The Joy And Pain Of Plants

plants The Smart Set looks at the fascinating work of Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, a pioneering scientist who believed that plants can feel excitement and pain, tremor in fear, react to soothing and harsh treatment, and communicate, just as we do:

In a room near Maida Vale, a journalist for The Nation wrote around 1914, an unfortunate creature is strapped to the table of an unlicensed vivisector. When the subject is pinched with a pair of forceps, it winces. It is so strapped that its electric shudder of pain pulls the long arm of a very delicate lever that actuates a tiny mirror. This casts a beam of light on the frieze at the other end of the room, and thus enormously exaggerates the tremor of the creature. “Thus,” the journalist concluded, “can science reveal the feelings of even so stolid a vegetable as the carrot.”

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the aforementioned carrot vivisector, was a serious man of science. Born in what is today Bangladesh in 1858, Bose was a quintessential polymath: physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist. He was the first person from the Indian subcontinent to receive a U.S. patent, and is considered one of the fathers of radio science, alongside such notables as Tesla, Marconi, and Popov. And, like many scientists of weight, he has become popularly known for his more controversial pursuits — in Bose’s case, his experiments in plant physiology.

Perhaps it was his work in radio waves and electricity that inspired Bose’s investigations into what we might call the invisible world. Bose strongly felt that physics could go far beyond what was apparent to the naked eye. Around 1900, Bose began his investigations into the secret world of plants. He found that all plants, and all parts of plants, have a sensitive nervous system not unlike that of animals, and that their responses to external stimuli could be measured and recorded. Some plant reactions can be seen easily in sensitive plants like the Mimosa, which, when irritated, will react with the sudden shedding or shrinking of its leaves. But when Bose attached his magnifying device to plants from which it was more difficult to witness a response, such as vegetables, he was astounded to discover that they, too, became excited when vexed. All around us, Bose realized, the plants are communicating. We just don’t notice it.

The more responses Bose got from his plants, the more encouraged he became, and the more detailed his efforts became. Bose discovered that an electric death spasm occurs in plants when they die, and that the actual moment of death in a plant could be accurately recorded. As Sir Patrick Geddes described in his 1920 biography of Bose, the electromotive force generated during the death spasm is sometimes considerable. Bose calculated that a half-pea, for instance, could discharge up to half a volt. Thus, if 500 pairs of boiling half-peas were arranged in series, the electric pressure would be 500 volts, enough to electrocute unsuspecting victims. The average cook does not know the danger she runs in preparing peas, Bose wrote. “It is fortunate for her that the peas are not arranged in series!”

Bose was determined to show other serious scientists not only the wonders of plant perception but “the marvelous resemblance there is between the reactions of plants and animals.” His 1902 paper “Responses in the Living and Non-Living” contains a whole chapter comparing the electrical impulse response of frog, lizard, and tortoise skins to the skins of tomatoes and grapes. He found little difference. Bose would write that plants grew more quickly when exposed to nice music and gentle whispers, and poorly when exposed to harsh music and loud speech. Over years of research, Bose found that plants were visibly reactive to all manner of stimuli: flashes of light, changes in temperature, plucking, pricking, screaming. Plants became numbed by drugs and drunk from alcohol.

Bose is long dead, but plant physiology has become a well-respected scientific pursuit. There are now plenty of scientists who, over the decades, have given further weight to Bose’s theories that plants may not be as different from animals as previously thought. Elizabeth Haswell, assistant professor of biology at Washington University in Saint Louis, along with colleagues at the California Institute of Technology, recently wrote a review article about mechanosensitive channels in plants for the journal Structure. The article was called “Mechanosensitive Channels: What Can They Do and How Do They Do It?” In it, Haswell writes about how she has been experimenting on Arabidopsis plants to understand plants’ responses to gravity, and touch, and us. This fact alone is, admittedly, of little interest to the average person. But one wonders why Haswell’s rather scholarly article got picked up by press around the world. Why, in March of this year, The New York Times published a piece called “No Face, but Plants Like Life Too?” Why a big science news story last year was a BBC News report titled “Plants can think and remember.” Why, nearly 100 years since the publication of Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose’s “Researches on irritability of plants,” plant physiology is news.

Plants respond to environmental factors. We’ve known this for a very long time. They will turn toward or away from the sun; they will sway with a passing breeze. But more and more, science has been telling us that the awareness goes much deeper, that plants have a kind of sentience. Does that mean they have consciousness? If they have consciousness, can they suffer? And if they suffer, and we are sometimes causing their suffering, do we want to stop? Can we? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — it’s our Golden Rule. As Bose showed, plantss reactions to unpleasant stimuli is very similar to our own. If we can call this pain, as Bose does, how can we accept the harm we cause when snipping a flower off a bush simply for decoration, or rolling around in the grass to play? Should we start eating only food that we can pluck from a tree without damaging the tree itself, or better still, that falls off the tree of its own accord? Food that is already dead?

