Bridging the Gulf & Plants

Bridging the Gulf & Plants

Since childhood, most people are taught to treat the surrounding world in general and plants in particular with some respect, and not to harm the latter without a need. However, children are rarely told that plants may be considered as uniquely sentient beings with some sensations, rights, and a need for respect similar to those granted to other human beings and animals. The matter is that plants are almost never regarded as persons, since this notion is ascribed to denote human beings only. However, today there is sufficient evidence to claim that plants do possess certain intelligence and experience sensations, as well as the right for respect and other peculiar rights that have to be granted to them. In fact, this point of view is not new since various animistic cultures, for instance, indigenous Australians, have always respected plants and deemed them to be persons with specific rights, powers, and needs. This idea is introduced and explained in more detail in two chapters entitled “Indigenous Animisms, Plant Persons, and Respectful Action” and “Bridging the Gulf: Moving, Sensing, Intelligent Plants” by Matthew Hall taken from his book Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. The two chapters provide a relatively new perspective for discussion and treatment of plants, which is not generally common for the Western world, yet has always been an integral part of various indigenous populations all over the world. Overall, the issues of plant rights and plants as persons are not extensively studied and widely accepted by the public, but the situation should change, and the public should be made aware of the fact that plants can no longer be regarded as passive objects of the environment since they are as active as animals and human beings, even though in their own unique way.

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“Indigenous Animisms, Plant Persons, and Respectful Action” discusses indigenous philosophies and worldviews from the perspective of their attitude to plants and the world in general as well as positioning them as alternative options to the widely accepted Western worldview that considers plants to be passive objects with no sensations and consequently no rights. Hall (2011) emphasizes that plants have always been regarded as distant relatives by indigenous populations. Even the nature of this kinship differs depending on the particular population. Hence, the main objective of the chapter is to provide a brief overview of various animistic cultures and “uncover how plants are incorporated within the realm of human moral considerability” (Hall, 2011, p. 99). The chapter points out how different indigenous populations incorporate plants into their worldviews, and how they place them within their kinship systems. Besides, Hall (2011) pays peculiar attention to the question of respect with which plants are treated by the reviewed populations without a detriment to the latter. Thus, the chapter points out that virtually all indigenous populations accept human-plant predatory relations as an inevitable and acceptable part of life, yet humans try not to harm plants without necessity and always treat them with respect they deserve. Therefore, it is evident that the author does not try to impose the animistic view of plants on the Western society, but calls for showing more respect to plants that sustain life on the planet and are a crucial part of the world’s ecosystem.

Even though various indigenous cultures perceive plants slightly differently, they share the overall attitude towards the latter based on “the principle of relatedness” (Hall, 2011p. 101). This principle of relatedness stems from the assumption that plants and humans share the common ancestor or can be regarded as connected beings either through the spiritual domain or some kinship relations (Hall, 2011, p. 101). Some indigenous peoples believe that plants initially were humans, then they were transformed into plants for some reason, but not all plants came to be in this way (Hall, 2011). However, all plants are autonomous beings with certain rights that should not be violated by people. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of indigenous peoples suppose that plants can be considered as persons as they are autonomous, strive towards survival, have a spirit, can move and sense, and share the common ancestry with all other living beings (Hall, 2011). Nonetheless, such views differ in terms of the extent of power granted to plants, animals, and people. For example, the Koyukon tribe believes that people have more power than animals and plants, and other tribes, like the Oglala, are convinced that plant and animal persons have “greater power as they are better at relating to the world around them” (Hall, 2011, p. 110). The indigenous view of plants and animals thus evidently differs from the Western worldview as it grants more respect to them and considers them as persons rather than objects used to benefit humans.

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The idea of plants having sensations and intelligence is further supported and explained in Chapter 7 entitled “Bridging the Gulf: Moving, Sensing, Intelligent Plants”. In this chapter, the author presents findings of several recent scientific studies proving that plant species are much more complex than people typically think. Hall shows that the previous assumption that plants can only be regarded as “passive, insentient, inferior beings” is largely untrue and is contradicted by an extensive body of botanical studies (Hall, 2011, p. 137). Thus, the chapter primarily focuses on such aspects pertaining to plants as sensation, movement, signaling, communication, plastic plant intelligence, reasoning, and plant self. For instance, one of the most surprising findings presented concern the possession of “brain units” by plants, and ability of plants to recognize the self (Hall, 2011). Contrary to previous assumptions that plants lack brains and the nervous system, plant neurobiologists have proved that plants have thousands of brain units that are interconnected and can integrate sensory information, as well as being able to make decisions for the entire plant thanks to communication between various plant tissues (Hall, 2011). Another surprising finding of the recent studies is the fact that plants can recognize the self and the non-self with a rather high degree of precision (Hall, 2011). Moreover, Hall refers to the scientific studies claiming that plants can communicate with other plants and living organisms, in particular “in the process of sequestering belowground resources such as water, nitrogen, and trace minerals” (Hall, 2011, p. 151). Overall, all recent scientific studies mentioned in the chapter under consideration show that plants are more complex than people traditionally think, yet there is still much to research and learn about plants.

Although information presented in Chapter 5 is quite extensive and detailed, it can hardly be considered as surprising since indigenous peoples have always been known for their respectful treatment of plants and inclusion of the latter into their kinship systems. In turn, almost all information presented in Chapter 7 has been surprising as it provides convincing evidence that plants are intelligent and sensing beings with the capacity to reason, communicate, and recognize the self. I have to admit that previously I truly believed that plants cannot sense and lack the nervous system as well as the ability to differentiate between the self and the non-self. Therefore, Hall (2011) has made me reconsider my views about plants and see them with much more respect than before. Thanks to the information presented, now I consider the issue of plant rights more seriously, and have to rethink my worldview based on new findings. However, I must admit that I have always liked plants and had a special relationship with a small cactus wich I kept in my room when I was a child. It has been with me for more than a decade now, and I have always taken good care of it, yet I have never thought of it as a person. Nonetheless, I would definitely be extremely sad if anything bad happened to it since it has been growing along with me, being an integral part of my life. It has become a symbol of home and comfort, given its special place in my room.

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However, I cannot say that I have ever had any special relationships with non-living entities, even though there is a special place in a local park where I go to think and find peace with myself and the world. I have never seen other people there, and I associate this secluded place with tranquility and peace. I know that nobody but surrounding trees, other plants, and maybe an occasional animal would bother me in that special spot, which allows me to think about my life and problems in peace. I have never thought what I would do if the place ceased to exist, but I hope that I can visit it from time to time no matter what happens in my life and where I happen to live.

To conclude, the two chapters by Hall (2011) raise the topical question of whether plants can be seen as persons and sentient beings alongside with humans and animals. The author presents a new perspective on how to consider plants, and challenges a conventional assumption that they can be reduced to being inferior and passive objects. On the contrary, the author provides sufficient evidence from recent scientific studies and animistic indigenous worldviews that plants are sensing and intelligent beings that deserve the status of persons. Some of the facts presented are truly surprising, while all information is highly thought-provoking and encourages reconsideration of conventional assumptions about plants and their place in the world.


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