Online vegetation

Until recently humans were the only smart creatures. The machines were activated only when we gave them the order and the plants were a fundamental resource that we have managed to master.

Plants are sessile organisms, modular in body, divisible beings with numerous command centers. They have no neurons, no central organs. However, plants perceive their environment in about 20 different ways and establish symbiotic relationships with insects. Plant neurobiology is the one in charge of studying the senses of plants which, along with other animals, have a networked intelligence system.

© Vitor Schietti

Have you ever watched those videos showing the movements of plants in fast motion? The fast camera was one of the key technologies to see that plants could dodge obstacles to obtain nutrients or rotate towards the sun. But, what can plants do? Plants without taste, sight, touch, hearing or smell, are able to perceive light, analyze the composition of materials, perceive vibrations, climb, emit and perceive odors, and detect gravity and electromagnetic fields. All this through electrical impulses within an interconnected network of information exchange and common memory. Plants can solve problems.

A mother tree, the oldest in a forest, is connected by an underground network with the other plants around it. It is capable of delivering nutrients and substances to other plant species. Fungi, spores and roots are the great means of communication between vegetation. This type of interaction indicates the existence of a transfer network to communicate with the environment, like the internet for humans, but for plants. In other words, plants communicate with each other, develop and share knowledge in addition to having the possibility of fighting external threats.

© Vitor Schietti

What does this mean? Do plants think? Are these strategies that we could qualify as intelligent?

With the advent of artificial intelligence and the apparent inevitability of it having a central role in the future, non-human intelligences have become a very contemporary debate. Luckily, there are those who also look at living beings and recognize that in reality some things are still not entirely clear to us. Plants have a memory that we still do not know exactly how it works. We don’t know very well how human memory works either. There are studies that prove that there is a plant memory recorded, for example, in a seed of a cold climate specimen which is later planted in a warm climate. Because of that memory, that seed will react differently to the seeds of hot weather, advancing or delaying processes in seasonal changes. Intelligence has been redefined as the ability to solve problems, taking into account the ability to grasp the environment and develop strategies. In this case, the plants have a “swarm” intelligence. This means that they behave like a crowd, like ants or birds do, and not as individuals, like us. This swarm intelligence is applied when we see flocks of birds migrating with the ability to move as if they were a single organism, without a group coordinator giving orders. It is not a type of organization that we are used to and it is difficult for us to think about how communication can occur in a swarm.

© Vitor Schietti

Swarm groups have to make decisions to organize, take a new direction, dodge a predator. Certain currents explain that intelligence works through the senses. In other words, that part of processing information is perceiving it. However, the senses themselves are very difficult to explain. For example, we know that dogs hear other frequencies, but we don’t know how they hear them. How would you explain the smell of burning to someone who cannot smell? I imagine the experiment would be like all science fiction movies that explore hypotheses about how to understand the aliens that visit us or when Europeans arrived in America in the 1400s. We will probably need another key technological advance to understand the sum of simple behaviors that result in complex behaviors, like the fast-motion camera mentioned above. The studio of artists Studio Drift, with the Flylight project managed to create something similar to the flights of starlings, launching hundreds of drones with flights programmed with algorithms that react as they are in proximity to other drones. Without a choreography, drones change the course or density of light by exchanging information with other drones.

The idea of intelligence as a factor of human superiority, which we have already discussed in the Why? Section of our Veginners course, is also applicable to the plant kingdom. In the end of the day, intelligence is more than just having a brain. It can develop in different organs and it carries a form of memory that makes learning possible and, therefore, changes a response towards a more successful strategy in the face of the same problem, although sometimes humans repeat the same error over and over again.

In the animal kingdom, the octopus is a very common example of this other type of intelligence that we are trying to explain. In addition to having a distributed brain, it has 16 million chemoreceptors in its body. If you’ve never seen it, look for videos on octopus intelligence. They are completely hypnotizing.

In the animal kingdom, the octopus is a very common example of this other type of intelligence that we are trying to explain. In addition to having a distributed brain, it has 16 million chemoreceptors in its body. If you’ve never seen it, look for videos on octopus intelligence. They are completely hypnotizing.

© Craig Foster
© Vitor Schietti

So the anti vegans are right! Plants feel too!

No. Here I am not talking about the ability to feel pain. We mentioned it in the chapter “Mythbusters, the Vegan Edition”. Here we are discussing the general idea that consciousness about the environment and ourselves is exclusively of humans and non-human animals (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects…). Can we say that plants are self aware of existing if they communicate, feel or think? We do not have the tools to understand it yet, but we can place ourselves in the reality that 98% of life on the planet is plant.

Apparently the animals predominate, we are faster and more predatory. However, it may be time to take a more humble look, as the 21st century human has moved from the self (individual) to the web (non-centralized) paradigma. Now, everything is smart.

© Warner Bros

 Post humanism has been debated between the overcoming of man and the limits of artificial intelligence, at least since the first Terminator.

Artificial intelligence happens because we provide it data about our preferences and movements, among other things. We are millions of users uploading everything we do to the digital cloud, our real home, where almost everything happens. Now that we can say that plant and technology have the field of intelligence in common, it creates a contradiction between natural and artificial, and why not, superior and inferior, as the separation between both extremes become more blurred. As non-human intelligences take relevance in the scene of discussions, could it undo the anthropocentrism of the gaze?

On the internet everything is a copy of a copy, of a copy, of a copy. It is our swarm intelligence powered by gadgets and algorithms. For better or worse. Our shorter and shorter attention spans and the virality of information became our way of transcending bodies. As we continue to figure out how to interact with artificial intelligence, freezing seeds for the future, and filling space with garbage, the key to climate salvation could be hidden in the information of a mother tree.

© Vitor Schietti
Julia Ferrari

Julia Ferrari

My main interest is transformative projects that appeal to sensitivity, ideas, and working together to question the present.

The next steps recommended by The Vegan Utopia:

For people who live in big cities, the connection with green spaces is often limited to urbanization. It is a bit difficult for us to feel any connection with the plants beyond that they are beautiful to decorate.

For this reason, I leave you with this list of different ways to learn from and perhaps even talk with plants.

To listen:

Plantasia (Mort Garson, 1976): an album made for plants to listen to

Instructions for becoming a plant (MUTANTE)

 

Arte contemporáneo:

Studio Drift

 

To watch:

Little Shop of Horrors. A completely ridiculous sci-fi musical comedy about a carnivorous plant demanding its food.

 

My passion for Trees. The actress Judi Dench discovers the hidden universe of the trees.

 

Fantastic Fungi. A fascinating documentary about the Kingdom Fungi and the closest we know to the modern internet in the natural world.

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