Ridley Scott showed us in Blade runner that the line that separates us from the machines is thin and not necessarily red. Dian Fossey taught us to look at gorillas beyond the fog. And Stefa-
no Mancuso has revealed to us that there is sensitivity and intelligence in the plant world .
This is the title of a book (written in four hands with the journalist Alessandra Viola and published in Spanish by Galaxia Gutenberg), which explains in an informative and intelligent way, enjoyable but never hiding the complexity of the matter, that the plants do not have unique organs nor, therefore, brain; but that its reticular structure allows them to act intelligently , solving the problems that nature and human beings pose to them. And that thanks to that same provision by modules can not only manage visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory and olfactory information, but also of fifteen other types: “For example, they feel and calculate gravity, electromagnetic fields, humidity and are able to analyze numerous chemical gradients. ” It could be said, therefore, that there are twenty senses in the plant world .
Plants are also conscious and social beings
They perceive both their own being and everything that surrounds them. Not only do they share data or create alliances with other plant organisms, they also do it with animals. They emit molecules called COVB, volatile compounds of biogenic origin, which they use as a form of communication. Aromatic plants, for example, produce specific odors that are very likely words , of “an authentic vegetable language, of which we still know very little”; and plants with flowers, others that allow them to communicate with pollinating insects, through private messages . It is known that trees compete in height or in expansion to ensure survival by reaching the water source or the sun’s rays; it is not so much so that when a plant genetically recognizes another in its environment, instead of competing with it, it establishes cooperation strategies. It could be said, therefore, that kinship laws similar to human laws are followed in the vegetable kingdom.
I repeat I could say because, obviously, we are forcing the language to understand a reality radically different from ours from human words and metaphors. After a reasonable resistance to these loans, the scientific community is accepting as a discipline the plant neurobiology. Its best-known exponent is Mancuso, who has run the International Plant Neurobiology Laboratory in Florence since 2005. But he is not alone. His laboratory not only collaborates with prestigious academic institutions (such as the University of Bonn, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Paris Diderot University or the British Imperial College), but has also spawned a research center in Kitakyushu (Japan), coordinated by Professor Tomonori Kawano. It is about continuing to investigate three main lines: intelligence, behavior and communication of plant organisms. And to do it in a network, adding to the new cause as many biologists and botanists as possible around the world.
We are in a fascinating moment in the history of humanity. During the 20th century, the rights of all those groups that the white man had denied during the previous centuries were recognized philosophically and legally. The change to the 21st century is characterized by a brutal expansion of this battlefield of otherness: some judges have recognized human rights to higher primates and the European Parliament proposes that robots be electronic people . Do animals, machines and vegetables also have intelligence and sensitivity? And, by extension, do they have the right to have their rights studied? In a world of genetic engineering laboratories and patented seeds, ethics starts from the consideration of a certain reality as an individual subject. Probably the slow path that leads to plants acquire identity has begun. It is not by chance that all this occurs with an apocalyptic backdrop: that of climate change. Twenty percent of the plants are in danger of extinction and sixty percent of the five hundred species of monkeys and apes in the world could disappear in the next fifty years.
The plants and their stories
While animal consciousness and artificial intelligence have long traditions of narrative representation, the life of plants, on the other hand, rarely deserves a particular development or stars fictions. Aracne, Silverstone, Chocolate Y Dwarf : that’s what the holm oaks of the Oliver sisters are called in the novel The ephemeral ones (Galaxia Gutenberg) by Pilar Adón, to give a very recent example. In Georgia O’Keeffe’s vegetable paintings – if we opt instead for a classical painter of the last century – there is also individual attention to lilies, coves, petunias or the cotton tree.
Our debt to plants begins in early childhood. While children learn both the names of the most common animals and those of species they will never see in reality, such as the snow leopard or the tyrannosaurus rex, learning the names of the trees and the flowers that surround them in House or street is delayed for years. Or maybe our debt to plants began many years earlier: in the childhood of humanity. As Mancuso reminds us in his TED talk, in the Old Testament God entrusts Noah with preserving a couple of each of the animals of the Earth, before flooding it savagely, but he does not say anything about the plant species.
