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Are Plants Cognitive, Intelligent Organisms? A Controversy Brews

Some plant biologists want to see them that way; others continue to insist on a Darwinian view

As panpsychism (the idea that all life forms are conscious to some extent) takes hold in science, it ruffles some fields more than others. Think of what it is doing to botany…

Venus flytrap is one of the carnivore plants

Well, we don’t have to imagine. The University of Heidelberg put out a media release this week warning that the belief that plants do things we commonly associate with animals is straying beyond the science:

Plants are often attributed with abilities similar to those known in the animal or human world. Trees are said to have feelings and can purportedly care for their offspring, like mothers. In an article in the review journal Trends in Plant Science, 32 international plant and forest researchers followed up on such assertions.

Led by Prof. David G. Robinson, professor emeritus for cell biology at the Center for Organismal Studies (COS) of Heidelberg University, the researchers analyzed the claims in two popular publications on forests and reached the conclusion that conjecture is equated with fact. They warn against “anthropomorphizing” plants.

– Heidelberg University, “’Do not anthropomorphize plants,’ say plant and forest researchers,-” September 30, 2023 The paper requires a subscription.

Not only in popular literature

But such claims are not made only in popular literature. Prof. Robinson and some of his colleagues have expressed concern on this topic before.

In 2020, EMBO Reports published a paper by Frantisek Baluška and colleagues titled “Plants, climate and humans: Plant intelligence changes everything.” From the paper’s Abstract:

However, over the past decades, plant science has revealed that higher plants are much more than just passive carbon-fixing entities. They possess a plant-specific intelligence, with which they manipulate both their abiotic and biotic environment, including climate patterns and whole ecosystems. Considering plants as active and intelligent agents has therefore profound consequences not just for future climate scenarios but also for understanding mankind’s role and position within the Earth’s biosphere.

– Baluška F, Mancuso S. Plants, climate and humans: Plant intelligence changes everything. EMBO Rep. 2020 Mar 4;21(3):e50109. doi: 10.15252/embr.202050109. Epub 2020 Feb 27. PMID: 32103598; PMCID: PMC7054678.

Robinson et al. were skeptical of the claims about “plant-specific intelligence” and wrote EMBO Reports to say,

Plant “intelligence” changes nothing

Attempts to humanize plants may be in line with current trends towards rampant anthropomorphism in biology, but paint a highly distorted picture of plant life. The present article in EMBO Reports adds an extra dimension to the apparent cognitive and social abilities of plants: sentences like “A new view of higher plants as cognitive and intelligent organisms that actively manipulate their environment to serve their needs” and “Humans are not excluded from plants’ manipulative behaviour…” appeal to psychological and neurobiological concepts of social cognition without providing empirical basis for such a far-reaching proposal.

And Baluška and a colleague responded,

Plants are alive: with all behavioural and cognitive consequences

We have always been well disposed towards criticisms—by studying cognition in plants we expect it—but we do not believe that dogmatic attitudes can be helpful for science to progress. If Robinson et al want to continue their claim that 85% of Earth biomass (plants) is made up of organic semi-living machines and that intelligence is a gift belonging only to 0.3% of life (animals), they are obviously free to believe it, but they should support their claims with scientific evidence.

Incidentally, Frantisek Baluška is part of the Third Way of evolution group, which seeks to look beyond Darwinian natural selection in order to understand evolution. That may be an underlying source of tension because Robinson et al. stress in their critical letter that “Most ecologists understand that ‘ecological strategy’ is a misleading teleological shorthand for evolved adaptive behaviour determined by natural selection.”

Can Darwinism withstand panpsychism?

An underlying issue is, of course, the fact that the Darwinian concept of nature does not credit even humans with having actual intelligence. We merely have “evolved adaptive behaviour determined by natural selection.” In other words, natural selection acting on random mutations (Darwinism) is thought to account for abstract mathematics, the Louvre, and all spiritual teachings, on the theory that they enable their creators and admirers to spread their selfish genes.

Of course it may be untenable that plants plan or think. But, honestly, Darwinism is untenable too. Will this controversy become a war of untenables?

ecosystem terrarium with small plants

Meanwhile, pop science media like the new approach to plants. Consider a recent release from ZME Science:

Researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) have recorded high-pitched airborne noises emitted by water-stressed plants. The noises could be interpreted as an indication that plants cry out for help (please water me!), much like a distressed animal would.

In their study, the researchers suggest that whenever a plant is cut, suffers from an infection, or is under stress from water deprivation, it repeatedly emits a click sound. Humans are not able to hear these clicks because their frequency is above the audible range (40 to 80 KHz, whereas humans can hear sounds only up to 20 KHz).

– Rupendra Brahambhatt, “Plants ‘scream’ under stress. Here is how you can hear them,” AME Science, September 26, 2023 The paper is open access.

ZME Science asks the inevitable question: “Plants can’t have emotions – or can they?” The researchers told the medium that they “cannot say with certainty.”

Darwinians may be the ones who need to learn how to “adapt” to this new environment where panpsychism is increasingly an underlying assumption in science and science writing.

You may also wish to read: Researchers: Yes, plants have nervous systems too. Not only that but, like mammals, they use glutamate to speed transmission

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Are Plants Cognitive, Intelligent Organisms? A Controversy Brews