Should plants have rights?

The Guardian

As a journalist, I have spent the last several years immersed in the world of plant behaviour research, where botanists are coming to startling new conclusions about what plants are capable of.
Plants’ behaviour appears elastic, capable of adapting to changing circumstances, and even strategic: they integrate information about the recent past to make decisions for the future.
At what point could this be deemed conscious behaviour?
Must plants be deemed conscious for us to see them as active, decision-making, sentient creatures, with agency over their lives?
Some botanists who want nothing to do with the emerging plant consciousness debate are nevertheless in awe of what plants are capable of.
Indeed, some plant senses extend far beyond anything we are capable of; plants are, for example, masters of spontaneous chemical synthesis.
Far from being passive and ornamental, plants have evolved ingenious methods for dealing with whatever the world has thrown at them.
The surgical profession did not change its mind, but rather organisations were formed, advocating for the rights of animals.


A group of well-known biologists and philosophers expanded the boundaries of an extremely exclusive club during an event held at New York University last month. They pronounced that the possibility of consciousness in fish, crabs, and insects is “a realistic possibility.”. This was a continuation of a 2012 study that claimed mammals and birds possessed all the physical characteristics of conscious states and could engage in intentional behavior. The researchers concluded, “The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.”. “All vertebrates (including all reptiles, amphibians, and fishes) and many invertebrates (including, at minimum, cephalopod mollusks, decapod crustaceans, and insects)” are now included in the official consciousness list, also known as the “realistic possibility of consciousness” list.

It has been demonstrated that lizards can learn to navigate mazes, indicating behavioral flexibility—a trait that is frequently used to indicate intelligence. In addition to being able to play and differentiate between different artistic genres, bees can also carry out a complex, highly symbolic “waggle dance” that signals to other members of their hive exactly where to fly and at what angle to the sun in order to find food. According to scientists, bees may be sentient, which could indicate consciousness.

As a journalist, I have been deeply involved in the field of plant behavior research for the past few years, where scientists are discovering surprising new insights into the extraordinary abilities of plants. So where will the circle widen to next? They have discovered that plants can react to the sound of a predatory caterpillar chewing, can communicate with one another about threats, and can control animals for their own benefit. We now know that certain plants are able to count. For example, the Venus flytrap is renowned for counting the number of times the tiny trigger hairs in its maw-like traps are flicked, allowing them to make sure they are ensnaring a squirmy animal and not, say, a piece of fallen twig. Before establishing contact, twining parasitic vines seem to be able to discern whether their prospective prey is a good fit for them, and cress will rearrange its leaves to make room for its relatives in order to prevent shading out its siblings. Tomatoes can change the chemistry of their leaves in response to an attack, which inclines the caterpillars to eat one another rather than the tomato. Additionally, I’ve seen a climbing plant in Chile that can alter the texture, form, and vein pattern of its leaves to match those of the plant that grows next to it. Plants appear to have flexible, situation-adaptive, and even strategic behavior; they incorporate information from the recent past into their decision-making for the future.

Skeptics point to the plants’ blatant absence of brains as evidence that this could ever constitute conscious behavior, but one cognitive scientist working on the new consciousness declaration made the point that simple forms of consciousness might not require a cerebral cortex, suggesting that definitions that focus solely on the brain may need to change. Maybe because their way of life doesn’t require a brain, plants are brainless. They developed to be well-rooted in their environment. A highly portable command center might not have been necessary if there had not been a need to move quickly over large distances. Comparable to an octopus, which possesses relatively independent neurons dispersed across all of its appendages, a plant may resemble a self-aware system rather than a single processing hub. According to some botanists, consciousness may be a more diffuse, whole-body phenomenon because the entire plant may resemble a brain in certain ways. Some argue that a brain is just one component of a mind.

