Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany

Plants are people too? Well, before you put in the call to have me taken me away, let me explain where I’m coming from. Way back in 2003, when I was an undergraduate in plant science at the University of Edinburgh, one of our Professors, Tony Trewavas, published a paper in Annals of Botany titled ‘Aspects of Plant Intelligence.’ Controversial as it was, like all good science it questioned the status quo and provided a wealth of evidence to support its central claim that plants are intelligent organisms, despite their sessile, seemingly passive lifestyle.

Professor Trewavas’ paper got me thinking about the wider social and ethical implications of plant intelligence and I wrote my new book, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany, as my response to the thought provoking ideas. First and foremost I wrote ‘Plants as Persons’ because I wanted to find out why it is that we generally view plants as passive and unintelligent and why we don’t include them within our moral responsibilities. These are positions we might well think of as ‘normal’, I knew that other cultures had very different views plants. I wanted to also understand how these perceptions influenced people’s behaviour towards plant life.

In order to try and tackle these questions, the book surveys a very wide range of disciplines and bodies of thought, from ancient Greek writings on nature, through the history of botany, Christian scripture, the Hindu Vedas to scholarship on Indigenous animist cultures and the growing scientific literature on plant neurobiology.

The first three chapters look at this ‘exclusion’ of plants from the moral sphere in western philosophy. The basic argument runs that plants were deliberately excluded from the moral sphere through by the influential trinity of Plato, Aristotle and the Bible because it was decided that the faculties which humans or animals possess are somehow radically different and therefore superior to those plants possess. To back up such claims, plants are portrayed as lesser forms of life with lesser faculties, lacking in sensation, movement and crucially the defining human faculty, intelligence. Interestingly it is always humans evaluating themselves as the superior organism! Time and time again, this portrayal of passive plants is connected with a need to claim the natural world purely as a passive human ‘resource’ (as happens in Plato, Aristotle, the Bible) rather than as an equally valid, locus of being.

For me, this process of exclusion only really became clear when I researched more into other cultures (including Indigenous animists) where plants are related to as proper persons (with all the respect that deserves) as well as being resources. This view of plants stems largely from a sense of kinship – a pre-Darwinian appreciation of common ancestry, with all creatures recognised as coming from, and returning to, the Earth. It also arises from the practical fact that (as anyone who works closely with plants sees) plants obviously actively live their lives. They grow in incredible places, they sense and communicate, they are pretty self-sufficient, they live and flourish, reproduce and die – a view that is corroborated by much recent evidence in the plant sciences.

This subtle change from a stance of exclusion to one of inclusion has important consequences. Rather than behaving towards plants as resources which are available to humans to do as they see fit, with little restraint, plants become appropriate recipients of care and respect in their own right, regardless of whether they are ‘useful’ or not. Indigenous peoples express this relatedness and responsibility towards plants by including them within their family ties. Viewing the grey mangrove (Avicennia marina) in Australia’s Northern Territory as her ‘most senior paternal ancestor’, a Yanyuwa woman, Annie Isaac, behaves towards them with all the respect due to elder family members. Most importantly this means that the mangrove habitats are not treated as a vacant space, or as a commodity which must prove its economic worth. They are places that are full of persons which must be considered when making land management decisions. As we move deeper into the human dominated era now known as the ‘anthropocene’, perhaps we could use such relationships as a guide for translating our increasing knowledge of plant intelligence into our actual behaviour towards plants and the ecosystems they underpin.

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Matthew Hall
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Matthew Hall

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