Intelligent life: Why don’t we consider plants to be smart?

New Scientist: In an early Star Trek episode, the Enterprise is boarded by human-like aliens, with lives lived so fast that the crew can’t see them. For their part, the aliens see Captain Kirk and his crew as near-static beings whose every action seems to take an age to complete.

Now think about how we view plants. With their slow-lane responsiveness, they could be ticking the boxes for behavioural brightness but they seem too slow, and too different, to register as intelligent.

This is the core of Brilliant Green by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola and Plant Sensing and Communication by Richard Karban. Plants are smart, they say, but to notice we have to overcome our ingrained cultural biases. As Karban writes: “Ask a child about the differences between plants and animals… They’ll say, ‘Plants can’t move’ or ‘Plants don’t do anything’.”

And, as both books point out, it is but a short intellectual step to allying apparent immobility with a form of mechanistic half-life of simple growth and response – a flatlined existence devoid of subtlety, strategy and learning.

Islam doesn’t consider plants alive at all, Mancuso and Viola remind us. It has a rich tradition of plant and flower illustration, alongside a ban on the physical depiction of living things. And until recently, Western medicine used “vegetative state” to describe people considered to have lost the ability to think or be aware.

Clearly, we will never play chess with a rose, nor ask the orchid on our windowsill for advice. But that is the point: humans are guilty of serious parochialism, of defining intelligence in terms of a nervous system and muscle-based speed that enables things to be done fast, say all three authors.

Plants and animals face similar challenges: to find resources and mates, and avoid predators, pathogens and abiotic stresses. In response, says Karban, “plants communicate, signaling within [themselves], eavesdropping on neighboring individuals, and exchanging information with other organisms”. They have adaptive responses that, if they happened at speeds humans understand, would reveal them to be “brilliant at solving problems related to their existence”. [Continue reading…]

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