Plants as Persons: New Science Meets Enduring Ethics

By Madronna Holden

In his groundbreaking Plants as Persons:  A Philosophical Botany, Matthew Hall reveals botanical discoveries that indicate plants have individuality, self-recognition, self-direction, learning capacity, self- preservation and self-initiated movement.  Does this make them persons?  Hall’s conclusion is a resounding yes.

But if plants have the traits of persons on the list above, this does not make them persons like human persons.  Though Hall argues plants have a mind exhibited in the communication between plant parts by means of neural hormones, for instance, he stresses that they do not have a mind like the centralized human brainInstead they have a kind of “network mind”.

And though they may learn and adapt in the course of their lifetimes, their choices are not analogous to human free will.

What we have here is a contrary view to either the anthropocentrism that lays the world at the service of human ends or the anthropomorphism that projects human qualities on other natural lives.  Instead the particular qualities of plants challenge humans to expand their sense of personhood to include natural lives very different not only from humans but from all  persons in terms of a “zoocentric” bias that Hall argues permeates too much of our science.

Many indigenous peoples also attribute plants with the characteristics Hall outlines—in their worldviews the perception of plants as persons is commonplace.  Importantly, as Hall underscores in his detailed cross-cultural and historical analysis, those cultures with worldviews that see plants as persons also characteristically treat plants—and the living biosphere of which plants make up the substantial part—with respect and care.

The traditional Chehalis of Washington State, for instance, did not cut cottonwood or burn it for firewood, since they observed that it moved on its own—when there was no wind. Their respect for the cottonwood, that is, led to both careful observation of it and ensuing special treatment.  Notably, the water-loving cottonwood grows along river banks and in wetlands– and not cutting that tree helps preserve and cleanse local water tables protected by its roots.  A parallel case is that of the fig that grows along river and stream banks in traditional Kikuyu territory in Kenya.  Wangari Maathai, founder of the Greenbelt Movement responsible for the planting of a billion trees, inherited the Kikuyu belief that the fig is sacred and should not be disturbed where it grows along such watercourses. Thus she learned the relationship between these trees and the preservation of precious water resources.

Such examples are legion:  I was told by an herbalist at Makah (on the Olympic Peninsula) that local loggers refused to cut the alder which their tradition considered sacred.  Not incidentally, the alder is a nitrogen-fixing tree that plays an essential role in re-establishing tree growth in areas ravaged by fire—or clear cut logging in the modern era.  The respect for the alder’s healing power was such that when native loggers learned alders were due to be cut in a modern logging operation, they would stay away from the job to avoid having any part in this.

Further north, in the Koyukan lands, the birch was thought to carry out reciprocal relationships with its human users. This idea limited the harvesting of birth bark so that trees were not harmed in the process.  In terms of its contract with humans, the birch would retaliate with environmental depravation if its bark were overused or wasted.  Such reciprocal relationships between humans and plants prevailed throughout native North America, where cloth weavers, basket makers, canoe makers, and house builders used plants according to human-plant contracts in which plants were thought to give permission for their use—which they would never do if humans wasted or overused them—ruined their habitats or harvested them in any other destructive way.

Altogether, the perception of plants as beings with minds and choices of their own led to both the careful observation and the respectful treatment of plants and their habitats—as well as special sensitivity to the interdependent relationships between humans and plants.

All knowledge of nature might be considered a form of story—a paradigm, as modern philosophy terms it.    What Hall’s work raises for consideration is the question of which stories are in line with the scientifically observed dynamics of the natural world and also elicit ethical consideration of that world from humans.  He argues that the idea of plants as persons fills both these criteria. By contrast, the story of plants as “automatons”, as Hall argues, is not only wrong on scientific and rational terms—given the characteristics of plants that make them very different from automatons– but wrong on ethical terms—which license humans to treat these living creatures with such carelessness.

So why do the members of modern industrial society often miss these special characteristics of plants outlined by Hall—and thus fail to treat the natural world that sustains us with the respect and care that such a view engenders?  According to Hall we can chalk this up to a mistaken turn in Western thinking that took up Aristotle’s dualistic and hierarchical philosophy, dividing humans from nature as it set humans above all else on earth. There were other choices:  for instance, pre-Socratics who argued that all natural life should be accorded equal consideration since it shared the same natural sources.

