POSTED May 01, 2012
The Psychic Cannibalism of Plants — A Food Diary ⚓
A recent article in the New York Times posits a very interesting future for our relationship with plants. Plants have played an important, and often anthropomorphic role in our specie’s relationship with nature and its intrinsic ethics. Countless stories refer to the relative evil and saintliness of nature, being either the mother of all, or “red in tooth and claw.” And trees, especially trees of ancient domains like the Redwoods and Sequoias, enjoy an elder-worship status in our society. We marvel at the historical events they’ve “seen” — their memories hidden behind hundreds of rings. We climb and defend them with our own lives when they’re in danger. We “hug” them, and we talk to their household-sized counterparts. And even if this is just nonsense to you, you at least know people do it.
Michael Marder of the New York Times summarizes a more recent development in the story of plants, and their debatable sentience in “If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?”
Since Nov. 2, however, one possible answer to the riddle is Pisumsativum, a species colloquially known as the common pea. On that day, a team of scientists from the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University in Israel published the results of its peer-reviewed research, revealing that a pea plant subjected to drought conditions communicated its stress to other such plants, with which it shared its soil. In other words, through the roots, it relayed to its neighbors the biochemical message about the onset of drought, prompting them to react as though they, too, were in a similar predicament.
Curiously, having received the signal, plants not directly affected by this particular environmental stress factor were better able to withstand adverse conditions when they actually occurred. This means that the recipients of biochemical communication could draw on their “memories” — information stored at the cellular level — to activate appropriate defenses and adaptive responses when the need arose.
The research findings of the team at the Blaustein Institute form yet another building block in the growing fields of plant intelligence studies and neurobotany that, at the very least, ought to prompt us to rethink our relation to plants. Is it morally permissible to submit to total instrumentalization living beings that, though they do not have a central nervous system, are capable of basic learning and communication? Should their swift response to stress leave us coldly indifferent, while animal suffering provokes intense feelings of pity and compassion?
The behavior, and perhaps even the “worldview” of these plants doesn’t sound particularly human. It’s more aligned with a hive mentality, such as bees or ants, than anything we traditionally think of as “like us”. Chemical communications still seem alien to us. But if we consider the ways in which we’re changing — as a culture and even as a species — it may be true that we’re developing more plant-like behaviors than we are mammal or animal-like behaviors.
The structure of the internet, for example, more accurately reflects a decentralized root system brain than it does a mammal brain. In the example above, memories were stored, but not in the way we tend to think of human memories. They weren’t accessed and played back for reference. They were stored in places unassociated with the origination of the memory. They were backups and simulations without a real sense of context. Have you ever tried to find an original video on Youtube after it’s been auto-tuned a million times? Or tried to trace a Tumblr post back to its original author? The web doesn’t have a memory like we do. It’s not obsessed with origination or accuracy or individual sentience. It just collects and redistributes data like DNA mutations. The internet behaves much more like a plant-based network than a human brain this way. Just emotions and hopes, and alarm and regret flying around at light speed, moving others to mysteriously sympathize but without a true sense of why.
Vegetarianism, as an ethical approach to eating, has not been long with us relatively speaking. Certainly, people once ate diets that were either heavily animal protein or heavily vegetable, but mostly in line with availability and scarcity rather than any sort of ethic. Traditionally, we ate living things that had the most protein and fed the most people. But those food sources also happened to be living things we identified with — mammals — at least up until the point of an uncomfortable empathy. We tend to shy away from monkeys, apes and each other.
This strikes me as an odd sort of desire — to consume a living thing based on mutual respect or empathy for its life. The long history of hunters and warriors from tribal communities exhibits a deep longing to feel connected to these animals — never stronger than at the moment of death in the hunt. Even cannibalism, as horrific as it is to most of us, is deeply rooted in a belief that you gain psychic power from the living thing you consume. Powers specific to its place in the world and how it goes about living.
Extending this model of consumption based on empathic desire — could the growing popularity of vegetarianism actually be a move not made in the preservation of living things we empathize with, but towards another type of being we’re developing a greater empathy for? As we develop more plant-like behaviors (anonymity, augmented communications styles, hive-mind reactions and real-time mutation to stimuli) will we eat even more plants? Will we revel in it the way some people engorge on a 32oz prime rib as some show of life-force? The more we realize that plants are alive, and like us, the more we may want to express our longing to connect with that nature through its primitive destruction and consumption.