It is common knowledge that plants are living organisms, just like humans, dogs, and whales. However, we do not treat plants in the same way we treat animals – this is mainly due to the belief that plants are not sentient beings. In this blog post, I will be looking at why we believe this and the argument against this belief.
Why do we believe that plants are not sentient?
Many people believe that plants are not sentient due to the fact that they lack the ability to move – at least in the way that animals do. It is believed that if a plant could move from a stimulus that was causing it harm, it would make sense for the plant to adapt and evolve to feel pain.[i] For the plant to feel pain without the ability to rid itself of that pain would be detrimental to its wellbeing. In the long run, the plant could possibly become extinct by natural selection much faster if it felt pain.
Another argument is that plants do not have brains – the central system that contains and controls thoughts, emotions and responds to stimuli. Plants do not have this control system, so it is logical to think that plants cannot sense the stimuli and form emotions about them in response.
The argument against
In 2005, Stefano Mancuso discovered that every plant root tip has a region that functions as the focus of electrical signals – the same found in human neurons. These can detect different stimuli. Plants do not have a centralised control centre (such as a brain), but instead, have these points scattered throughout the roots.[ii]
In 2007, Susan Dudley investigated whether plants can recognise their relatives. Dudley and a graduate student found there was less root competition when closely related plants shared the same pot than when groups of unrelated plants grew in the same pot. This demonstrated that they not only recognised but acted altruistically toward their relatives. [ii]
What do we do if it is proven that plants are sentient beings? Would we start treating them like animals, feeding them, petting them etc.? Or would we resume with everyday life?
Would people who believe that all sentient being should be treated equally (e.g. vegans and vegetarians) give up eating these plants? What would be the alternative? Could this spark the development of new man-made food?
These questions are just touching the surface of what we would have to consider if plants are proven to be sentient- but what is classed as absolute proof? Maybe this question will never be answered.
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[i] Rabbit, V. (n.d.). People For the Ethical Treatment of Plants: 4 Reasons Why the “Plant Sentience” Argument Doesn’t Work. [online] Vegan Rabbit. Available at: https://veganrabbit.com/2013/03/18/plant-sentience-and-pain/ [Accessed 12 Mar. 2019].
[ii] Andrews, C. (2015). Research Shows Plants Are Sentient. Will We Act Accordingly?. [online] Good Nature Travel. Available at: https://www.nathab.com/blog/research-shows-plants-are-sentient-will-we-a... [Accessed 12 Mar. 2019].