December 6, 2023

Are plants intelligent?

If so, they might need an ethics guru

In 2008, a Swiss ethics commission published a discussion paper which suggested that plants had “dignity” which should be respected. Since Article 120 of the Swiss constitution says that “the Confederation … shall take account of the dignity of living beings”, this created both consternation and mockery in the media.

Nothing daunted, some members of the commission went on to formulate the Rheinauer Theses on the Rights of Plants. These proposals guaranteed plants reproductive rights, a right to be independent, a right to evolution, a right to survival as a species, a right to respectful research and development, and a right not to be patented.

The authors of the theses were realistic about the practical difficulties of implementing these on behalf of plants. However, it was a good start towards a bioethics of plants.

The persuasiveness of their initiative is being reinforced by a controversial movement in plant biology which asserts that plants are intelligent – and if this is the case, then perhaps they deserve rights.

Monica Gagliano is an Australian botanist who is a leader in plant intelligence. “Plant cognition is a new and exciting field of research directed at experimentally testing the cognitive abilities of plants, including perception, learning processes, memory and consciousness,” she says on her website. “The emerging framework holds considerable implications for the way we perceive plants as it redefines the traditionally held boundary between animals and plants.”

The idea that intelligence is not unique to animals goes back at least to Darwin, who observed that plants interacted with their environment. Scientists like Gagliano and Stefano Mancuso, an Italian plant physiologist, believe that they have evidence that plants have memory and consciousness – although not in a way that humans can comprehend. They contend that “that we must stop regarding plants as passive objects—the mute, immobile furniture of our world—and begin to treat them as protagonists in their own dramas, highly skilled in the ways of contending in nature.”

“I agree that humans are special,” Mancuso told The New Yorker in a 2013 interview. “We are the first species able to argue about what intelligence is. But it’s the quantity, not the quality” of intelligence that sets us apart. We exist (The New Yorker observed) on a continuum with the redwood, the carrot, and the amoeba. 

What will happen when plants find their advocate for Plant Rights, a new Peter Singer? No more florist shops? No more salads? No more wooden houses? No more lawn-mowing? Time will  tell.

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