It’s critical to keep in mind that there is no universally accepted definition of consciousness. Despite a plethora of theories, no one has been able to pinpoint the mechanical underpinnings of consciousness, not even in the human brain. Instead, most of it is seen by inference: we observe a creature’s behavior and interpret it as a sign of consciousness based on how it reacts to its environment. Maybe one way to understand consciousness is to look at its opposite: whether a living thing can be rendered unconscious. Under general anesthesia, people become touch-insensitive. There is a decrease in brain electrical activity. Under normal circumstances, an individual under anesthesia will not experience the same electrical bursts when touched or sliced during surgery. The drugs cause temporary unconsciousness by interfering with the electrical signals that correspond with our awareness.

Plants, however, also pass that test. Plants have been etherized in numerous experiments, and it has been discovered that they are vulnerable to the same gases that kill humans. The Venus flytraps exhibit a lack of response to touch when their enclosures are infused with diethyl ether, a general anesthetic. This is demonstrated by the fact that the traps stay open despite the stimulation of multiple trigger hairs by mechanical means. The electrical signals that cause the plant to react are blocked when under anesthesia, hence there is an electrical relationship between the movement of the maw of the trap and the trigger hairs. Because of these similarities to electrical signaling in humans, some neuroscientists contend that plants should be included in the definition of a nervous system.

One more delightful example of plant movement that occurs quickly enough for us to observe is the species Mimosa pudica, also referred to as the “sensitive plant.”. When in its natural state, a mimosa responds to even the smallest touch by neatly closing its leaves. In the event that the disruption persists, the leaf will become limp at the stem meet. A very smart survival tactic is to allow a caterpillar to slide off if it is preoccupied with devouring a leaf that suddenly droops. However, when a mimosa plant is etherized, it doesn’t droop its leaves or close; instead, it seems completely unaffected.

Even pea seedlings are entertaining dancers; in about twenty minutes, they waggle their tendrils around enough to look like they’re dancing in a time-lapse. They will completely stop swaying while under anesthesia, curling their tendrils inward. They recover and start thrashing around once more when the ether is removed.

Therefore, perhaps the best approach to improving our knowledge of plants is not to look for consciousness. Some botanists who have no interest in the growing plant consciousness debate are nonetheless amazed at what plants are capable of and wonder if we need to consider them as conscious beings in order to perceive them as sentient, active, and having agency over their lives. They do not want the intelligence or consciousness of their study subjects to be diminished by human definitions that ignore the extraordinary subtlety with which plants perceive their environment and the creativity with which they adapt to its changes. Plants are masters of spontaneous chemical synthesis, for example, and have other senses that go far beyond human comprehension. These substances leave their leaves through pores and float through the air, sometimes controlling other living things. Many plants, such as lima beans, have the ability to synthesize the precise chemical that will attract the predator of whatever is consuming it and entice it to come and destroy the pests. Some create incredibly targeted pheromones to entice insects to try copulation, which results in pollination. Some have even devised strategies to deceive bees about the quantity of pollen they have in their blooms.

Plants have developed clever coping mechanisms to deal with whatever the world throws at them, far from being passive and ornamental. However, new ethical dilemmas arise if we accept that plants are cognizant in some manner. Is it time to give plants more ethical consideration? Should they be granted rights? Though legal scholars have made some progress in trying, it is difficult to imagine how this might work.

But when you remember that surgical demonstrations continued to be carried out on living, unsedated animals—especially dogs—as late as the turn of the 20th century, it becomes easier to imagine a higher ethical awareness of plant life. Because they thought animals couldn’t feel pain, scientists and medical professionals justified vivisection. We now find this idea to be blatantly absurd and incredibly cruel. Animals are capable of feeling pain, of course. But back then, science had a different opinion.

Before it was deemed wrong by science, vivisection was socially unacceptable. Organizations that support animal rights were formed instead of the surgical profession changing its position. Both science and society underwent a paradigm shift with the end of vivisection, and these changes require hearts and minds.

It might be time for another paradigm shift as fresh discoveries provide us with new perspectives into the lives of other beings. A thorough comprehension of consciousness and how it could manifest in organisms as completely foreign to humans as plants may never fully enter our minds. I believe it is preferable to consider all of life—including ourselves—as a chaotic, wonderfully absurd experiment with trillions of possible combinations. We occupy a position within the chaotic and intertwined tendrils of the evolutionary tree, constantly expanding in new directions, rather than at the summit.

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