In the Mind of Plants

In the Mind of Plants

In the Mind of Plants (L’Esprit des plantes, 2010, 52m, 6.6, 8.83) is a French documentary on the controversial and fledgling field of plant neurobiology. Its central theme is that plants are much more active, complex, and evolved than previously thought. I remember hearing in a genetics lecture that we share upwards of 95% of our genetic makeup with chimps (reasonable), something like 75% with a fruit fly (wait a minute…), and still over 50% with a banana (whaaaaa). This quickly makes complete sense as we remember just how many basic biological processes are necessary for organic life: metabolism, growth, healing, reproduction… the list is quite comprehensive. Every living thing must perform these functions else risk demise, and we all do so largely with proteins… and proteins are coded by genes, no matter if you’re Neil deGrasse Tyson or his lunchtime snack. This movie, however, goes one step further: did you know rice has twice the number of genes as we do? Yeah, that was a bit of a surprise to me as well.

This is the first distinction the documentary blurs: what is animal and what is plant? Because clearly complexity is no longer an accurate distinction. Movement used to be a key divider but, like all things in nature, this absolute quickly faded as moving plants speedily showed up. Even bypassing curious “maybe it’s a plant, maybe not” creatures like algae or amoebas and the like, carnivorous plants, mimosas, and dancing plants were enough to throw this requirement on its head. Dancing plants, it ought to be noted, move in response to sound. Yes, so now there are plants that can hear.

The next distinction to come up, naturally, was intelligence, usually composed of some minimal requirements in communication, memory, perception of and reaction to the environment, and (according to the filmmaker) having a central system to coordinate it all. It is in explaining how some plants perform on these indices that this film really shines. An example is made of acacia trees poisoning herds of overfeeding antelopes, including sending warning signals to neighbouring trees, triggering their doing the same (communication, perception, and reaction? Bingo). A less convincing situation of pea plants “remembering” how to grow after a disruption is also presented… but this appeared to be more a case of a slow resetting to the new environment, leaving me unconvinced about the whole memory bit.

However, a more plausible theory was presented for a central, brain-like coordinating region of cells existing just under the root caps, but I remain skeptical about the basic premise that a brain is a requirement for an organism to be relabelled “animal”. A quick reminder about jellyfish and starfish, both of which lack such a structure, further solidifies my stance. I also don’t know how this would work with multiple roots — are these suddenly now multiple brains? Not sold. However, the roots-as-brain hypothesis was at least interesting because it shares similarities with humans: we have our brains and many sensory organs in our heads and our reproductive system is further away, something many plants also exhibit in their root-brain/flower-gonads setup.

… and this is precisely what one of the most memorable images of the film humorously illustrates : )

Delving deeper, let’s reexamine plants’ advanced evolution. An interesting moment occurs when a botanist curiously asks, “You try standing in cold water your whole life, with only that base and the sun as your nourishment — of course you need a few extra genes to help you out.” (this immediately had me thinking of all the great potential we’re only beginning to explore with biomimicry in design and technology, specifically in architecture and engineering). The explanation drawn is that plants and animals took different courses of evolution, reminding me slightly of the elves’ leaving in Tolkienian lore. You know, the noble, peaceful race leaving the bickering and violence of the more earthly beings behind it.

In any event, this fork-in-the-road hypothesis may be a useful model for research but it still leaves me with an unsettling question: why do we (predominantly thinking of the West here) need to divide everything into categories? Why can’t something just be on a gradient, or some other method of measurement? I feel this may have very positive outcomes not only in science, but in our own attitudes towards what we study, and towards the entire world and everyone in it in the end. I mean, it is no great secret that the father of taxonomy immediately used it to racist ends, well-meaning though it may have been. Perhaps moving away from this divide-and-conquer mentality would leave us less with the idea that what we study is also ours for the plundering.

This very “advanced evolution” of plants, combined with the realization that our consumption of them benefits everyone involved (eg: seed dispersal, horticulture) led me to a quick internal debate on vegetarianism. It seems plants depend largely on animals for their continued existence, forming a very healthy, simple symbiotic relationship where we care for them and they provide us with food. Why then, do we remain so hung up on carnism? There was that myth that we “need” meet for adequate nutrition, but this was formally busted by things like The China Study in 2005 and the American Dietetic Association in 2009.

We certainly have the technology and the abundance of alternative food resources to do otherwise. Meat husbandry, on the other hand, is laborious, resource-consuming, and naturally goes against our conscience. It produces some pretty horrendous practices, the cultivation of veal serving as a stark example. Tolstoy hits the nail square on the head when he remarks, “As long as there are slaughterhouses there will always be battlefields.” Ellen DeGeneres neatly summed all this up on the Katie Couric show, a sad combination of ignorance and apathy (unfortunately, the clip was taken down).

The final thought this entire experience led me to was Douglas Adams’ hilariously uncomfortable take on this very situation (Dawkins’ preamble gives a great context to the whole phenomenon). The reason I remembered this snippet was because this documentary I’ve just reviewed happily goes against Adams’ cow’s serious aside, that plants do not like to be eaten. From their co-evolution with more mobile lifeforms, and their amazing adaptability and cooperation, it actually seems that the opposite is true, that they indeed want to be eaten, because this ensures them a successful progeny! But the point about animals not wanting to be eaten couldn’t get any clearer. Here, have a look for yourself. See at what moment you start to feel uncomfortable:

And lastly, tying in to the above thought, underlining it even, is a new favourite YouTuber I’ve found, Jared Rydelek, aka the Weird Fruit Explorer (because he intelligently and comprehensively reviews just that). Recent favourites include the star apple, almond fruit, and a thing called monstera deliciosa… which looks like what would happen if an ear of corn and a pineapple had a baby, then sent it to daycare with pine cones where the teacher was a banana. You’ll just have to see it to believe it. Other goodies found via related videos were ice cream beans (think cotton candy meets a vanilla banana… yes, a vanilla banana) and a horned melon that looks like an even split between a grapefruit, a cucumber, and Bowser from Super Mario. Interest in all this first piqued when Filipino clients kept telling me of all the wonderful fruits they have back home and, well, I started googling. It boggles my mind that we, as a whole, global culture, have not moved on beyond meat with delicacies like these literally sprouting out of the ground!

Clockwise from top: star apples, almond fruit, ice cream bean, horned melon, and monstera deliciosa

Now for a quick rating: ★★★. Half a star each for character and plot development (interesting but not exactly gripping apart from the few scenes of carnivorous plants at mealtime), a well as for complexity (losing points for jumping to conclusions with the whole “plants have memory” bit, or at least not explaining it very well). Original? You betcha. Full star, plus ¼ because of all the mental rabbit-trails it led me on. Recommendable? Definitely, but only to sciency or polymath friends. ¼. Overarching final thought? “Eat plants, they want it!”

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