by Karen Davis, PhD, president of United Poultry Concerns
Can a tree be “strategically responsive, and exhibit kinship, or a sense of self? Is a tree intelligent?”
––Rebecca Giggs, “The Trees Are Talking,” The Atlantic, July /August 2021, published online as A Better Way to Look at Trees.
This intriguing article in The Atlantic recounts modern discoveries of behavioral complexity in plants and the implications of this complexity. Reading it, I was reminded of my conversations with two different people about the possibility of plant consciousness.
Sentience & the case for animal rights
If plants can be scientifically shown to experience themselves and their surroundings with their own forms of biological consciousness and sensitivity, how does this discovery affect the case for animal rights, based on animal sentience?
My first conversation was with animal rights activist and author Norm Phelps (1939-2014) who, while believing that the world is informed with a Buddhist-like spirituality, did not believe that plants – trees, bushes, vines, grasses, etc. – possess consciousness or sentience of any kind.
Yes, like animals, Norm acknowledged, plants have DNA and are organic like animals, but unlike animals they cannot run away from predators and they lack a brain and a central nervous system.
As Giggs writes in “The Trees Are Talking,” “The notion that plants ‘do’ anything, outside of surging toward the light and siphoning water, would imply threshold competencies that have long been regarded as mental, or at the very least sensory.”
“A welter of universal pain & pleasure”?
There is an understandable concern among animal advocates that if plants can be shown to be conscious, sentient beings, the case for animal rights collapses into a welter of universal pain and pleasure, making it hard to argue that we should not harm and kill other animals since they, like us and unlike plants, have well-developed central nervous systems, pain receptors and pleasure centers.
Like us, birds, fish, and our fellow mammals show evidence of fear and wellbeing. Land animals – mammals and birds – cry out in pain; birds, fish, and mammals nurse wounded body parts, and seek to avoid those who have hurt them in the past.
Thus, whatever sensory experience plants may or may not have, there is no question about the sensory experience of animals, be they chickens or chimpanzees, underwater dwellers or insects, whose sentience is increasingly recognized.
“A newborn lamb & a ripe tomato”
Helen Nearing (1904-1995), vegetarian peace activist and coauthor with her husband Scott of Living the Good Life, said that we may assume a degree of sentience in plants and still recognize that there’s “clearly a distinction between a newborn baby lamb and a newly ripened tomato.”
My second conversation, more recently, was with a person who cares about animals, though not about animal “rights” per se.
Our conversation began by his saying he looked forward to visiting a friend with a fishing business and to fishing with his friend. I asked how he felt about hooking a fish painfully in the mouth and yanking the fish out of the water that a fish needs in order to breathe. For the fish, fishing is a mental and physical trauma involving pain, fear, injury, and a slow and terrifying asphyxiation comparable to our being hooked in the mouth and drowned.
He replied that pretty soon plants will probably be shown to feel pain and suffering similar to pain and suffering in animals; if this is so, we will be just as guilty for hurting and killing plants as for hurting and killing animals, including fish.
I said I agree that we should refrain from assuming that plants have no experiential equivalent of what we know in our own lives as feelings. Even if plants don’t experience pain and pleasure in our sense. this does not necessarily exclude experiences particular to plants that involve their sense of themselves and the relevant parts of their environment.
“Experience” may comprise more than we know
“Experience” may comprise more than we know. Surely all organic beings, be they plants or animals, have an experiential component that distinguishes all of us from inanimate objects.
The fishing discussed in our conversation was not “survival” fishing, but rather “recreational” fishing, including “catch and release” fishing, which is profoundly cruel to the victim whose trauma is maximized by being returned to the water with mouth and facial injuries as well as brain damage from the lack of oxygen the fish endured when swung at the end of a pole into the air.
Back in the water, the injured fish is no longer fit to defend herself or himself from predators and other dangers, as before. A lingering injury to the body and mind of the fish, inviting infection, may follow. The damaged fish may have an aquatic family that he or she can no longer protect or participate with.
Lack of facial expression
The premier advocacy organization for aquatic animals, Fish Feel, cites the following:
In his book Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, world-renowned animal behaviorist Jonathan Balcombe, PhD., explains how fish are falsely, yet “commonly denied feeling” perhaps because of “their relative lack of facial expression.” He states:
“When they are impaled on a hook, fish don’t scream or grimace, though their gaping mouths may evoke a look of shock or horror to the empathetic witness. Using facial expression as a guide for sentience is hardly valid when one considers that some of the most intelligent and highly sentient marine vertebrates – namely the dolphins and whales – also lack facial expression, at least any that most of us can readily detect. However, animals have many other ways of visually signaling their feelings. Crests, dewlaps, pupil dilation and contraction, color changes, and body postures and movements are among the many visual ways fish and other animals convey emotions. Water is also a potent medium for communicating via chemicals and sounds.”