Plants respond to environmental factors. We’ve known this for a very long time. They will turn toward or away from the sun; they will sway with a passing breeze. But more and more, science has been telling us that the awareness goes much deeper, that plants have a kind of sentience. Does that mean they have consciousness? If they have consciousness, can they suffer? And if they suffer, and we are sometimes causing their suffering, do we want to stop? Can we? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — it’s our Golden Rule. As Bose showed, plantss reactions to unpleasant stimuli is very similar to our own. If we can call this pain, as Bose does, how can we accept the harm we cause when snipping a flower off a bush simply for decoration, or rolling around in the grass to play? Should we start eating only food that we can pluck from a tree without damaging the tree itself, or better still, that falls off the tree of its own accord? Food that is already dead?

It’s easy to accept that an animal is happy when we are nice to it. It’s less easy, though not impossible, to accept that a plant grows measurably better when we are nice to it. Harder to take seriously is the idea that grass feels pained by our walking feet. Harder still, the idea of a sad rock. The further things get away from their likeness to humanity, the more difficult it is to empathize with them, and therefore to feel that we should care.

But before we dismiss Bose as completely crackers, it’s important to understand the true implication of his work and that of Haswell, et al. Bose’s message isn’t that our care for the world must be based on the assumption that all things have a fundamental humanness. It is that existence and awareness are deeply connected, and that dismissing the fundamental unity of matter is dismissing a fundamental truth about life. Most of us will still keep eating our veggies in good faith. But will we ever approach our salad in exactly the same way again? Or, for that matter, our fork?

  • Anonymous

    What I hate about plants is they’re all so damned smug . . . sitting there all the time . . . sucking up all that CO2 and flooding the place with Oxygen as if they owned it all . . . silently judging you.  ALWAYS JUDGING YOU!!!

  • Liam_McGonagle

    What I hate about plants is they’re all so damned smug . . . sitting there all the time . . . sucking up all that CO2 and flooding the place with Oxygen as if they owned it all . . . silently judging you.  ALWAYS JUDGING YOU!!!

    • Heath

      Yes, yes they are, perhaps a bit passive aggressive, since they require your adoration to evolve and expand. Through you they cultivate a  relationship, one that will elevate them  out of a lonely mono-culture and into a diversity that allows them to resist ,spread and ascend.

  • Heath

    Yes, yes they are, perhaps a bit passive aggressive, since they require your adoration to evolve and expand. Through you they cultivate a  relationship, one that will elevate them  out of a lonely mono-culture and into a diversity that allows them to resist ,spread and ascend.

  • Heath

    Yes, yes they are, perhaps a bit passive aggressive, since they require your adoration to evolve and expand. Through you they cultivate a  relationship, one that will elevate them  out of a lonely mono-culture and into a diversity that allows them to resist ,spread and ascend.

  • Heath

    Yes, yes they are, perhaps a bit passive aggressive, since they require your adoration to evolve and expand. Through you they cultivate a  relationship, one that will elevate them  out of a lonely mono-culture and into a diversity that allows them to resist ,spread and ascend.

  • Anarchy Pony

    This just in: Living things want to live.

  • Anarchy Pony

    This just in: Living things want to live.

  • Anarchy Pony

    This just in: Living things want to live.

    • Liam_McGonagle

      Great.  Is that a Gaugin quote?

      • Anarchy Pony

        I don’t think so, I just kind of blurted it out, although it is strongly possible someone else has said it before.

        You’d be surprised, or perhaps disturbed how many people fail to grasp that sentiment.

  • Anonymous

    Great.  Is that a Gaugin quote?

  • Anarchy Pony

    I don’t think so, I just kind of blurted it out, although it is strongly possible someone else has said it before.

    You’d be surprised, or perhaps disturbed how many people fail to grasp that sentiment.

  • Shaneequa Sarkozy

    I’ll just leave this right here: http://www.skepdic.com/plants.html

  • Shaneequa Sarkozy

    I’ll just leave this right here: http://www.skepdic.com/plants.html

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    Good, now the vegans cant be so smug about not causing pain to living things anymore.

    (also noticed paragraph 7 and 8 of the quote are repeated)

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    Good, now the vegans cant be so smug about not causing pain to living things anymore.

    (also noticed paragraph 7 and 8 of the quote are repeated)

    • Monkey See Monkey Do

      Vegans have always know plants are living things. Its sentient beings they oppose causing pain too. I consider plants and trees collectively sentient but not individually sentient.

  • Monkey See Monkey Do

    Vegans have always know plants are living things. Its sentient beings they oppose causing pain too. I consider plants and trees collectively sentient but not individually sentient.

  • Sirius Fnord

    So Day of the Triffids is a documentary then.  

  • Sirius Fnord

    So Day of the Triffids is a documentary then.  

  • BuzzCoastin

    there’s no question that plants are conscious
    the real question is
    are humans conscious?

    • Anarchy Pony

      They are capable, but mostly unwilling.

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    there’s no question that plants are conscious
    the real question is
    are humans conscious?

  • Anarchy Pony

    They are capable, but mostly unwilling.

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