Wonder of the Day: Light Eaters

In case you need to be reminded of just how amazing plants are, here’s what the late ethnobotanist Tim Plowman said when asked about the “wonders catalogued in The Secret Life of Plants.”

Why would a plant care about Mozart? And even if it did, why should that impress us? They can eat light, isn’t that enough?

I laughed out loud when I came across this in Michael Pollan’s fascinating article for the New Yorker, “The Intelligent Plant.” The entire article is filled with wonders about the powers of plants.

Pollan also documents the controversy among plant scientists regarding how to understand and categorize the accruing evidence that plants act intelligently. This debate reminds me of what I discovered in the course of researching my book, about friendship and dogs. In both cases, the orthodoxy in the scientific community hurls the accusation of “anthropomorphism” at anyone who dares to suggest that dogs—much less plants!—act intelligently in ways comparable to the (occasionally) intelligent ways that we humans act.

There’s no question that we human beings are exceptional, as far as critters go. But there’s also no doubt in my mind that the old prejudice that we alone are endowed with genuine intelligence is just that, an old prejudice. As scientists are discovering—some, to their dismay—the capacity to act intelligently appears to be widely distributed among living beings. To think otherwise is, well, to have an anthropocentric view of intelligence. As I point out in the introduction of my book, one remedy for our distorted thinking about dogs is to canimorphize ourselves, that is, to recognize how much of our own behavior is dog-like. Pollan’s article suggests that botanizing ourselves might also be in order. In other words, the truth is that we’re as much a part of the tree of life as is every other living thing on this planet.

Even though we don’t have that tree’s fantastic distinction of being able to eat sunlight.

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