There Is Such a Thing as Plant Intelligence

February 23, 2016

When Paleolithic painters decorated the walls of the caves at Chauvet, in France, they chose stunning motifs of horses and other animals. For them, as for most of us, plants were just there in the background, vegetating away. Sure, a daisy can be cute, a redwood impressive. But compared to a cheetah or an elephant, most plants are, well, boring.

With his new book, Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years Of Plant Life and the Human Imagination, British author Richard Mabey pushes back against this prejudice to make us see that plants are as thrilling as animals and have been key to our relationship with the world.

Speaking from his home in Norfolk, England, he recalls growing up near Harry Potter’s Whomping Willow; why trees were so often the inspiration for myths and magic; and how a woman in Italy has demonstrated that some plants can remember—and learn from—their experiences.

Nature’s superstars are animals like chimps or cheetahs. You think plants are just as amazing. Convince us.

What can plants do that cheetahs can’t? They can regenerate when 90 percent of their bodies have been eaten away. They can have sex at long distances and communicate with approximately 20 more senses than an animal has. Those are very pragmatic arguments. But I think they’re valuable just because they’re there. We tend to judge plants not as autonomous organisms but in terms of what they can do for us. But they’re astonishing in their own right and deserve to be given the same ethical status as animals.

The seventies classic The Secret Lives of Plants claimed carrots screamed when picked. The “new botany” is making similar claims about plant intelligence. Are those claims just as whacky?

No! [Laughs] I think that seventies generation believed plants were not only intelligent but conscious, which is a dramatically different thing. What the new botany is suggesting is that plants are sensitive and problem-solving but bypass the need for self-consciousness and brain activity that we assume is necessary for intelligence. People who think this are often accused of being anthropocentric, believing that plants are behaving like humans.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett marvelously riposted that critics of this theory are “cerebrocentric,” believing intelligent behavior is not possible without the infinitely superior human brain. What the new work shows is that plants, by means we do not yet fully understand, are capable of behaving like intelligent beings.

They are capable of storing—and learning from—memories of what happens to them.

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