and lacked the energy to respond to the stimulus? Nope, because when she again took her finger and placed it upon the chlorophyll filled little critter, it once again fired up it's defensive strategy. It had 'learned' that the fall would not damage it, and that it need not deploy it's usual tactic.
Unsurprisingly she took it a step further after that and took a variety of pea plant and conditioned them to grow towards a desk fan as if it were a light source, by placing a fan next to the light which they were growing toward, and then taking the light away, much like how Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell... What?!
Plants that are near or downwind of plants that are being eaten can change their chemical composition as to make themselves taste horrid to the creatures which eat them. They can even put out chemical odours which will attract the predator of the bug that is feasting on their flesh.
Plants even, most notably in forests, form a symbiotic relationship with mycelium fungus in the soil that allows the transfer of food and resources between a large network of fungi and plants throughout the entirety of said forest. They can communicate through this network. They can use the fungi as a sort of bank, that will deposit sugars to them as to benefit the fungi when the plant has a surplus, and can have it given back when it's stores are low. When a tree is dying it will allocate it's resources to the fungal network, which then itself decides which other trees get the resources, often passing them onto newly developing trees with a stronger resilience towards the harsher atmosphere and climate that we are imposing on them. This whole system looks an awful lot like the neural network of a brain...
Some scientists are sceptical about using words such as intelligence or feelings when talking about plants, because it is disingenuous to what we believe intelligence to be. But I think that is ignorant. Or perhaps a way of keeping us from empathising with them. Because there is money to be made from cutting them down and turning them, like so much else, into just a commodity. They are the long lived beings that keep the air we breathe checked and balanced. The integrated enablers of a wide range of biodiversity that populates our delicate ecosystem. They don't walk around or have a face or a brain with which we can relate, but they have done, and will continue to do, more for the planet than we ever have, and likely ever will do.
Do I think vegans don't really have a leg to stand on then when talking about the lack of cruelty they impart on their food? No. Life eats life after all, what life you eat is a personal preference, and one that does not concern me.
Do I think we should stop obliterating vast swathes of plant life with one fell swoop at a rate unprecedented in the planet's 4.5 billion year history, with incredibly likely catastrophic consequences that we know not whether the planet shall be able to recuperate from? Yes. They sustain life, and as a definition of life, it is a decision that very much concerns me, concerns us all.
Plants are amazing.
I cannot wait to be a tree.