Andy Hamilton talks on the intellect of plants vs humans:
The dictionary definition of intelligence is, “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills”. Could that definition limit itself to life forms with a brain or could plants and even mushrooms show forms of intelligence too?
If a horse can, ‘count’ by bashing its leg on the floor five times or if a dog can run through some hoops, we conclude that they must be highly intelligent; we don’t instead base this intelligence on how good they are at being a dog or a horse. Perhaps the most intelligent horses or dogs are the ones who evaded capture in the first place and don’t end up doing pointless tasks to please humans. This is because we mistake intelligence with how much like us something is, rather than how good it is at being that something.
In order to properly understand intelligence we have to therefore forget any preconceived ideas of what intelligence is.
It is with this open approach that I started reading some of Stephen Bhuner’s work. I had heard Stephen in interviews suggesting that human beings are actually much less intelligent than plants. He suggested that plants will plan for the future, nurture their offspring and have a host of sophisticated mechanisms in place to react to the world around them. This of course, challenges pretty much everything I have been taught about the nature of being a human. Surely we dominate the world, we manipulate our environment and we can even head out into space? How can anything on this planet be more intelligent than us?
Bhuner’s conclusions are radical and it would be easy to think that he is merely a part of the fringe. Yet he is not the only one to be working in the plant consciousness field. A few years before Bhuner was even published, back when Wham! were still topping the charts, Seve Ballesteros was winning the PGA and when Russia was a bit bigger and called the Soviet Union, there were a couple of studies published that aimed to demonstrate that willow trees, poplars and sugar maples could warn each other about insect attacks. Researchers came to the conclusion that the insect damaged trees were releasing pheromonal substances in order to warn the non damaged trees to respond to the attack. The plant equivalent of shouting, ‘he’s coming to get you’. The mind blowing thing about this study is it concludes that trees can not only recognise they are under attack and warn others but it must also mean they have some concept of the future.
Other studies followed, but many were not as rigorous, these studies got lost and the scientific community started to consider the study of plant consciousness as rather fringe and even slightly lunatic. Dr Richard Karban, a biologist and Ecologist from the University of California said that, if you mentioned you were in this field, “people wouldn’t even talk to you”. Thankfully, things have changed, Karban suggests that scientists now readily accept that plants can sense one another’s biochemical messages. Therefore, the big question now is, why and, how do they do it?
Suzanne Simard, professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, has some answers. Using Douglas fir and birch as subjects to measure the radioactive carbon flow and sharing of carbon, she found that these trees do indeed share carbon resources. A birch will give a Douglas fir its carbon as it sheds leaves and in return birch trees will pump some extra carbon into Douglas fir struggling in the shade. This sharing is made possible through a network of mycelium (the root system of fungus) which connects trees, plants, shrubs and bushes to each other.
The mycelium is not some underpaid intern in this transaction, it too is rewarded with a ready source of carbohydrates. It’s not just nutrients that are shared through this network, but any plant that is connected will also get a boost to its immune system. This occurs as the roots of a plant get colonised by the mycelium to trigger the production of chemicals, such as terpenes; chemicals used to help defend the plant. Rather like an immune boosting inoculation, the plant will now know how to respond to an attack.
It would appear that in the area of plant consciousness we have a lot more to explore and if Stephen Bhuner is right, we have to think we are the restricted ones and our brain power is limited by the size of our skulls. Plants can be part of network that, in the terms of the number of cells, far exceeds that of the human brain.
Before you feel sorry for plants and think of all the times that you have lobotomised this huge network, spare a moment to think about the life that plants and mushrooms lead. The sadly deceased expert on the psychedelic experience, Terrance McKenna suggested that, “A mushroom is a mycelial network through the soil. It has as many connections as a neural network. If it’s a psilocybin mushroom it’s a network filled with neurotransmitters, yet it’s as fine as a cobweb. Look at how delicately the mushroom touches the earth; it lives only on decaying matter. But if it has menus inside of itself, then it may be living in situ, a fuller, deeper, richer, more feeling filled existence than we can imagine”.
Considering that we humans are the ones with rising rates of anxiety, depression and auto immune diseases amongst a myriad of 20th century problems; who is more intelligent – that last mushroom you ate or the forager who picked it.
Read and see more on how plants communicate distress through their ‘nervous system’ in this amazing video.
More on terpenes from Andy here.