Weeping Willow?: The Question of Plant Sentience
September 27, 2011 8 Comments
The environmentalist Derrick Jensen and the philosopher John Sanbonmatsu have been sparring over Lierre Kieth’s Vegetarin Myth of late. Sanbonmatsu’s arguments are so deeply nuanced and thoughtful that, contrasted with the shaking hysteria of Jensen’s outbursts, they make this entire tete-a-tete a bit of an intellectual mismatch. That said, one thing to come out of the battle was the following comment from Sanbonmatsu about the overheated topic of plant sentience. I’ll quote it at length and then end with the link to the letter from which it was excerpted.
Let’s finally move on to the main bones of contention (pun intended). As I took pains to show, Lierre Keith explicitly and repeatedly conflates animals and plants, and dying with killing, in her book. In his reply, Jensen merely reiterates Keith’s ontological conflations, writing that “all eating requires death.” Yes, it does, which is why I said so in my original essay. However, what I also said was that the fact that everything dies, or even that in living we sometimes hurt others or inadvertently cause other beings to die, cannot be a moral defense for intentionally killing or causing suffering to conscious beings. Examined closely, Jensen’s “all eating requires death” reduces to a tautology, something along the lines of “life is life,” which is true but philosophically uninteresting. We might just as well say that human society also “requires” death, because if people didn’t die, there would be no place to put new human beings. But to acknowledge that “for some to live some must die” would be no justification for killing them. In any event, while I acknowledged in my essay that agriculture, even sustainable agriculture, does lead to “collateral” mortality in nonhuman beings, I also pointed out that the animal killing apparatus kills many, many times more of those beings, both directly and intentionally (billions of animals viciously confined and manipulated and then killed each year to meet the irrational and growing demand for flesh) and indirectly, through its monopolization of the land (since more than 75% of agricultural land today is used to grow crops for animals to eat so that we can kill and eat them).
But Jensen suffers from the same cognitive incapacity as Keith: he is unable to distinguish between sentient and insentient life. Neither author is willing to concede any morally significant or ontological distinction, between plants and animals—such a basic distinction that practically every human culture or civilization in the history of the world has acknowledged its fundamental importance. Jensen indeed writes: “The soil itself—alive, with over a million beings in one tablespoon of soil, and more than a thousand different species in just a square meter of soil, all of whom must eat—requires food. Life requires death.” This reminds me of Heidegger’s contention that what happened in the Holocaust was no different than mechanized plant agriculture: “Agriculture is now a motorized food-industry — in essence, the same as the manufacturing of corpses in gas chambers and the extermination camps” . In point of fact, as bad as industrialized agriculture is, and it is bad—indeed, as presently constituted it is just as ruinous for the planet as Keith and Jensen maintain (which is why I granted the point)—it is not genocide. Nor is cutting one’s grass on the front stoop equivalent to cutting the throats of chickens on an assembly line or beating cats and dogs to death for their meat (as happens in Korea). But if Jensen cannot see the moral difference between killing a child or a pig, say, both of whom are intelligent beings with emotions, and consuming bacteria in the soil, he really is beyond all help.
Yet Jensen cannot be disabused of his fantasy that plants are sentient. In my article, I maintained that no reputable scientist believes that plants are sentient, by which I meant and mean thinking and feeling and having the sensuous capacity for consciousness. I hold to that position, with one possible and partial exception (see below). Jensen claims that plant sentience and even consciousness is an established and widely accepted fact, the common sense of our time. And to demonstrate the point, he cites popular scientific accounts in mainstream media journals and refers his readers to the work of scientists at the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology. I confess that I had never heard of the latter. So after learning a little about the Laboratory I contacted Frantisek Baluska, one of the lead researchers there, and asked him whether he and his colleagues really believed that plants were sentient and conscious, experienced emotions like animals, and so forth. Baluska wrote me that while someday it “might turn [out] that…plant-specific sentience and consciousness will be even more complex than the animal/human ones,” in fact, “Unfortunately we cannot say anything about emotional lives of plants as the current science is still not matured enough to pose these questions.” In other words, they don’t know, and they wouldn’t make the claim.
The director of the Lab, Stefano Mancuso (cited by Jensen), answered my similar query to him with the words, “Frantisek already answered you as I would have done.” However, Mancuso did add that “I can not imagine a living organism [of any kind] being unconscious.” Thus, Mancuso himself seems personally to believe that plants are conscious and sentient—so chalk one up for Jensen: the one scientist in the world, apparently. Nevertheless, as I have just indicated, even members of Mancuso’s own research staff, whom he says he agrees with, admit that ascribing internal psychological and emotional states to plants is simply not something that the existing science permits them to do. In his email to me, moreover, Mancuso added, “At the end [of the day] it is [also] not possible even to be sure [of] the consciousness of our brother humans, of course you know the problem of ‘other mind[s]’….” In other words, Mancuso cannot say anything more decisive about the existence of plant consciousness than he can say about human consciousness. These are speculative matters. The most he and his peers can do is theorize about plant “intelligence,” without however being able to prove that they are “intelligent” in the sense of having consciousness and feelings.
My exchange with Mancuso and Frantisek led me to delve a bit further into this emerging discourse about plant sentience and “intelligence.” Why are Jensen and Keith so intent to blur the distinction between plants and animals, a primordial ontological distinction acknowledged by most if not all human civilizations throughout history? And why was Jensen, a back to the land primitivist, now coming out as a technoscience junkie (he cites Wired magazine and even the TED Conference, where the corporate literati now go to get their draughts of good technologic cheer)? I found this key clue on the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology’s website: the Laboratory, it says, embraces the “view [that] sees plants as information processing organisms with complex communication throughout the individual plant.” In other words, if some of the researchers at the laboratory are comfortable speaking of plant intelligence it is because they are setting out from an essentially mechanistic way of understanding life and consciousness—as information processing.
One of the most fateful mistakes of our age has in fact been to depict consciousness and sentience as nothing more than “information processing,” and to suggest that interior mental states and experiences can be represented as algorithms and reduced to external behaviors. This view of biology is of extremely recent vintage, the outcome of half a century of reified technological thinking about the nature of life. More and more in the scientific literature we are seeing a reified discourse in which biological processes are being conflated with mind and feelings. In his brief email to me, for example, Dr. Mancuso wrote of his belief that plants must experience their world sensuously because “plants are able to sense continuously and concurrently at least 20 different chemical and physical parameters; much more than any animal.” In other words, because researchers can identify “20 different chemical and physical parameters” of information processing in plants, it seems logical to attribute sensuous experiences to them.