But Aristotle’s views went well with a culture based on empire—whereas the view of the equality of all life did not.  Not incidentally, Aristotle’s views of the natural world mirrored his views of humans, which divided them into classes allotted at birth—with male urban Greek landholders placed above the farmers from conquered cultures and slaves originating as war captives. And all men placed above women whom Aristotle saw as soul-less vessels good only for reproductive purposes—unlike some pre-Socratics who held female thinkers in high esteem.

The worldview that sees things in terms of domination and hierarchy can also inhibit scientific understanding—as Hall argues that it does in what is misses in botanical life. Further, the worldview that separates humans from other natural lives has historically given little attention to the interdependent or reciprocal quality of that world– in which each action has consequences. This worldview, that is, often licenses the dismissal of ethical concerns with respect to the treatment of the natural world.

The stories we tell of the natural world are not accidental, but set in cultural contexts:  they both serve and reflect social purposes.  The best science transcends the limits of the dominating worldview—as did Nobel Prize winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, who attributes her brilliant results to her “speaking with the corn”. Though presently recognized with this award, she at first had a good deal of trouble publishing her work, given both the fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated field and had such a holistic, reverential attitude toward the corn she studied.

It is no mistake that societies that sustained their ways of life for tens of thousands of years had a worldview that encouraged both the careful observation of plants as living beings—and the ethics that flowed from such a view. And Hall points out the ways in which modern science parallels such ancient ethics.

————

Madronna Holden’s review of Plants as Persons  was published in the newsletter of the International Society for Environmental Ethics ( summer 2012).

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

30 Responses

  1. This article presents several examples of how indigenous peoples understand environmental links. Cottonwood and fig trees are seen as more than vegetation, firewood, or a place to find shade. They are treated with respect and reverenced by the Chehalis and Kikuyu. It appears that this reverence is learned as these trees play a part in the survival of the environment as a whole. Thus holistic ideals come into play as one organism or entity relies upon another for survival. From this article, it is apparent that there is no separation from the natural world for the Chehlis and Kikuyu as is portrayed in the Western line of thought.

    • I like your description of the holistic ideals that “come into play as one organism relies upon another for survival”– very different indeed, as you point out, from seeing plants as objects there for our use.
      And as you also observe, there is an intimacy with rather than separation from the natural world on the part of humans– which grounds both the ethics and understanding of these other natural lives.
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment–and leading off the discussion of this idea, Chris.

    • Chris,
      I think that your point about the relationship of the Chehalis and the Kikuyu and the trees just shows how far removed most people have become from the natural world. If we spent more time in nature, surely we would have a better respect for the role these trees, and so many other beings in nature, play in “the survival of the environment as a whole”. It seems such an elementary principal that people would understand that all things in nature have a role in this survival which supports human survival.

      • Something to consider, Kendra. It would be great if more intimacy with the day to day workings of the natural world allowed us to gain an understanding that “all things in nature”, in their own survival, often and essentially support our own survival.

  2. There were several ideas in this article that I hadn’t considered. For instance, Hall’s assertion that plants are persons. By definition, they possess many of the same traits, such as individuality, self-preservation, among others that were listed. That’s incredible when pondered. Yes, we all know that plants are living organisms, but to think in terms of a “network mind” spurs additional curiosities. Like the indigenous cultures presented, I heard many stories of certain behaviors that were appropriate with different forms of plant life during my youth. I know that the stories were rooted in experience, but I mostly thought (because some stories were) that they were based partly on superstition, even though I saw them utilized effectively. I guess what I’m trying to convey is that it’s difficult for a modern mind to fathom how something can be so, when it is not explicitly stated and documented. Perhaps Hall’s work will help bridge some of that gap.

    • It is a stretch for the “modern mind” to understand this particular scientific “story” of plants as persons, Latifa. But perhaps this will allow us to become more sophisticated about the extent to which our explanations about other lives are based on metaphor. And perhaps yet again we might say that it is not so much the modern mind but the mind that has accepted Aristole’s categories (and his notions of the natural world) that has problems with the paradigm Hall presents.
      Thoughtful reflection here–and I like your idea of Hall’s work as bridging the gap that existed between the stories you heard (based on experience) and other ideas of explanation and proof. Thanks for your comment.

  3. It’s so sad that so many humans followed the thoughts of Aristotle and treated beings accoring to class. This fits the worldview of domination, which unfortunately is held by so many, especially those making policy. Hopefully, as we start to see more effects from this worldview that disrespects other natural lives, everyone, especially those with power will start to see that in order for the balance between all life forms to remain viable, we must respect and nurture one another. So many humans just don’t consider how much the other natural lives do for us.

