Occasionally, I take a break from my study and writing to focus elsewhere. It helps clear my head and contributes to my ongoing effort to truly see the human family as a natural system. Well, my recent diversion has been into Plant Intelligence(PI). An article in the New Yorker by Michael Pollan and a show by Nature on PBS caught my attention. Two basic ideas: we don’t know what we don’t know; and Dr. Bowen’s theory that the human family is governed by natural forces common to life on earth.
Quote from Dr. Bowen’s book: …man is an evolving form of life…he is more related to lower forms of life than he is different from them….most psychological theories focus on the uniqueness of man rather than his relatedness to the biological world…the instinctual forces that govern all animal and protoplasmic behavior are more basic in human behavior than most theories recognize. (Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, P. 270)
As we all know, Dr. Bowen focused more on the similarities we have with other forms of life than the differences. Dr.Bowen also highlighted the relationship between the emotional and intellectual system, and as I understand it, suggested that many of us operate more emotionally or instinctually than we can fully appreciate. How much free will does the human actually have?Are we more like plants than we’d like to think?
So, in my reading on PI research, here are some takeaways.
Plants compose 99% of the biomass on earth. Animals are just traces. Plants have been on earth a lot longer than the human–450 million years compared to 200,000years. Two-thirds of a plant’s body ecosystem is underground. If we were to vanish tomorrow, the plants would be fine, but if the plants vanished, we would not be. In our interdependence, the human may benefit more.
In his December NewYorker article(2013), MichaelPollan points to the ‘human disease of self-importance’. Darwin talks of the human as one fiber of the fabric of life. In 1980, Darwin wrote Power of Movement in Plants with his son. He describes how the radicle, the tip of each plant root, directs movements of adjoining parts and acts like a brain of the lower animals. It receives impressions from the sense organs and directs movements. Darwin saw the plant as a kind of upside-down animal, with its main sensory organs and ‘brain’ underground and its sexual organs on top. Darwin saw that the human is a product of the same natural laws that created animals.PI researchers ask, is it possible to do things without a brain?
Plants move on a very different time scale….very slowly. The much slower dimension of time keeps us from appreciating their intelligence and their success.In the human, many behaviors are visible but fast-moving and difficult to observe. Time-lapse photography makes plant behavior visible…and slowing down a video of human interactions, likewise might be useful in learning more about human behavior!) One researcher describes activities of plants: play, move to catch light or prey, respond to gravity, sleep (move less and close leaves when dark), distinguish kin from non-kin, chemically communicate(for instance, with bees, bats, rats, birds)through nectar or airborne messages. They have complex feeding behaviors as they constantly make choices in their hunt for nutrients, food and light.
Plants can sort out a real threat from a perceived threat. They habituate to being dropped. They have a memory of the experience up to 4 weeks later. One particular study noted variability in response, so that some plants habituated faster than others. Habituation enables an organism to focus on the important information, while filtering out the non-threats.In the PI world, there are disagreements about whether this is learning or adapting? Is there a difference? Plants have 15-20 different senses including the five humans have. Plants can sense humidity, air, light, soil pH, gravity, nitrogen, phosphorus, salt, various toxins, microbes and chemical signals from neighboring plants.
While the human immune system and epigenetic changes are forms of memory, plants respond to stress with changes in the molecular wrapping around the chromosomes, an epigenetic effect that determines which genes will be silenced or expressed. This effect can sometimes be passed down to offspring, the next generation.
What is intelligence: a state of being self-aware,with ability to reason and think abstractly or is its adaptive behavior in response to challenges presented by one’s environment? Another author defines intelligence as ‘an intrinsic ability to process information from both the environment and biological stimuli that allows optimal decisions about future activities in a given environment’. What is the difference between this definition of plant intelligence and family emotional process, if family emotional process is an adaptive process? Is intelligent behavior a property of life? Is the nervous system the seat of intelligence in the human? Is intelligence in plants like that exhibited in insect societies, where it is thought to be an emergent property of a great many mindless individuals organized in a network? Is it a whole organism response? Is the family emotional process, as an adaptive process, an emergent property of the system, not driven by the brain but the brain is simply a part? And also, not driven by anyone individual? To talk about plant intelligence smudges the line between animals and plants.
Plants have a brain-like information-processing system to integrate the data and coordinate its behavioral response. Having a brain is not an advantage. Since they can’t run away and frequently get eaten, it serves plants well not to have any irreplaceable organs. This resilience allows them to lose up to 90% of its body without being killed.
Since the 1980’s much has been learned about plant communication.Plants/trees communicate through a network of underground roots and fungus that warn others of prey or other threats, and also deliver carbon, nitrogen and water to neighboring trees in need. Through electrical and chemical signals, they communicate and share resources more with kin than non-kin.In one study, fir trees were injected with radioactive carbon isotopes to track the extent of the underground network. They found that every tree in a plot thirty meters square was connected to the network with the oldest trees functioning as hubs, some with as many as forty-seven connections. Mother trees use the network to nourish shaded seedlings, including their offspring until they’re tall enough to reach the light. Some fir tree even traded nutrients with birch trees when it has sugars to spare and then call in the debt later in the season. The value of this cooperative underground economy appears to be a better overall health for the forest community, more total photosynthesis and greater resilience in the face of disturbance. Plants don’t work as single units…they are tied to their neighbors. Fungus cannot produce their own food. They have a symbiotic relationship with trees. Plant roots provide carbon-based sugar. The fungal network provides trees with nutrients and connects trees together…fungus are very small and can grow where the tree roots cannot. In other words, they facilitate a resource-sharing community. The forest, more than a collection of individuals, is a self-organizing complex system.
This relationship process is evident when several related plants are crowded in a pot; plants are able to restrain root growth, another form of cooperation. To encourage loyalty from pollinators, some plants emit appetizing chemicals. But then there’s competition: when needed, they release chemicals to harm neighbors. Under attack, they’ll send out distress signals to surrounding trees and insects to come to their aid when being attacked by another insect. For instance, one distressed plant signals to a plant bodyguard, a parasitic wasp, to mount a defense against an attacking caterpillar.
I often think of the difficulty seeing the relationship between what one human does, says, and feels in relation to another. It’s easier to see it in other organisms and in this case, plants and how they interact and respond to their environment as an emotional unit. And there’s something about reading about other life systems that lights up a part of my brain and frees it from cause-and-effect individual thinking. So many of the concepts that Dr. Bowen lays out in his family theory are evident in plant behavior. While there are differences, here are some of the similarities from the PI research.
There is variability in response to the environmentalthreats andin distinguishing a real from a perceived threat.
Triangles are useful to manage an environmental threat, by recruiting one insect to deal with the threat of another.
Intelligence/behavior is an emergent property of the system, not driven by one organism but by the interdependence between organisms or between plants.
Information from the environment is transmitted to the next generation, in other words, epigenetic adaptations occur.
Anxiety activates a natural system to protect itself by adapting.
The ability to distinguish kin from non-kin.
The ability to cooperate with kin and non-kin.
Modifying self is an adaptation that promotes survival.
Differences in the human:
Ability, whether used or not, to tap into the intellectual system to regulate emotional/instinctual reactions.
In the human, there is a difference between chronic and acute stress, a distinction that is important in understanding human behavior.
Does the human have a longer-lasting multi-generational impact in the functioning of succeeding generations?
Humans have arts and culture.