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..?

About Nigel Chaffey

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic in a UK university. 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 amusing, educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.