    • Essential point about the need to recognize how much other lives do for us, Kendra. Yours is a hopeful vision that we may someday have a paradigm/worldview/way of thinking that allows more room for the holistic observation and respect of other natural lives.

    • Kendra,

      Perhaps is it in or very nature or character to dominate over that which we can. Survival instincts may come into play as well. Power also contributes to why we do certain things. And certainly political figures can desire power. These are the very individuals that may hold the greatest promise of change also.

      • Of course, there are those societies who have very different values and would disagree that this is in our nature. Perhaps this applies to our current culture well– and as you also indicate, this is where change seems to be most needed.

  4. I believe I posted in my ‘goal for what I wanted out of this class,’ that I lay hands on a trees trunk and listen to its heart or even have a conversation with it. When I wrote my ‘goal’ essay, I had no idea that the very subject I wished to learn more about was the very things we were going to learn about.
    I think from this article the main thing that bugged me was the influence Aristotle had on Western civilization thinking, that his thinking paralleled the developing dualistic worldview ideals. I will chalk some of the error of his ways to the dualistic worldviews of the time. However, some scientist can be bought and who knows maybe even Aristotle had a price. For how can any scientist truly believe that plants are not people; personally I think Hall is wrong here – it should be people are not plants since they originated first on the planet. How can any scientist not consider that plants and wildlife not have conversations amongst themselves? For all we know their frequency could be telepathic.

    • And by “telepathic” communication, you might mean communication that is non-verbal and/or communication that is different from human communication? Obviously, the communication through plant neural hormones is one such method: no reason for that to be considered a form of extra sensory perception– just a form of perception many of us may not yet have caught on to ourselves.
      You have an important point to consider in terms of the elder status of plants who were, after all, her first. As we see in some of our readings for this read, there is discussion among Old Testament scholars about whether the creation of humans coming after other natural life gives them more or less standing than those other lives.
      Thank you for your comment, Debora– the first step in understanding the voices of other lives (however we conceive of them) is respectful listening.

  5. As usual, this is interesting (I find myself remebering Merry and Pippin from the Lord of the Rings films talking about “trees that could come alive…even move.”), but I believe that I must disagree with the classification of plants as “persons”, even if this research proves comtinually true. THe article openly acknowledges that nothing like human free will is exerted, placing plants at best on the same level as beasts, and again, I believe I’ve stated before that there are a number of reasons why I maintain that humans, though they should attempt some kind of enviromnental stewardship, are still on a level above the beasts and birds and bees.

    Perhaps it’s simply splitting hairs, but I believe, even by the article’s own admission, the term “people” may be inaccurate, or at least that I don’t agree with its defintion of a “person”. However, the article itself was rather fascinating-trees moving on their own and communicating in some regard? Again, fascinating indeed…

    • Thanks for sharing your personal response, Thomas. Of course, if one begins with the definition of “person” such that it is a human “person”, then we need a different definition if we want to use it as Hall does. He cites the work of Deborah Rose (who works with Aborigines). Rose states that when those indigenous peoples see the natural world as composed of peoples, only some of whom are human, it is not about extending humanity to all of nature (as in anthropocentrism) but instead of expressing a “complex system for encountering the world”– one that honors the subjectivity of other lives in addition to human ones.

    • How is a creature that over-comsumes resources from its environment, and is filled with all sorts of psychological deficiencies that put us in existential torture, “on a level above the beasts and birds and bees.” ? Have you ever thought that maybe humans could LEARN from the “beasts”?

      • This brings up a central point– how is human superiority indicated if not in terms our our actions? Do we just get to say we are “superior”–and thereby have the license to do whatever we will?

  6. Wasn’t it a human psychologist, Dr. Gustav Fetchner, that in the 1800s insisted plants had feelings? He noted that plants that received love, affection, and emotional care were more hearty than those whom received negative attention, were yelled at, or simply ignored; they all received the same physical care, but not the same emotional care.

    I agree with Dr. Fetchner wholeheartedly. At my house we name our house plants, apologize to them if we accidentally tear one of their leaves, give our trees hugs and “back” rubs, and call our garden vegetables our babies. We have a house and yard full of plants, and they bring us joy.

