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.

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

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