Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Vegetable souls

The first Sunday after Easter is when we hear about "doubting Thomas." There must have been a time when he was condemned for his lack of faith; the moral of the story certainly seems to lie in the risen Jesus' words: Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. (John 20:29) But this Sunday was yet another "I love Thomas!" sermon. Is it because I go to an Episcopal church that I can't remember any sermon which doesn't defend and even celebrate his skeptical empiricism, or is it par for the course in our secular age?

In any case, the preacher - a visitor from a Haitian-American congre-gation in Connecticut - asked us if we were more like the "Thomas before," who saw and followed Jesus and hoped he was the one, or the "Thomas after," who knew he was the one but saw him no longer. An interesting question, I thought. Until I walked out of the church into Spring, which blows my mind every year. Agog I told a fellow church member that, since I grew up in a desert, Spring comes each year as a surprise to me: I know it's coming, of course, but I'm still amazed every time, as though it might not have happened. "Like Thomas?" I wondered. (Easter would be a different thing without Spring.)

Spring does indeed blow my mind each year, and it's hard not to feel gratitude, along with awe at how very thorough and well-coordinated it is. There seems intent here, if not quite intention - in the sense in which someone can be very intent on something.

I was made to think about this again by an an episode of "Nature" to which my father sent me a link called "What Plants Talk About." Turns out that in time lapse films, plants look for all the world like animals, sniffing out resources with their roots, jostling each other for light, and communicating with each other and other organisms through the release of smells, etc. A wild tobacco plant switches from nocturnal to diurnal blooms when it's had enough of night moth pollinators and wants hummingbirds who don't produce pesky caterpillars. Some plants poison other plants' roots, while sibling plants' root systems don't compete as they would with strangers. Forest canopy Douglas firs send nutrients to their light-starved young via networks of mushroom roots.

The narrator closed with this bromide: So if mother trees can nurture their own kind, if plants can recognize family members and communicate with their friends and foes, how are they doing it if they have no brain, no way to organize or integrate the information they receive? ... Maybe we're not quite as smart as we thought we were and perhaps plants are a lot more intelligent than we ever imagined.

Two researchers profiled in the show mentioned possible answers to the question. One is spliced with the closing words: "There has to be something that's doing this integration, we just don't know what to look for." The other, coming in the description of the forests of the Pacific Northwest, is the idea of a "self-organizing complex system." Not mentioned (even once!) was natural selection. "Animal-like" behavior isn't incompatible with natural selection - just look at us animals!

The show is mind-bending fun, but it shrinks from asking the really interesting question - or maybe it deliberately leaves us just at its threshold. Plants engage in "behavior" just as animals do; maybe our animal and even human "smarts," our "intelligence," are more like the lives of plants than we think. The ancients thought that we had vegetable souls or natures, as well as animal and rational ones. What the study of self-organizing systems is showing us is that phenomena like behavior, intelligence, even intention emerged from simpler levels of phenomena - emerged and still emerge. Maybe a lot of our behavior - even some of our most sophisticated behavior - is more like the behavior of systems that do it without brains. Now that's mind-blowing!

There's not really a connection back to Thomas here, I'm afraid, at least I didn't plan one. It just seemed like a way of consolidating two blogposts into one. (People's sermons routinely do that, starting with some random non-religious thing before segueing to the religious - I just did it in the other direction.) Or... but... ?

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