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Excerpt from The Myth of Human Supremacy

Sitka Willows (p. 78)

From chapter "Complexity and Its Opposite"

In the late 1970s and early 1980s a few scientists discovered what trees have known for a very long time, that plants communicate. In one study, a scientist from the University of Washington fed leaves from Sitka willows being eaten by tent caterpillars and webworms to captive insects, and learned that the insects grew more slowly than normal. The willows were altering the composition of their leaves to stunt the growth of the predators. Next, he found that leaves from other willows nearby—those not themselves being eaten—also caused the insects to grow more slowly. The nearby plants were changing their leaf composition as well. Around that same time, a couple of scientists from Dartmouth discovered that poplar and sugar maple seedlings were also capable of similar communication.

The response by the scientific community to even this slight threat to human supremacism—the threat being that trees may share a trait with us—followed the pattern that believers in supremacisms often follow when their supremacisms are threatened. Out came the tautologies and poor thinking, the clutching at straws, the bullying. Plants don’t have nervous systems, and therefore they must not be able to do those things that in animals require nerves (never mind that there could be, and evidently are, other means by which others achieve these ends). Just as Cleve Backster must have had wires (or screws) loose, or must have shuffled his feet across the carpet then zapped the plant with static electricity, the researchers from Dartmouth must have designed their studies poorly, and the researcher from the University of Washington must have in some unspecified way accidentally spread some unspecified disease to the captive insects. The UW researcher couldn’t get funding to replicate his study—that’s certainly one way to guarantee a lack of repeatability—and eventually left science altogether to run a bed and breakfast.

Let’s jump forward to 2013, when at least a few scientists are learning something else that plants have known more or less forever, that plants of different species communicate. If you harm sagebrush, for example, it gives off signals to which tobacco plants respond. Harming cucumbers causes responses by chili peppers and lima beans. As one journalist says, “It turns out almost every green plant that’s been studied releases its own cocktail of volatile chemicals, and many species register and respond to these plumes.” This same writer calls these chemical communications “a universal language.” And it’s not only other plants who respond. That journalist continues, “Plants can communicate with insects as well, sending airborne messages that act as distress signals to predatory insects that [who] kill herbivores. Maize attacked [sic] by beet armyworms releases a cloud of volatile chemicals that attracts wasps to lay eggs in the caterpillars’ bodies. The emerging picture is that plant-eating bugs, and the insects that [who] feed on them, live in a world we can barely imagine, perfumed by clouds of chemicals rich in information. Ants, microbes, moths, even hummingbirds and tortoises . . . all detect and react to these blasts.”

And did I mention that plants communicate not only through these volatile chemicals, but also with “electrical pulses and a system of voltage-based signaling that is eerily reminiscent of the animal nervous system”?

The response by human supremacists continues to be much the same as it ever was. One supremacist calls plant intelligence “a foolish distraction,” while another says discussions of it are “the last serious confrontation between the scientific community and the nuthouse on these issues.” A third says that those who discuss plant intelligence are suffering from “over-interpretation of data, teleology, anthropomorphizing, philosophizing, and wild speculations.”

When a supremacism of any sort is one of the unquestioned beliefs acting as a real authority of that culture, defenders of that supremacism nearly always perceive any questioning of any part of that supremacism as a “foolish distraction.” They generally portray themselves—and quite often perceive themselves—as defenders of reasonableness and sanity, and perceive those questioning their supremacism as having come from “the nuthouse.” This is as true of human supremacists today as it was of defenders of race-based chattel slavery and as it was of defenders of the witch trials. And because the beliefs that underlie their supremacisms are unquestioned, proponents of supremacisms can say without intentional irony that they’re not philosophizing or participating in wild speculations. Because their supremacist perspective is unquestioned—and the supremacists would prefer it remain that way—all questioning of that supremacism by definition will be classed as speculation, and all speculation on that subject will be discouraged. Of course, speculating about ways to escalate the ability of one’s superior class to exploit all inferior classes is seen as innovation, creativity, and a sign of one’s intelligence and superiority. So, discuss your perception of nonhuman sentience, and you’re a foolish distraction from the nuthouse who is speculating; figure out a way to use cyanide to extract gold from rocks and leave behind a poisoned landscape, and you’re a fucking hero and a shining example of human ingenuity.