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Monday, January 10, 2011

Can Plants Think and Feel?

Thanks to Sam S.:

Stefano Mancuso is a founder of the study of plant neurobiology. This means that he investigates the minds of organisms who have no brains. In this presentation he shares his discovery that plants can think with their roots. He also discusses how our perception of plants makes this surprising.

In recent history, more humans have become more and more prepared to see themselves as just another part of the animal kingdom, not so different from any other creature. The biggest cause of this trend is the progress of science, especially biology. Every new discovery and theory exposes how much we share with and how much we have to learn from other animals. Plants have not received the same treatment. Since the dawn of knowledge and philosophy, we have considered plants to be more different from animals than we ever thought animals were from ourselves, and far less alive somehow. Since we discovered that all animals and plants are composed of cells, it’s been a mystery as to how the same building blocks can make two things so different. The sticking point has always been the brain; we assumed that plants are fundamentally different from animals because they don’t think. So I think that not only is the work of Mancuso and his colleagues fascinating in its own right, it is also a profoundly significant moment in the history of science.

Towards the end of the presentation, talking about plant/machine hybrids, he says, “[Compared to animals] the connection with the machine is much more…ethically possible.” Given the point he seems to be trying to make throughout the rest of the video, I find this somewhat incongruous. Having spent several minutes arguing very convincingly that plants can think and feel as well as animals, and thus that their old status of being a lower form of life is unjust, it doesn’t seem right for him to suggest that the morals preventing us from performing certain experiments on animals should not apply to plants. While I don’t feel strongly one way or the other on the issue, I do think Mancuso should be careful not to ignore the moral significance of his own research.

One other thing that struck me was the pair of pictures he showed of two different information networks. One was the root structure of a plant and the other was the internet. Both reminded me of another pair of pictures I’ve seen recently, comparing a brain cell to the astronomical structure of the universe. It’s truly incredible how interconnected everything around us is. The link to those pictures is here.

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