Our featured book this week is Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life by Michael Marder, with a foreword by Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala. Enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a FREE copy! In this post, an excerpt of an essay that will soon appear in full in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Professor Marder discusses how new discoveries in plant science should affect our understanding of ethics.
Philosophy and Botany’s Copernican Revolution
Let me be perfectly clear: The idea that plants are intelligent living beings is not a veiled attempt at anthropomorphizing our “green cousins.” Such a theoretical move would only leave intact—if not strengthen—anthropocentrism, extending its effects to living beings that have been situated relatively far from anthropos (the human) who is analogous to the Earth in the Ptolemaic system. The point is, rather, to argue that human intelligence, much like that of animals and plants, is a response to the problems each life form in question faces. As I wrote in Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life: “The sensitivity of the roots seeking moisture in the dark of the soil, the antennae of a snail probing the way ahead, and human ideas or representation we project, casting them in front of ourselves, are not as dissimilar from one another as we tend to think.” (27) The intelligence of plants is not a shadow of human knowing and their behavior is not a rudimentary form of human conduct. After all, unlike animal and humans, for whom behavior is most often association with physical movement, plants behave by changing their states, both morphologically and physiologically. An honest approach to the capacities of plants, thus, requires a simultaneous acknowledgement of the similarities and differences between them and other living beings.
In scientific circles, there is certainly no consensus on the implications of new research data drawn from the behavior of plant cells, tissues, and communities. On the one hand, the opponents of the Copernican Revolution in botany claim that the data do nothing but exemplify what has been known all along about plant plasticity and adaptability. This is the position expressed in the open letter to the journal Trends in Plant Science signed in 2007 by thirty-six plant scientists who deemed the extrapolations of plant neurobiology “questionable.” On the other hand, we have the investigations of kin recognition in plants by Richard Karban and Kaori Shiojiri; of plant intelligence by Anthony Trewavas; of plant bioacoustics by Stefano Mancuso and Monica Gagliano; of the sensitivity of root apices as brain-like “command centers” by František Baluška and Dieter Volkmann; of plant learning and communication by Ariel Novoplansky; and of plant senses by Daniel Chamowitz, among many others. Their peer-reviewed research findings no longer fit within the scientific framework where plants are studied as objects, rather than living organisms. Independent of the analogies they draw between plants and animals, doesn’t the drastic change in approach (from plants as objects to plants as subjects) produce a veritable Kuhnian paradigm shift, or a Copernican Revolution, in botany?
The full version of this essay will appear in the Los Angeles Review of Books.