More on Plant Consciousness

Because this is a subject that’s getting some attention and raising some controversy, I’m going to share more thoughts on plant consciousness.

If you read my earlier post on plant consciousness, you already know that I’m seeing more and more evidence that plants are more animal-like than we ever imagined. This poses a problem for vegans. We argue that plants are appropriate human food because plants are not ‘sentient’ creatures like humans and animals. We believe that to kill and eat an animal is to kill and eat a sacred life that not only has self-awareness, but who fears death, and suffers greatly when slaughtered. But to kill and eat a plant has no karmic consequences, and no one suffers.

When we begin talking about the inner lives of plants, we’re getting into strange territory. What if they want to live too, but, lacking mouths to speak, are not able to ask us to stop killing them? What if they feel fear? What if killing and eating them is a blot on our souls? What if being vegan is not ahimsa?

While it’s becoming clearer to me that plants have more complex lives than we previously thought, I’m not prepared to believe that eating plants is murder. But I’m starting to see that there’s a space of existence in between our understanding of full sentience and non-sentience that we haven’t yet defined. I’m beginning to think that’s where plants fall on the spectrum.

The idea that plants live anything more than solitary, mechanical lives definitely seems far out. I understand the skepticism. But as botanists and other scientists look deeper into plant behavior, amazing things are coming to light. Without the benefit of nervous systems, plants exhibit the ability to communicate, cooperate, take and hold territory, and nurture their young. They exhibit self-interest, kin recognition, and information integration. They have no eyes and no ears, but find their own food. Plants move and behave, and one of the ways they behave is through growth – like us.

And then there’s the part of the iceberg beneath the surface – the biggest part, that we don’t see in action. As much as 80 percent of a plant’s total mass lives below ground, in elaborate and intelligent root systems, rhizomes, tubers, and bulbs. Complex feeding behaviors – like seeking food – that were once thought to be the domain of humans and animals, are now behaviors that are confirmed in plants.

I could cite lots of recent experiments. One, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, involved placing small plant nutrient tablets at strategic places in a bed of soil, arranging a camera underground that tracked root migration, then planting some ordinary plants in the soil bed.

Scientists recorded roots searching for the nutrient tablets and once finding them, beginning their feeding. Once the tablets’ nutrients were exhausted, the roots set out to find more tablets. They changed direction, traveled deep then shallow, and reached as far as the soil bed would allow. They developed a taste for those yummy tablets, and they were searching far and wide for their favorite meals.

This is a self-interest behavior that suggests that plants, like humans and animals, are at least aware of their environment. They know what they want. If not, the tablets would have had no influence on root development.

Time lapse photography has allowed us to enter plants’ world. In one experiment, a young ‘daughter vine’, which, if you’re a tomato grower you should be familiar with, was placed in soil between a small tomato plant (it’s favorite host), and another small plant, which daughter vines don’t favor at all. A glass jar was placed over the tomato plant and a chemical was applied to it to block its scent.

Using time-lapse photography, we see the daughter vine spinning around, reaching back and forth between the tomato plant and the other plant. It reaches for the undesirable plant once, decides it doesn’t like it, backs off, then tries to latch on to the tomato plant. It keeps reaching for the tomato plant, but fails. But it doesn’t stop trying to get to the meal inside the glass.

Then, a tomato pheromone is applied to the undesirable plant, a scent that fools even insects into thinking a non-tomato is a tomato. Still, the vine rejects it. Then the glass jar is removed from the tomato, and within hours, the vine reaches over and starts to wrap itself around the tomato plant.

That’s weird. Did the vine finally ‘see’ the tomato plant? How did it know that the undesirable plant, even with the tomato pheromone applied, wasn’t a tomato plant? You mean we couldn’t fool a simple little vine - that it saw through our game?

We don’t know. All these experiments have only shown us the facts of plant behaviors. What they tell us about the nature of existence is still a big mystery. But as we keep pulling back the layers of plant behavior, we keep finding more miracles, and more evidence that plants are much more complex than we’ve ever thought.

Does this mean it’s wrong to eat plants? I wish I knew. But I do know that plants share the world with us, have many of our own behaviors, get hungry, need rest, thrive with kindness and wither with neglect, avoid danger, and strive to live and reproduce.

Plants have a lot to tell us. What we discover could tell us more than we ever knew about all life on Mother Earth. It may answer some of the immortal questions. It may propel us toward more compassionate living, more mindful eating. Plants have something to say. We just need to listen.

Live in peace.

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