Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence

Is Salad Murder?

A Darwinian biologist wrestles with the significance of plant intelligence
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Ulrich Kutschera
Ulrich Kutschera

If plants can sense things and communicate with each other, even though they lack a mind or brain, should they have rights? In an age of sometimes violent animal rights activism, that’s not an idle question. Plant physiologist Ulrich Kutschera, author of Physiology of Plants. Sensible Vegetation in Action (January 2019, German), talked about it in a recent interview:

This is a serious issue which is related to plant intelligence. In April 2009, the Swiss Parliament discussed the topic of “plant ethics” and proposed to attribute to plants a kind of “Würde”, which can be translated as “dignity” (3). As a consequence, some radical plant ethics-activists have distributed T-shirts and other propaganda material with the slogan “Salad is murder”. Despite the fact that plants are sensitive, valuable, living beings, this agenda is questionable. I would go so far as to label it, in its extreme form, as part of a growing European pseudoscientific-esoteric movement. Ulrich Kutschera, “Are plants intelligent?” at MercatorNet

Most plant scientists, in his view, “do not accept the notion of plant intelligence” or the related claim of the “dignity of plants,” but his own feelings seem somewhat mixed. He told the interviewer that “The key point is that there are numerous definitions of ‘intelligence’, so that even psychologists cannot define this term unequivocally.” If one defines intelligence as simply “the ability to solve problems,” plants are intelligent but “if we equate intelligence, at least in part, with creativity, the definition used by adherents of ‘plant intelligence’ becomes meaningless.”

But despite his reservations about interpreting plants as intelligent beings with dignity, he thinks that “plants should be considered, with respect to humans, as valuable and equal organisms – current end-points of organismic evolution,”  “evolved cousins.”

Indeed, he holds to a Darwinian explanation of plant intelligence and of the living world generally and sees the main danger of plant rights as arising from “an invasion of uncritical thinking, in tandem with the emergence of pseudoscientific claims, similar to those made by creationists, adherents of homeopathy, etc.” It takes considerable mental gymnastics to link creationism, in which human uniqueness is a key assumption, with plants rights, which seems to be an offshoot of animal rights, which denounces the idea of human uniqueness.

If we think plants are “equal organisms” with respect to humans, it’s not clear whether salad is or isn’t murder. Or whether murder is even a serious ethical problem. One may have the right precepts but defending them is awkward.

Michael Egnor notes that some, including Clemson University philosophy professor Todd May, think that the extinction of all human beings might be a benefit:

In what way would human extinction be moral or immoral? If humanity were wiped from the earth, either by our foolishness or by a Green Führer convinced by May’s diagnosis of the threat to Gaia, whence would come moral values of any kind? After all, if there were no men, who would judge moral outcomes? Surely not animals, who lack the capacity for abstraction inherent to moral reasoning, and surely not inanimate objects, which lack any sort of mental capacity. The oceans might be cleaner without man, but they would neither know nor care nor judge. Michael Egnor, “Would Human Extinction Be Immoral?” at Evolution News and Science Today

May is not alone. There is, in fact, a Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) that would like to see a vast reduction in human beings.

Both plants and animals can perceive and communicate, and in that sense both have “intelligence.” So if we ignore the spiritual dimension of human life—reason, free will, good and evil—humans are not unique. It becomes hard then to be sure that salad isn’t murder or that extinguishing other human beings for the sake of the environment is murder. A world without human uniqueness is likely to become a very dangerous place.

This 2014 documentary, War on Humans, with Wesley J. Smith, discusses the concept of plant rights (at 12 min).

Also:

A friend, meanwhile, writes to tell us about the 1999 comedy film Notting Hill, in which the friends of William (Hugh Grant) are trying to set him up with a date. They hold a dinner party to which they invite Keziah (Emma Bernard). When William offers her some carrots, the following dialogue ensues:

Made for each other, those two.

See also: Can plants be as smart as animals? Seeking to thrive and grow, plants communicate extensively, without a mind or a brain

That plant is not a cyborg

and

Ccrows can be as smart as apes