Abuela Sauce de Pocahontas is one of the few vegetable characters of an imaginary
the one of Disney, which is characterized -in exchange- by a systematic interest in turning the animal house into pop mythology. It is revealing that Pixar produced in 1995 its first animated film by computer, Toy story , from a demiurgic process similar to that Walt Disney and his heirs carried out innumerable times with animal beings, but applied to objects, things, toys. Like the characters of Pirandello or the replicants of Blade runner , the protagonists of Toy story become aware of their artificial being; in his case, of being fictions with a body that depend on the imagination of children, dematerialized and mutant. In the Cars series and in Wall-E the Pixar artisans insisted on the mythology of the everyday machine, incorporating cars and robots. When Disney bought them, therefore, the possession of some of the great stories featuring human, animal and artificial beings of our turn of the century was assured. But Grandma Willow is still a lonely, isolated, exceptional character.
In Jardinosofía. A philosophical history of gardens (Turner), Santiago Beruete traces the history of humanity showing how gardens have been the philosophical mirror of each era. What was considered beauty, order, perfection, dialogue or trip was represented – and still is – in the gardens of that society. From romanticism invented and miniature nature will also mean threat. And in the twentieth century, while Europe loses its colonies and imposes a postcolonial gaze, gardens are also to be observed – like zoos – as spaces of domination and violence.
In parallel, while so many stories insisted on the beauty of the flower or on the bonhomie of ancient trees, plant monsters proliferated in the realm of fantastic, scientific and horror genres. Science fiction has, in fact, provided the great fictional, cinematic and teleserial examples of that danger, which often translates into invasion. Pods, spores, carnivorous plants and anthropomorphic plants, often of alien origin, attack us or invade us in The Day of the Trifids (1951), by John Wyndham, The Invasion of the Ultra Bodies (1978), by Don Siegel, or La store of the horrors (1960), by Roger Corman. These stories reveal a fear of the monstrous vegetable parallel to that represented by animals (remember The birds of Hitchcock), but more rare, more rare. Although it is a fact that, as Mancuso reminds us: “The vegetable kingdom represents 99.5 percent of the mass of the planet.”
In the awareness of this overwhelming fact is the film The Incident (2008), by M. Night Shyamalan, whose plot can be understood from the studies of plant neurologists, who have also investigated how plants can change taste or even emit dissuasive chemicals “on all the leaves, which – by volatile chemical signals released into the atmosphere – will alert the surrounding plants to do the same.” The film begins with the suicide of several characters in parks in New York. The protagonist, science teacher, in the short time of reflection that gives the frantic escape of that invisible threat, understands that it is a plant conspiracy: the trees have agreed, the plants have begun to release a neurotoxin whose goal is to drive us mad and destroy us. It is implied that the plant kingdom has understood that we are a colossal threat and has decided to neutralize us.
In praise of the slowness
We can not accept that there is intelligence and sensitivity in the plant world because literature and cinema have not prepared us for centuries to take that consciousness, as they have done with the animal and the robotic. Maybe it’s a matter of speeds. For millennia we felt that animals and machines moved at speeds similar to ours. Now our car is much faster than the cheetah and our mobile phone can perform algorithmic operations that our brain can not dream, but we continue to perceive those two kingdoms in an approximate synchrony with ours. The vegetable, on the other hand, moves much more slowly. If it were not for the wind, how well M. Night Shyamalan knows how to suggest the conversation of the leaves, it would seem that he is still.
But the 21st century has given us a great metaphor to understand it. Plants are swarming intelligences, they are emergent systems, they are superorganisms: they are decentralized, they are horizontal, infinite nodes in a network. . If the Earth was formed about 4,600 million years ago, cell life was born about a billion years later and the first ancestor of algae emerged about 1,600 million years ago, the presence of vegetation outside water is relatively recent: It dates back to about 700 million years. But do not forget that the plants were the pioneers of that colonization. We, the primates, did not arrive until 650 million years later. In other words: animals are not only 0.5 percent of the mass of the planet, we also represent a tiny fraction of a biological history that engulfs us in its immensity. Millions of years before Jorge Luis Borges wrote La biblioteca de Babel , nature had already built structures that functioned like the internet.
