Plants are intelligent. Plants deserve rights. Plants are like the Internet – or more accurately the Internet is like plants. To most of us these statements may sound, at best, insupportable or, at worst, crazy. But a new book, Brilliant Green: the Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, by plant neurobiologist (yes, plant neurobiologist), Stefano Mancuso and journalist, Alessandra Viola, makes a compelling and fascinating case not only for plant sentience and smarts, but also plant rights.
Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to break from the crowd and recognize that plants move and respond to sensation – i.e., are sentient. Moreover, Darwin – who studied plants meticulously for most of his life, observed that the radicle – the root tip – “acts like the brain of one of the lower animals”.
Plants face many of the same problems as animals, though they differ significantly in their approach. Plants have to find energy, reproduce and stave off predators. To do these things, Mancuso argues, plants have developed smarts and sentience.
Plants are able to grow through shady areas to locate light and many even turn their leaves during the day to capture the best light. Other plants are preying on animals.
Plants harness animals in order to reproduce. Many plant use complex trickery or provide snacks and advertisements (colours) to lure in pollinators, communicating either through direct deception or rewards. New research finds that some plants even distinguish between different pollinators and only germinate their pollen for the best.
Plants have evolved an incredible variety of toxic compounds to ward off predators. When attacked by an insect, many plants release a specific chemical compound. But they don’t just throw out compounds, but often release the precious chemical only in the leaf that’s under attack.
Plants are also complex communicators. Today, scientists know that plants communicate in a wide variety of ways. The most well known of these is chemical volatiles.
Plants’ roots do not flounder randomly but search for the best position to take in water, avoid competition and garner chemicals. In some cases, roots will alter course before they hit an obstacle, showing that plants are capable of “seeing” an obstacle through their many senses. (Humans have five basic senses. But scientists have discovered that plants have at least 20 different senses used to monitor complex conditions in their environment, such as measure humidity, detect gravity and sense electromagnetic fields) Mancuso and colleagues recorded the same signals given off from this part of the plant as those from neurons in the animal brain. One root apex may not be able to do much. But instead of having just one root, most plants have millions of individual roots, each with a single radicle.
Instead of a single powerful brain, Mancuso argues that plants have a million tiny computing structures that work together in a complex network, which he compares to the Internet. The strength of this evolutionary choice is that it allows a plant to survive even after losing 90% or more of its biomass. Having a single brain – just like having a single heart or a pair of lungs – would make plants much easier to kill. (1)
In another story, Plants, scientists say, transmit information about light intensity and quality from leaf to leaf in a very similar way to our own nervous systems. These “electro-chemical signals” are carried by cells that act as “nerves” of the plants. In their experiment, the scientists showed that light shone on to one leaf caused the whole plant to respond. And the response, which took the form of light-induced chemical reactions in the leaves, continued in the dark. This showed, they said, that the plant “remembered” the information encoded in light. (2)
In two words:
The less the brain is concentrated…
…the more consciousness is dissipated.
Imagine a universe with no brain.
A universe full of consciousness…
A universe full of nothing.
A universe full of everything.