If Plants Can Think, Is Global Deforestation a Form of Genocide?
Thursday, 06 December 2012 00:00  |  Written by Steven Kotler | Commentary

Flower and Child photo by Syed Touhid HassanBack in 1966, a CIA interrogation specialist named Cleve Backster performed an interesting experiment.

Because lie detectors measure skin moisture (sweat) through galvanic response, Backster had hooked up a cane plant to a lie detector to measure rates of water consumption. But when he examined the polygraph, he saw a response pattern very similar to that of humans.

Even stranger, because Backster knew that stress provoked the strongest response in polygraph tests, he started to wonder what would happen to the response if he burned a leaf.

Mind you, he didn’t burn the leaf—he merely thought about burning it. But when he thought about it, the polygraph went wild.

He then replicated that experiment over and over again and eventually came to the conclusion that plants can think, and they somehow can respond to human intentions—meaning they can also hear us think.

Well, for years since, there has been much lively debate on the subject. We have learned that plants possess the ability to sense and respond to other plants—but consciousness? Able to make decisions? That seems a little far-fetched.

But maybe not anymore.

Recently, two Yale researchers published their new study of altruism. For most of the past century, scientists were convinced that altruism was only found in humans, but over the past 30 years it has started to show up in animal behavior with alarming regularity.

These reports have led to massive modifications in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but there have been issues. If altruism is not just a human behavior and is also found in animals, then how much further could this chain of events go? Do-gooding plants for example? Don’t be ridiculous, as most critics have maintained.

But, again, maybe not anymore.

Trying to explore kin recognition in yellow jewelweed, Yale’s Guillermo Murphy and Susan Dudley measured the plants’ responses to two different competitive cues.

For an aboveground cue, they used changes in light quality; for a belowground cue, they used the presence of root neighbors.

They also grew their plants either in familial groups or among strangers.

When in the presence of family, the jewelweed sent resources to its stems—elongating those stems to reach for more light—but they did not alter their root-growth or leaf patterns.

The failure to alter leaf-growth patterns was the most significant change. Because light is such a limiting factor to growth, in competitive situations jewelweed usually allocates resources to leaf growth (both giving them more chance for light and shading out their neighbors). But they didn’t do this when family was around.

And, when in the company of strangers, the plants reversed their actions—indeed sending more resources to their leaves.

What this means is that in the presence of their kin, these plants behaved altruistically.

Is it proof of mind-reading consciousness? Certainly not. But it’s definitely proof that there’s more going on than anyone previously suspected—and that “more” is most certainly in the direction of consciousness.

In light of, say, global deforestation rates, this certainly gives me pause.

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Comments (1)add
Written by Terri , November 30, 2009
I have no doubt plants have some kind of consciousness. They move away from destructive forces and toward food (light, water and soil) just as we do.
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