Conscious plants!? Surely you jest!


Nominal Science Editor at The Guardian opines thusly: Group of biologists tries to bury the idea that plants are conscious.

It’s a fascinating read. Enjoy it.

But…let’s have some fun with this.

Lincoln Taiz, front and center in the article, et al, is a biologist with a PhD who is taking issue with a small set of botanists who propose the apparently laughable idea that plants have consciousness. Now, Lincoln Taiz is apparently a well-respected professional in his field, and has several publications under his name. They’re all in plant biology. He’s even written a textbook on plant physiology. What we’re not supposed to notice is that he doesn’t have any kind of background at all in medicine, psychology, psychiatry, neurobiology, or even vertebrate biology. He’s had no apparent involvement at all in the interdisciplinary field of consciousness studies. What we might be looking at here is a classic case of Dunning-Kruger.

Sadly, the hypothesis he and his buddies are refuting so vigorously looks absurd. Yet the notion that it’s absurd begs the question that consciousness is somehow utterly dependent upon a particular kind of organ found only in particular kinds of living things, and only if with the right degree of something called complexity. That’s kind of like assuming that there’s no aliens because we’ve detected none who have advanced only as far as we have. I’m not suggesting the good doctor attempt to disprove a negative, but is it too much of a stretch to suggest that maybe, just as it’s too soon to say with any degree of certainty that there simply are no aliens, it’s possibly a bit premature to go throwing one’s misapplied weight around with definitive it cannot be’s in this context, either?

We have our sensorium, certainly more than five senses big, and detect the environmental cues most relevant to our safety and reproduction.

Plants, on the other hand, detect certain chemicals in the air, or in the soil, or in the water and, upon detection, proceed to start doing things quite a bit differently at a biochemical level that then changes the physical shape of various plant tissues at microscopic levels, which, from the outside, appears to us like volitional movement. We’re supposed to be unsurprised when we hear how much more sensitive a dog’s olfactory sense is compared to our own, but be aghast at the idea that plants might have an apparatus analogous to our olfactory sense when they principally “communicate” by chemicals in trace amounts transmitted through soil and air and water?

If you have the right combination of stimuli, probably some combination of physical stimuli in the form of light striking your retina and maybe the detection of specific trace chemicals in the air with your olfactory sense, possibly with a very specific ratio of all manner of proteins and enzymes and the like all secreted and circulated just so, you’re likely to experience a wide-spread change in the physical shapes of a great many of your own cells, specifically ones in muscle tissue, such that your articulated skeleton moves either toward (or away from) the stimulus in ways evolved over millions upon millions of years such that the body flexing its appendages about does so in ways generally conducive to survival and reproduction. And, after countless tiny little iterations of this cellular behavior, prompted by chemical signals and, for that matter, regulated by chemical signals, you finally reach your coffee mug and bring it (mostly flawlessly) to your mouth for a sip (with only a little waste).

Is that always volitional? How many times have you done just that without even realizing it? Good ol’ autopilot. Do you remember sleeping through the alarm clock the last time you overslept? Probably not, even if you remember waking up afterward. Were any of your movements while the alarm was going off volitional, even though likely prompted by an external stimulus?

Then of course, there’s simple instinct. Take the standard YouTube video of someone putting a snack in front of a sleeping dog’s nose. The nose starts going, and before the pooch even seems to be fully “conscious,” it’s nibbling at the snack and seems to “come to” gleefully, already about the business of enjoying a treat.

But plants? We’re supposed to think that’s absurd. I don’t know that it is, or that it isn’t. I’m not the doctor here, and I’m making no Dunning-Kruger-inspired prognostications beyond my expertise. I can, however, acknowledge that some scientists have a hypothesis that they’re testing. That’s science for you. Criticizing their methodology without first establishing that your own proposed criteria are of necessity the best, maybe even the only ones, well, that doesn’t strike me as science at all.

For that matter, even philosophically the question is begged that consciousness is itself the emergent property and not the other way around. How we could test that, I do not know.

What I think I know is that as an aspiring critical thinker, I’m supposed to weigh the quality of the evidence in front of me. I’m supposed to vet my sources. I’m supposed to take the evidence for the pro and the con and all points in between (and elsewhere) and consider them. If I’m faced with what appears to be a valid argument (possibly in form only), I’m supposed to make sure that the reasoning is also sound before I accept the conclusion.

I do know that I’m not a science editor.

So I hope you’ll pardon me if, in these anti-intellectual, anti-science times when science itself may be our best and last hope when it comes to existential crises, I take umbrage with a so-called science editor who unapologetically trots out an article like this present bit of pseudo-scientific twaddle as though it has any legitimacy.

Categories: Science/Technology