The New Science of Plants

I recently read the book Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola. This post highlights the main points of the book.

Old Ideas about Plants

The authors write that such expressions as “to vegetate” reveal our past (and present) low opinion of plants. This low opinion has been engendered by the fact that plants don’t usually move from place to place, don’t have obvious brains or sense organs like animals, and don’t appear to communicate as we do. The authors note that even Linnaeus, the great botanist, was bound by a conservatism that did not allow him to adequately acknowledge the intelligence of the insect-eating plants that he was studying.

Our Dependence on Plants

The authors emphasize that our dependence on plants is not something that we want to admit. Perhaps, they say, we are psychologically in denial about our reliance on plants for our livelihood as humans. We don’t want to admit that we are dependent on anyone. We want to be self-sufficient and not just another part of the natural web of life.

Differences between Plants and Animals

The authors point out that the main difference between plants and animals (besides the immobility of plants) is the fact that a plant’s functions and intelligence are widely distributed throughout the plant—like the Internet—and that plants are more like swarms or colonies than individuals.

Plant Senses

The authors state that plants have the same five senses that we have—though without the organs that we have—and, in addition, have at least fifteen more senses. Plants are also able to communicate within themselves, with other plants, and with animals. Plants also use animals as their allies in the fight against predatory insects.

Plant Intelligence

The authors make the case that plants are intelligent, not by virtue of having a brain, but because they seem to act in ways that only an intelligent being could act. Plants show intelligence in obvious ways, as with the insect-eating species, and in common ways, as with the behavior of the root tips of plants, which can sense many different chemical substances and decide which way to grow. However, we only seem to be able to understand intelligence that is like our own (although we often misunderstand other members of our own species). If we cannot understand plant intelligence—after thousands of years of living right next to plants—then how can we hope to understand extraterrestrial intelligence, which might have developed along completely different lines?

In summary:

The most recent studies of the plant world have demonstrated that plants are sentient (and thus are endowed with senses), that they communicate (with each other and with animals), sleep, remember, and can even manipulate other species. For all intents and purposes, they can be described as intelligent.
—Mancuso, Stefano. Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence (p. 150). Island Press.


The authors note that the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH), established in Switzerland, put forward a document concerning the dignity of plants in 2008. But if we choose to concede that plants have senses, awareness, and intelligence, then what are we supposed to do about it? Currently, most people believe that animals have feelings and intelligence, but that doesn’t stop people from building slaughterhouses.

Perhaps, in the future, when we are even more intimately familiar with plants and animals, we will see them as part of our family, and protect them as we protect our children. In the Bible, there are prophecies about a sort of future Garden of Eden on the earth:

And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, And the leopard will lie down with the young goat, … And the lion will eat straw like the ox. (Isaiah 11:6-7 NASB)

There is also a lesser-known verse that might signal the beginning of a new relationship with plants:

“The whole earth is at rest and is quiet; They break forth into shouts of joy. Even the cypress trees rejoice over you, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, ‘Since you were laid low, no tree cutter comes up against us.'” (Isaiah 14:7-8 NASB)

Acknowledging the life that surrounds us may be the first step to becoming ready to acknowledge extraterrestrials, and even spiritual beings. And maybe—eventually—we will live in harmony with all life on this planet and in this universe.

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