Friday, December 20, 2013

Eavesdropping on soliloquys

A friend has just published an article on plant communication, a rather more sober view than the effusive television program I mused about a few months ago or the ambitious views of Matthew Hall's Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany (which I thought I'd posted about but evidently forgot to; he takes it as demonstrated that plants perceive, react, have a sense of self and even engage in choice). Yes, plants do send out chemical signals of various kinds, and other plants (often of other species) do respond to them, arming themselves against pests, etc. Initial scientific skepticism over this seems to have been overcome.

But it seems we're not able to say that one plant somehow seeks to communicate with the others, or that the others in some way receive these signals as communication. Ockham's razor suggests that all that's going on may be plants sending warning signals to themselves - some botanists propose calling these "soliloquys" - which other plants pick up in a sort of "eavesdropping." But that's still very interesting. There are parts of our own communication which are essentially eavesdropping on others' soliloquys, too - all those arts of "reading people," for instance. We might not even notice that the soliloquy isn't our own.

That's reckless anthropomorphic talk, of course! My writer friend sagely concludes: the science of plant talk is challenging long-held definitions of communication and behavior as the sole province of animals. Each discovery erodes what we thought we knew about what plants do and what they can do. To learn what else they’re capable of, we have to stop anthropomorphizing plants, said [Ian] Baldwin, who is now at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and try instead to think like them, to phytomorphize ourselves. Imagining what it’s like to be a plant, he said, will be the way to understand how and why they communicate.

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