    The reciprocal nature of putting good energy into anything, and receiving good energy back is not a profound statement. People have just lost that connection with nature. So much so that people that visit and hear me talking about Pearl, or Granny, or Spike and how we have selected planters that suit their “personality” think that I am a little crazy. But, I am simply contributing to my own happiness.

    If a human gives love or reverence to anything, even if it is a car, they tend to build an emotional and loving attachment to it. The difference between the car and the plant life is that plants respond to this emotionality.

    There is no need to define a plant as being a person. Definitions are subjective. People tend to lose faith in something once it has a definition that they are in conflict with. Rather, we should just treat anything that is living, breathing, growing, aging, contributing to our well being with respect. It will bring us joy.

    • You have a key point that echoes Hall’s here, Rebecca: “If a human gives love and reverence to anything”, they treat it with commensurate care.
      And in point of fact, what outside observer has the right to judge your relationship with other living creatures– if that relationship, as you state here, both brings you joy and motivates your care for these other lives?
      Nice point about definitions. I also think it does not hurt to redefine things we take for granted– such as persons– or, for that matter, profit or progress as a way of seeing them for what they are rather than the way we have been used to seeing them.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    • Oh, I completely agree with you. I’m constantly telling my daughter to be gentler to the plants because “they have feelings too”. She’s at a very inquisitive age and I’m glad to have some additional information to back up what I tell her now! Isn’t it funny how some would think you crazy for loving and caring for your plants when there are many that have a similar relationship with their cars? Inanimate, nonliving, man-made cars. I loved your reply. All of it.

    • Rebecca, superb point about putting positive energy into anything. Whether it is growing plants, working on an assembly line, or in a cubicle the power of positve thought goes far. The Hopi in the northeast Arizona were well known to sing to their corn, and the other vegetables that they grew in the arid region. The Hopi are also a highly spiritual indigenous people that have an extremely deep connection with the Earth that goes very far back.

      • Both of you also highlight the relationship between thinking and acting (or personal values and behavior): the corn that one sings to certainly gets better treatment and attention from the human farmer than does the genetically engineered corn planted and tended by tractor on a thousand acre farm.
        It also allows for better observation: that is the way Barbara McClintock claimed she won her Nobel Prize for her work with corn genetics based, she stated, on “listening to the corn”.

  7. The quest for understanding of the world, the Universe, the reason for being, whether now or in the past has led civilization to many wonderful ideas, discoveries, and questions. Part of this discovery has led some men, and women to be extremely influential regardless of era or belief. When Aristotle’s views were mentioned, I was slightly saddened by some of his views ( it has been awhile since I took my last Philosophy class). That being said, his and other brilliant Greek minds were looking for an explanation ” of being”. And probably not much unlike today when music or T.V. looks to grasp the next big entertainment piece to gather viewers or listeners, I imagine Aristotle doing the same thing. How else to get people to listen to your philisophical ideas than profoundly change the way people look at their relationship to nature. The prior 7,500 people had slowly been moving away from their hunter- gatherer lifestyle into a more agrarian one. One in which “man” dominates nature. It was probably only natural that some Greek, self-help, charismatic speaker got some folks in the Agora to listen about how great “man’ is, how powerful he is, and his role in dominating the evils of nature. I say that a bit tongue tongue in cheek, but Aristotle’s views were groundbreaking, and have stood the test of time. I feel however that his dualistic philosophy is now outdated, and that our better understanding of the world around us needs not neglect the knowledge of those societies that have been around for eons, but to embrace and learn from their wisdom.

    • Thoughtful perspective on Aristotle. As his philosophy is discussed, I also think it pertinent to remember that he was an adviser to Alexander the Great–and that a key point of his treatise on Politics was how to prevent revolution of a dissatisfied polity like the one ruled over by the Greek colonial empire.
      Such things certainly influenced his search for the idea of being– I think we can find parallels in certain modern science. Though the scientist may seem brilliant, his or her paradigm may be compromised by where he or she gets funding–as well as particular cultural paradigms. No matter how objective that scientist may try to be, such things cannot help but influence his or her thinking.
      I agree that his dualistic philosophy is outdated–and even destructive in the face of current environmental challenges we face.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  8. What an interesting article. My father is a bit of a green-thumb and while growing up I always tended to mock his appreciation for plant life instead of embracing it. As a child I would ask him why he spent so much time caring for something that won’t even recognize the difference, but over time I have learned to understand that the life cycle and traits of plants are almost parallel to that of other living creatures. They have a beginning and an end, they require some sort of nurturing and without it they suffer consequences. They are capable of reproduction and are in need of daily sustenance. I think there is divinity to the idea that life is equal among all living things and in effect, if we are courteous to nature, nature will reciprocate.

