Blurring the boundaries between plants and people

The title of Matthew Hall’s 2011 tome, ‘Plants as per­sons’ may not give that much away (con­tro­ver­sial and chal­len­ging though it is!). However, its sub-title, ‘a philo­soph­ical bot­any’ provides an ink­ling of what lies within. Further, as a volume in the SUNY [State University of New York] Series on Religion and the Environment you begin to get an idea of the focus of this con­tri­bu­tion. It is cer­tainly philo­soph­ical — prob­ably more so than most of us are used to in the botan­ical texts we might read — but at its heart it has a very botan­ical sub­ject. And for any­body who admits to more than a passing interest in mat­ters botan­ical, it is cer­tainly worth delving into. But, be warned/advised, it can make for slightly uncom­fort­able read­ing; not because of the sub­ject mat­ter (it does us no harm to re-evaluate out rela­tion­ship with plants and maybe view them in a dif­fer­ent light than merely as nat­ural cre­ations put on Earth for human exploit­a­tion), but because of the terms, con­cepts and lan­guage used and developed in its 235 pages. In that lat­ter regard it is a very philo­soph­ical tract indeed with phrases such as ‘meta-narrative’, ‘post-modern decon­struc­tion­ist’, ‘psycho-optical pre­ju­dices’, and ‘eco­fem­in­ist the­ory’ lib­er­ally sprinkled through­out. But, try not to let that put you off! Fortunately, the Prologue out­lines the con­tents and main thesis of the book and provides a bet­ter idea of what each of the main chapters deal with. As a bot­an­ist, the one I found most inter­est­ing was Chapter 7 “Bridging the Gap” (which deals with the con­cepts of plant intel­li­gence (which is quite a ‘hotly debated/contested area’ of plant sci­ence — e.g. Alpi A, et al. (2007) Plant neuro­bi­o­logy: no brain, no gain? Trends in Plant Science 12: 135–136; Trewavas A (2007) Response to Alpi et al.: Plant neuro­bi­o­logy – all meta­phors have value. Trends in Plant Science 12: 231–233)). I know, at the very men­tion of plant intel­li­gence — PI? — I expect some of you will by now be chok­ing on your muesli. Sorry. But dif­fer­ences of opin­ion are good, if they foster debate and encour­age fur­ther research, and ulti­mately help to move the sub­ject forward.

Throughout its 7 chapters Hall explores the man­i­fold ways in which humans have viewed plants, which of neces­sity con­siders his­tor­ical, philo­soph­ical and religious/‘belief sys­tems’ dimen­sions. It is acknow­ledged that nowadays (and as in times gone by!) there are many — often highly-polarised — views of plants and their place in some ill-defined ‘order’ of the nat­ural world. So, some put plants at the bot­tom of a pyr­amid of ‘sen­tience’, oth­ers accord them a much higher place­ment, whilst oth­ers park them some­where in between. Wherever plants are posi­tioned (and if at the bot­tom of the pile they are actu­ally doing a very import­ant job in sup­port­ing all that gets heaped on top of them…), at least they are being con­sidered — and not com­pletely ignored! Ultimately, how­ever, one must con­cede that plants are not people and we will prob­ably always regard them as some sort of ‘out­siders’ and treat them dif­fer­ently, prob­ably des­pite attempts by some national gov­ern­ments to enshrine in law ‘rights’ for plants (e.g. the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH)’s pub­lic­a­tion “Moral con­sid­er­a­tion of plants for their own sake” — Abbott, 2008: Swiss ‘dig­nity’ law is threat to plant bio­logy. Nature 452: 919). Nevertheless, we should try and respect all life forms. After all, as occu­pants of planet Earth the future of all of us is largely bound up with the future of all other liv­ing things in one enorm­ous highly-complicated, multiply-intertwined and inter­de­pend­ent ecosystem.

Whilst I can’t pick fault with the philo­soph­ical view­points explored in the book — that comes down to per­sonal pref­er­ences, etc, des­pite the many dif­fer­ences of opin­ion explored by Hall, I think there is only one cor­rect way to spell phos­phorus (and it’s not phos­phor­ous — p. 152). I can also raise a few ques­tions about the bot­any con­tained therein. Thus, I was a little sur­prised to read on p. 138 that Grew and Malpighi ‘dis­covered’ cells in plants (intriguingly, neither of those plant ana­tom­ists of note — nor cells — are men­tioned in the Index…); what happened to Hooke and his obser­va­tion of cells in plant-derived cork? In note 59 re Chapter 1 on p. 175 Hall states that plants exer­cise con­trol of the water enter­ing the root by the water-proofing Casparian strip. Well, it’s really dif­fer­ences in water poten­tial that determ­ine whether and in which dir­ec­tion water moves. So, a little bit of ‘short-hand’ used there? Minor points, I know — and ones which well may have philosophically-robust counter-arguments — but…

To repeat, plants are not people — which notion the book wisely avoids in the title by con­sid­er­ing them to be ‘per­sons’; they are just dif­fer­ent to us: Differently con­struc­ted, dif­fer­ently nour­ished, dif­fer­ently intel­li­gent… But, sadly, they are often treated in the way humans so often treat other liv­ing things that are dif­fer­ent or little under­stood — badly. Whatever may be the rights or wrongs of Hall’s view of plants, they are undoubtedly com­plex ‘creatures’ cap­able of an aston­ish­ing range of often com­plex phe­nom­ena and beha­viours and should be respec­ted as such. Intelligent plants? OK, we may not get a potato or a petunia in the White House, but we’ve had two bushes there in the past…

Do give Matthew Hall’s “Plants as Persons” a go. You will (hope­fully) not look at plants in the same way again. Or is that what you might be afraid of..?

Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.