Michael Pollan and the Intelligent Life of Plants

plant radionicsRemember the 1970s sensation The Secret Life of Plants: a Fascinating Account of the Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Relations Between Plants and Man by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird? Or Duncan Laurie’s radionics experiments with plants featured in our old TV series?

Fast forward to the present and food’s Renaissance Man, Michael Pollan takes another look at intelligent plants for The New Yorker. In this excerpt he describes what happened after the initial sensation of the Tomkins and Bird book and ex-CIA agent Cleve Backster’s polygraph experiments:

… In the ensuing years, several legitimate plant scientists tried to reproduce the “Backster effect” without success. Much of the science in “The Secret Life of Plants” has been discredited. But the book had made its mark on the culture. Americans began talking to their plants and playing Mozart for them, and no doubt many still do. This might seem harmless enough; there will probably always be a strain of romanticism running through our thinking about plants. (Luther Burbank and George Washington Carver both reputedly talked to, and listened to, the plants they did such brilliant work with.) But in the view of many plant scientists “The Secret Life of Plants” has done lasting damage to their field. According to Daniel Chamovitz, an Israeli biologist who is the author of the recent book “What a Plant Knows,” Tompkins and Bird “stymied important research on plant behavior as scientists became wary of any studies that hinted at parallels between animal senses and plant senses.” Others contend that “The Secret Life of Plants” led to “self-censorship” among researchers seeking to explore the “possible homologies between neurobiology and phytobiology”; that is, the possibility that plants are much more intelligent and much more like us than most people think—capable of cognition, communication, information processing, computation, learning, and memory.

The quotation about self-censorship appeared in a controversial 2006 article in Trends in Plant Science proposing a new field of inquiry that the authors, perhaps somewhat recklessly, elected to call “plant neurobiology.” The six authors—among them Eric D. Brenner, an American plant molecular biologist; Stefano Mancuso, an Italian plant physiologist; František Baluška, a Slovak cell biologist; and Elizabeth Van Volkenburgh, an American plant biologist—argued that the sophisticated behaviors observed in plants cannot at present be completely explained by familiar genetic and biochemical mechanisms. Plants are able to sense and optimally respond to so many environmental variables—light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants—that there may exist some brainlike information-processing system to integrate the data and coördinate a plant’s behavioral response. The authors pointed out that electrical and chemical signalling systems have been identified in plants which are homologous to those found in the nervous systems of animals. They also noted that neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate have been found in plants, though their role remains unclear.

Hence the need for plant neurobiology, a new field “aimed at understanding how plants perceive their circumstances and respond to environmental input in an integrated fashion.” The article argued that plants exhibit intelligence, defined by the authors as “an intrinsic ability to process information from both abiotic and biotic stimuli that allows optimal decisions about future activities in a given environment.” Shortly before the article’s publication, the Society for Plant Neurobiology held its first meeting, in Florence, in 2005. A new scientific journal, with the less tendentious title Plant Signaling & Behavior, appeared the following year.

Depending on whom you talk to in the plant sciences today, the field of plant neurobiology represents either a radical new paradigm in our understanding of life or a slide back down into the murky scientific waters last stirred up by “The Secret Life of Plants.” Its proponents believe that we must stop regarding plants as passive objects—the mute, immobile furniture of our world—and begin to treat them as protagonists in their own dramas, highly skilled in the ways of contending in nature. They would challenge contemporary biology’s reductive focus on cells and genes and return our attention to the organism and its behavior in the environment. It is only human arrogance, and the fact that the lives of plants unfold in what amounts to a much slower dimension of time, that keep us from appreciating their intelligence and consequent success. Plants dominate every terrestrial environment, composing ninety-nine per cent of the biomass on earth. By comparison, humans and all the other animals are, in the words of one plant neurobiologist, “just traces.”…

[continues in the The New Yorker]

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