The new discipline of plant neurobiology is at last treating our fellow earthlings as intelligent, feeling and communicating beings.
The first collective and concerted effort to study the intelligent capabilities of plants could well be traced back to the first meeting of the Society for Plant Neurobiology in Florence 2005.
The society itself notes the term plant neurobiology could be changed to something like: Sensory Biology in Plants. But goes on to note: “these names don’t quite cover adaptive plant behaviour, signalling and communication and topics like plant immunity, plant memory and learning, plant-plant communication, as well as plant intelligence”.
Up until recently however, discussing plant feelings, intelligence or memory in scientific circles, was sure to earn derision, if not the label of whacko, according to Michael Pollan author of books including The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire.
Late last year Pollan wrote an extensive article for the New Yorker about the new field of plant neurobiology, and the growing perception of plants as more than simplistic, mono-dimensional creatures. But without doubt the concept of intelligent, calculating plants is still beyond many scientists, he said.
But of course there are those who dare to tread where others won’t. For over a hundred years experienced and credible scientific enquiry has been expanding our knowledge of exactly how developed and advanced a form of life, plants are.
Jagadish Chandra Bose discovered that plants appeared to have a sensitive nervous system in 1900. The Indian scientist concluded plants feel pain. Plants treated with care and affection give out a different vibration compared to a plant subjected to torture he said.
He was also the first to articulate that plants grow better when they are able to listen to music. A truism that many an anecdotal story will support.
Then there is Cleve Backster, the specialist CIA interrogator who couldn’t help himself and tried out his polygraph (lie detector) on his office plants. He soon discovered that plants create an electrical impulse when they are attacked in some way, say by a flame. Backster went a step further and found plants reacted even when he only thought about hurting them.
In effect plants were capable of some kind of extra sensory perception, Backster argued.
No less an authority as Myth Busters repeated these experiments and got the same results.
In this century German scientist Frank Kühnemann found that when a leaf is cut the plant emits a chemical called ethylene. In affect the plant is crying out in pain, to warn other plants of the danger. The more the stress the louder the cry, Kühnemann found.
The cry could be ‘heard’ by other plants that reacted by mounting defenses against the threat. The plants could communicate with each other, according to Kühnemann.
Nowadays studies into plant capabilities are increasing and showing a range of different plant characteristics, many beyond our standard reasoning of what it means to be a plant.
For example, plants compete less fiercely with close relatives and can detect barriers to root progress before reaching the obstacle. They have also been shown to have reliable memories.
Considering the huge diversity that exists in the plant kingdom, and the fact that they have been around for some 450 million years compared to primates’ 60 million years, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that plants are more evolved and therefor cleverer than humans.
After all the energy and imagination that has gone into establishing contact with an intelligent life form from another galaxy, it is wonderful to think we are in fact already sharing this planet with a sentient life form, with plenty to teach us.