“Morally untenable & devoid of empathy”
The idea that if plants have feelings, we may therefore harm and kill animals for our appetites and amusement, since sentience is no longer considered a feature unique to animals, but a trait inherent in life itself, is morally untenable and devoid of empathy for either plants or animals.
People who argue against animal rights by invoking the “suffering” of a carrot in being pulled from the ground and eaten tend to be less concerned about plant sensitivity than they are about asserting their right to exploit animals, armed with the notion that if all living things have feelings, then “All is permitted.”
For those of us who truly care about not harming plants needlessly, it helps to remember that when we eat animal products, we consume many more plants indirectly than when we eat plants directly, because farmed animals are fed huge quantities of grasses, grains, and seeds to be converted into meat, milk, and eggs. An animal-free diet causes fewer beings to suffer and die for us.
Surely, we should treat trees and other forms of plant life with respect, and not wantonly, whether or not they are conscious and sentient as we experience these attributes.
One million neurons in a bee brain
In “The Trees Are Talking,” we are introduced to “a new vision of tree life. . . . This newfound tree is networked, sensitive, companionate, and communicative; it matters as part of a conjoined whole. . . . Such findings make trees seem capable of so much more than we once imagined.”
Similarly, oysters, clams, and insects are being shown to be capable of much more than we once imagined. Like fishes, they are members of the animal kingdom. As such, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Their behavior indicates sentience and awareness even if the sources of their feelings are elusive to science, which apparently is not even the case anymore.
Neuroscientist Lori Marino points out, for example, that there are “close to one million neurons in an ant or bee brain.” All insects, she writes, “possess a complex central nervous system . . and many insects show very complex learning capacities. . . . [and] we found that fish and crustaceans feel pain when it was assumed that was just not possible for ‘simple’ organisms.”
Perception of pain is not the only proof of sentience
We are reminded that there may be ways of feeling being alive in the flesh, even in wooden “flesh,” that we will never fathom. Nor is the perception of pain per se the only proof or sine qua non – an indispensable condition – of sentience.
Conscious perception of non-painful but highly distressing stimuli includes gagging, inability to breathe (dyspnea), smell of blood, apprehension, fear and more. Throughout history, various groups of humans, birds and others have been dismissed as mindless and insentient or “low on the scale of evolution,” as was once assumed about ground-nesting birds such as chickens, until the truth showed otherwise.
Thus, even if Buddhism does not regard plants as sentient or possessed of awareness, and therefore in no need of the compassion we owe to animals “not to kill or injure any human, animal, bird, fish, or insect,” we can no longer rely on this assumption, any more than on the Biblical claim in Matthew 6:28 that the lilies of the field “neither toil nor spin.”
With our newer insights into plant life and ecology, it appears that in their own evolved ways, this is precisely what “the lilies” do, just like animals, just like us. Taken together, we, the plants and our animal kin are the conjoined family of life on earth.
(For more on this topic, see Don’t Plants Have Feelings Too? Responding Effectively to 13 Frequently Asked Questions About Food, Fiber, Farm Animals, and the Ethics of Diet.)
Upon receiving Karen Davis’ guest column, above, ANIMALS 24-7 mentioned to her that the most basic, fundamental difference between plants and animals is that animals, from microbes on up, strive to escape being eaten, while plants have evolved a system of reproduction which often relies for reproduction on the process of being partially eaten.
This occurs in two ways.
One is that plants have evolved edible parts and secretions which attract pollinating species such as bats, birds, and insects, who transfer their pollen to other plants of the same species, thereby making sexual reproduction much more efficient.
The other is that many plants (including many of the same plants) have evolved edible parts which contain their ready-to-grow seed.
The edible parts attract consumption by animals, who then poop out the seeds in new locations, with dung which becomes the fertilizer to give the seeds a head start in life. This system enables plants to much more rapidly expand into new habitat than they otherwise could.
To be eaten by a predator is, for an animal, the end of that animal’s reproductive potential.
By contrast, for a plant the experience of being eaten is often the beginning of realizing reproductive potential.
Responded Karen Davis, “With these thoughts in mind, I will eat and urge others to Eat More Plants!”