Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant IntelligenceBrilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence by Stefano Mancuso
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thanks to Netgalley!

The book asks us, sometimes repeatedly, to step outside of our preconceived notions. Fair enough. I'm not a member of an old-boy scientific network, so I have no vested interests besides learning for learning's sake. So what does Mr. Mancuso ask us to swallow?

Easily enough, it's just the idea that plants are intelligent.

No biggie, actually. I was convinced pretty early in the book, especially when we throw out prejudices such as the need for a "brain" or "eyes" or any of the traditional "sense organs" we animals possess.

Think about it. Plants make decisions all the time, not just in hunting for water, discovering new pockets of phosphorous or other trace elements, competing with other plants, defending against and entering into agreements with bacteria, insects, and animals. Even the way they decide to propagate themselves show a remarkably diverse toolset, from communicating by delicious ripe fruit, chemically unique and heavily directed pheromones that entice very specific animals and insects, and mimicry. And when they choose to do any of it is based on a very complex decision plot.

But they're plants, you say. Just dumb plants. (I'm paraphrasing the the author's imagined critique crowd.) I mow the lawn. It doesn't seem to complain. How smart can it be?

Actually, pretty damn smart. The tips of even a small plant's roots can number 15 million discrete sensory apparatus, and larger plants, like corn, can have upwards of a hundred million. Think of the tips of the roots as the neurons. They make all the decisions. This is real. And real communication takes place across same species of plants over great distances just as real communication is possible and even likely across species.

True non-human, non-animal intelligence right here on Earth? Sure. I'm sold. Look at how plants have learned to communicate with us. If we're so damn smart, then why have plants started preening themselves like courtly lovers trying to land a hot mate with humanity? Hell, they still think that ants are pretty hot shit. Whole colonies will violently defend trees. We are cultivating orchards, food crops, medicinal plants by the hundreds of scores, and in return, these plants THRIVE.

They're alive. They think. If they give us more pretties, we take very good care of them. I would not be surprised if in the next 100 years, assuming we haven't killed off all the rest of the intelligent life on the planet, most of the plant life turns into one gigantic catering service to humanity. After all, as long as their root systems survive and they're given comfy environments, they're just fine with being eaten. They're not reliant on us, but they sure as hell know how to exploit us. :)

Believe it or not, all of this is proven science. Just because some of us don't believe what is obvious, such as the fact that more than 95% of the world's biomass is plant matter and it'll go on being the dominant life form even if all the animals including us die, doesn't mean it isn't true.

There's an interesting anecdote that paraphrases that we nonchalantly ignore the importance and intelligence and motive and sensory capabilities of plants JUST because they're slower than we can readily perceive. They're not less complex. In fact, they have all of our senses, plus a much wider capacity to sense. Theories have most plants linked up to at least 20 full-blown senses. Not just our five. Hell, I'd LOVE to be able to sense gravity. Oh, wait. I do: It's that way.

Okay, so perhaps his definition of senses needs a bit more fleshing, whether its animal or plant flesh, but I am convinced on the intelligence. :)

An interesting unproven hypothesis speculate that they work together as emergent properties rather more complicated than simply transmitting through the roots, either chemically, spatially, or even through the tiny clicking sounds that all roots make, whether or not it's the cracking of the cellular wall or it's a method of communication.

Swarming intelligent emergence within a root system. That's so totally awesome. Discussions of AIs and Other Computing Models are also touched in this book.

The only reason I knocked a star was in the total page-time spent exhorting us to just quit it with our animal prejudices, looking for intelligence that's just like us instead of what is apparent all around us. Systems Theory should have put a nail in that coffin of thought, but alas, the opposite is apparently still going strong. I wanted even more facts and even more wild theories, not more persuasive arguments. :)

Stop sitting around like a vegetable, people!


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