    • Thanks for sharing your personal experience in this regard, Peter. I like your idea of the “divinity in the idea that life is equal” among all living creatures.
      Have you told your father that you have come to the conclusion he had something going for him after all in all that time he spent gardening. I like your perception of the characteristics of plants that ask for our care as well.

  9. Thank you for asking me to read this. It is nice to have validation. I can now see why you thought I had read this and somehow posted my comment by accident to another essay. I will have to purchase Matthew Hall’s book.
    Have you ever noticed the negative connotation that is associated with the term ‘tree hugger?’ To me tree hugger could not be a better term. However, when people call me a tree hugger, hippie, bleeding heart, etc., it would be nice if it were said with positive energy. What is really interesting is that I can see, in the near future, how such words will be considered discriminatory; in my opinion, the sooner the better. How do the tree huggers and even Matthew Hall get this message, of plants and wildlife as persons, to the masses without us looking insane? It is frustrating, but I’m sure it is even more frustrating for the flora and fauna that doesn’t know human languages. Though, if they did know human languages it most likely wouldn’t matter, because they would still be beneath the human species.
    It is spring and before coming in the house I sat outside and watched two butterflies do the mating spiral up to the sky. I also watched two different Mocking Bird mothers fly back and forth from nest to the yummy organic back yard. I also do not have to wonder any longer if the Carpenter bees moved, some live on the patio in a dead corn plant, which is an eye-sore to humans, but a castle to this amazing creature. I sat less than two feet away watching them enter their home for the night, most people would be headed for the can of Raid. How can anyone not connect to such wonder? In my small modest little natural Garden of Eden the whole is alive and cyclical. From the majestic elder tree standing like a soldier protecting its family, to the mating of butterflies, and to the mothers whose sole purpose in time were to feed their young. I find great satisfaction in knowing that the habitat I maintain with consciousness, as small as it is, is loved by those who have lived here longer than I.

    • Thanks for sharing these images of spring, Debora. I would only wonder if “most people” would indeed “reach for the can of Raid”– I think you may have more allies with respect to your values than you assume when you speculate that it would not matter, for instance, if other species spoke our language, since we would still place them below us. Not ALL of us would do so, as indicated by the responses on this forum.

  10. I am glad that plants appear among your essays Dr. Holden. I am enamored by trees and forests, not for their beauty–with which they are well endowed–but for their absolutely brilliant existence. The trees alone clearly must have a form of natural intelligence if only because trees, like those of the PNW and the Joshua tree, do not get the repetitive process of other species for natural selection to work its adaptive “response” to challenges through time. The oldest trees had no way of predicting the conditions of their environment the 100s, sometimes 1000s, of years in the future and yet they create, sustain and survive in a world that did not exist when they were “born”.

    As scientists study how trees communicate among themselves and discover ways they interact in ways that keep the community alive (with the help of the microbial “Soil-u-lar” network) likely because the forest stands as a single protective entity for all.

    I personally think the field of economic could learn from the forest economy. It might encourage devout macro-economists to put down their invisible hands and consider a new metaphor for the balancing force for resource distribution ( the invisible fungi of economics?)

    • Interesting point about ancient trees and (lack of?) adaptation in time. One way to look at this is that 1000 years may be a lot to humans considering our lifespan, but is little enough in the age of the earth.
      On the other hand, the ability of living beings to persist over such a length of time is remarkable– and I have noticed that the trees in my yard do seem to adapt during their lifetimes. Since climate change has caused so many trees to bloom earlier (and thus have their blossoms ravaged by frosts or not pollinated since their pollinators don’t come out until later), the younger trees are particularly vulnerable. But I have older trees–an apple and a plum, for instance, that bloom later– at the same time fruit trees did 30 years ago. I find this very interesting. I like to think they have somehow learned from and adapted to their experience.
      Wouldn’t it be great if we modeled our economy on the invisible networks that connect lives under the soil rather than the “invisible hand ” of the market that really does not function anyway. Adam Smith, which economic theory this was, almost immediately followed its publication up with a book on ethics, stressing that were moral values that could not be left up to the market– that is, the “invisible hand” of the market should only be applied in relatively unimportant realms like those beyond price in our essay about pricing the priceless here. Too bad his follow up was not more heeded.

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