They are incomprehensible
leader of the Slow Food movement, about what we can learn from the plant world. At a certain moment, Petrini evokes a trip to Costa Rica and speaks of the lessons that it entailed: “The predisposition to solidarity, which requires slowness, since it involves listening to the other”. The attention is only obtained after a deceleration process. To attend is to become aware of the context in which the other exists. You can see the history of science, precisely, as the succession of laboratories of extreme attention. People and equipment, supported by the appropriate technology, who knew how to observe and listen to nature.
In the first pages of Sensibility and intelligence in the plant world Mancuso reviews the historical encounters and disagreements between scientists and plants. The tour was expanded in his next book, Uomini che amano le piante. Storie di scienziati del mondo vegetale (published by Galaxia Gutenberg this year in Spanish), an authentic genealogy in which he is the penultimate link. From these readings it is deduced that the encounters of the scientists with their subjects of study are as important as with other human interlocutors, living or dead. The pages that Andrea Wulf dedicates in The invention of nature . The new world of Alexander von Humboldt (Taurus) while those two readers, writers, travelers and scientists, Goethe and Humboldt, spent together in Jena and Weimar. The mutual intellectual exaltation, the colossal stimulus that involves the exchange of ideas between two people who are considering the same problems. Because Goethe not only wrote The Misadventures of Young Werther , Elective Affinities or Faust – to name some of his most famous literary works – but also ” The Metamorphosis of Plants , in which he argued that there was an archetypal or primordial way that served of base to the vegetal world “. In his free time he designed gardens.
Although the trips are decisive to understand the monumental humboldtian contribution to human knowledge, they must be contrapunted with those encounters. Discoveries must necessarily bear fruit in the form of conversations, lectures or books. The first thing Darwin did when he published Diary of a Naturalist’s Journey around the World was to send it to “his idol, he resorted to flattery and wrote in the letter of accompaniment that Humboldt’s stories about South America had inspired him the desire to travel”. This is how the intellectual tradition on which the changes in consciousness are based is built.
Wulf also explains the intense intellectual dialogue between Thoreau and Emerson: although they made thousands of separate excursions, the epistolary exchange and the conversation catalyzed the solidity of their respective systems of thought. Both sought “the unity of nature,” but they differed in the vehicle to find it. While Emerson “believed that this unity could not be discovered only by rational thought, but also by intuition or by some kind of divine revelation,” the author of Walden shared with Humboldt the conviction that “totality” could only be understood by understanding the connections, correlations, details. “
Therefore, it is not a matter of converting the consciousness of our ancient debt with the vegetable kingdom into a religious feeling or into a new age fashion. We must, on the other hand, continue to learn about these complex and fascinating systems, with their own manifestations of intelligence and sensitivity. Observe. Hear. Pay attention. Without hurry but without pause, knowing that our speed is not that of the plants and that it is necessary to look for new synchronicities. They are not in a hurry. Fruits, vegetables and vegetables have taken over a large part of our diets. Spices have colonized our palate. Roses or orchids have conquered our beauty canon. Tobacco and marijuana have invaded our lungs and our brains. We eliminate the trees to build our cities and then fill them with parks, gardens, new trees. They know how to wait for the moment to rectify. Remember the title of Jorge Wagensberg: If nature is the answer, what was the question? (Tusquets).
On YouTube there are thousands of videos that show you, on a fast camera
the flowering, the growth or the expansion of the plants. Tolkien created the ents , those shepherd trees of Middle-earth that, despite moving slowly, collaborate in the triumph of the forces of good over the forces of evil. Like the Grandmother Willow, the ents translate to our time an ancient mythology, that of the talking and wise trees. Also part of our collective unconscious is the language of flowers, which during the Victorian era became an authentic secret code, so that you could send or receive encrypted telegrams in the key of floral arrangements, and some of whose meanings still survive: Red roses still mean love, white flowers still suggest innocence. In stories and legends the plants have always spoken to us. The time is coming when, at last, we will be technologically and scientifically prepared not only to listen to them, but also to understand them.
In the distant future, an essayist may write that the film was about that. The arrival (2016), by Denis Villeneuve: not from our dialogue with alien intelligences, but from our very slow discovery of the language of the oldest living beings on Earth.