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Laughing Plants

June 14, 2012

Steven Shaviro joins debate on the question of sentient plants.

“In her science fiction novel The Highest Frontier (2011), Joan Slonczewski poses the question of what it would mean for plants to have a sense of humor. A biologist “clones a set of genes” into an Arabidopsis plant, in order to make the plant grow neurons. This allows the plants to develop neural networks attuned to various mental states. One group of plants “has a laughter network. It detects a stimulus and finds it funny.” The plant “laughs” by shaking its leaves back and forth. The question then arises, what might a plant find funny? The answer turns out to be an inverted light spectrum. The plants laugh at this, because “it contradicts a established norm, that of the solar spectrum,” to which the plants are generally accustomed.

“The scenario of plants with a sense of humor is an extrapolation, of course; but it isn’t as farfetched as it might seem. Anthony Trewavas, Daniel Chamovitz, and other biologists have established that plants are in fact sentient: they may not be conscious, but they think and feel..”  More here.

What do we think of this? Could plants “feel pain” or the equivalent, although they lack a central nervous system?

  1. June 15, 2012 2:37 am

    Have you ever read “The Secret Life of Plants”? It discusses plant “emotions” read through electrical output. It’s fascinating.

  2. paws4thot permalink
    June 15, 2012 4:07 am

    I’ve got this notion that I read somewhere that some of the NA “Indian” tribes actually believed that plants did feel pain, and made effords to cause them to faint before felling trees for making totem poles. What I completely lack beyond a feeling that it was a magazine or newspaper article is any form of reference.

    Also, isn’t this the argument that Fruitarianism is based on?

    • June 15, 2012 8:37 am

      In two of my books there are characters who try to eat only microbes (bacteria and yeast.)
      In real life, there is a Buddhist shrine in Japan that was built to honor all the bacteria killed by people.

  3. heteromeles permalink
    June 15, 2012 10:14 am

    Speaking as a botanist, um, yes, plants sense their environments in very sophisticated ways. To pick one example, there’s a whole class of inducible defenses, that only come on line when, say, insects start chewing on them. Some of these defenses include diffusible gaseous chemicals, that cause the plants down-wind to also start up their defenses, even if the insects haven’t yet gotten to them.

    Arabidopsis has also been shown to be able to tell the roots of kin from non-kin, and to not compete with kin. This is important, because some of those inducible defenses include compounds to inhibit the roots of other plants, so that a plant root can better forage for nutrients. Some researchers think that roots have “foraging behavior” similar to that of burrowing mammals, and only the real difficulty of studying roots in soil keeps this area from taking off. That and the prejudice that plants can’t have behaviors, of course.

    Back when I was a grad student, we even played with the idea that some oaks demonstrate maternal care. In my area, oak seedlings normally occur under the canopies of other oaks, and researchers have demonstrated that oaks often fuse roots (this is a major mechanism for disease transmission, unfortunately). We speculated that the seedlings of oak roots may fuse with those of their parent, thereby gaining access to water and nutrients they would not otherwise have. Demonstrating parental care in oaks is one of those “non-trivial” exercises (think backhoe and microscope operating in tandem), but it’s certainly possible.

    As for being happy, I think most of us who garden can tell when plants are happy. This isn’t scientific, but I’d suggest that demonstrating it will come down to the usual complaint about scientists spending millions of dollars to prove the bloody obvious.

  4. Barkeron permalink
    June 15, 2012 10:22 pm

    Don’t some plant species emit specific pheromones if they received damage to warn their conspecifics? This could be interpreted as feeling pain.


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