Plants are people, too

Does life begin at pollination? Welcome to a brave new world of vegetable rights. Watch where you step, man

By Francis Lam
December 23, 2009 11:01PM (UTC)
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Can you hear the cabbage screaming? Can you see the broccoli shrinking in fear, trying desperately, pathetically, to bend away when the farmer comes with a knife? Why, God? Why did you give me a firm stalk?? Aaaaarrrrrrgggghh!

Natalie Angier had a great piece yesterday in the New York Times Science section, gracefully written and super-interesting, revealing the sophisticated self-preservation systems of plants. But the story's hook, that vegetarians who don't want to kill for their dinner are actually standing on an ethical minefield, is kind of, well, absurd:


"…we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot. This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way. The more that scientists learn about the complexity of plants — their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar — the more impressed researchers become, and the less easily we can dismiss plants as so much fiberfill backdrop, passive sunlight collectors on which deer, antelope and vegans can conveniently graze. It's time for a green revolution, a reseeding of our stubborn animal minds."

Plants have really neat systems to keep themselves alive, so Angier suggests that must mean they want to be alive. And so, she asks, how can we, in good conscience, impinge on their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness? The answer, I think, is in the next paragraph:

When plant biologists speak of their subjects, they use active verbs and vivid images. Plants "forage" for resources like light and soil nutrients and "anticipate" rough spots and opportunities.

The issue for me is that it's not that plants actually forage and anticipate, it's that people speak of them as if they do. The world is full of wonders, amazing things, and using metaphor is one of our ways of making sense of it. The urge to anthropomorphize is strong; humans, after all, are what we understand best. (Now there's a terrifying thought.) So we start thinking the more human-like a thing is, the more "alive" it is. But the metaphors can only go so far. Plants don't have agency. They don't feel, think, decide. They have coded, systematic reactions to stimuli -- as Angier points out, way more sophisticated reactions to way more subtle stimuli than we knew -- but in the end these are still just really neat systems.

For example, to illustrate how plants "talk," which is as human-like an ability as there is, Angier details a plant that, when being eaten by caterpillars, excretes a chemical that attracts dragonflies, which happen to love rolling up on caterpillars all buffet-style. That's a pretty awesome defense mechanism, I get why we want to think of that as "talking," but the metaphor breaks down. The plant and the dragonfly are not thinking and discussing and negotiating how to deal with the caterpillar, they're just both reacting to hard-wired coding. It's a bit like saying that an explosion knows how to ask me to leave by shooting fire my way.


Scanning the enormous pile of comments on this piece on the Times's website, you see everyone from preening, snickering, validated carnivores to defensive, self-righteous vegans. I haven't found any breatharians yet, but regardless, a commenter named Malcolm C gets to the heart of the issue for me: "Folks... all this is why we offer grace at the table before eating. Humility and gratitude. It works for beans, bass, or beef. Enjoy the gift of life, and be grateful."



Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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