Saturday, 9 October 2010

Plants Experiment - The Silence of the Plants

Dear All,
As you may be aware, we are currently working on an issue entirely dedicated to plants and our ultimate aim is to engage those who have already embraced ( or are in the process of embracing ) the challenges posed by the animal in order to trigger a discussion that may lead to a broadening/questioning/re-considering of the field. 

An interesting article on the subject of plants and ethics was published on The New York Times. It is a provocative and challenging piece  pushing a number of buttons form vegetarianism/veganism to sentient/non-sentient and questions about animal/plant life.
The comments will be published in our issue, currently titled "Why Look at Plants?"  We aim to close this thread in early 2011.

So let's get talking.....

December 22, 2009

Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too

I stopped eating pork about eight years ago, after a scientist happened to mention that the animal whose teeth most closely resemble our own is the pig. Unable to shake the image of a perky little pig flashing me a brilliant George Clooney smile, I decided it was easier to forgo the Christmas ham. A couple of years later, I gave up on all mammalian meat, period. I still eat fish and poultry, however and pour eggnog in my coffee. My dietary decisions are arbitrary and inconsistent, and when friends ask why I’m willing to try the duck but not the lamb, I don’t have a good answer. Food choices are often like that: difficult to articulate yet strongly held. And lately, debates over food choices have flared with particular vehemence.
In his new book, “Eating Animals,” the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer describes his gradual transformation from omnivorous, oblivious slacker who “waffled among any number of diets” to “committed vegetarian.” Last month, Gary Steiner, a philosopher at Bucknell University, argued on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times that people should strive to be “strict ethicalvegans” like himself, avoiding all products derived from animals, including wool and silk. Killing animals for human food and finery is nothing less than “outright murder,” he said, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “eternal Treblinka.”
But before we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot. This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way. The more that scientists learn about the complexity of plants — their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar — the more impressed researchers become, and the less easily we can dismiss plants as so much fiberfill backdrop, passive sunlight collectors on which deer, antelope and vegans can conveniently graze. It’s time for a green revolution, a reseeding of our stubborn animal minds.
When plant biologists speak of their subjects, they use active verbs and vivid images. Plants “forage” for resources like light and soil nutrients and “anticipate” rough spots and opportunities. By analyzing the ratio of red light and far red light falling on their leaves, for example, they can sense the presence of other chlorophyllated competitors nearby and try to grow the other way. Their roots ride the underground “rhizosphere” and engage in cross-cultural and microbial trade.
“Plants are not static or silly,” said Monika Hilker of the Institute of Biology at the Free University of Berlin. “They respond to tactile cues, they recognize different wavelengths of light, they listen to chemical signals, they can even talk” through chemical signals. Touch, sight, hearing, speech. “These are sensory modalities and abilities we normally think of as only being in animals,” Dr. Hilker said.
Plants can’t run away from a threat but they can stand their ground. “They are very good at avoiding getting eaten,” said Linda Walling of the University of California, Riverside. “It’s an unusual situation where insects can overcome those defenses.” At the smallest nip to its leaves, specialized cells on the plant’s surface release chemicals to irritate the predator or sticky goo to entrap it. Genes in the plant’s DNA are activated to wage systemwide chemical warfare, the plant’s version of an immune response. We need terpenes, alkaloids, phenolics — let’s move.
“I’m amazed at how fast some of these things happen,” said Consuelo M. De Moraes of Pennsylvania State University. Dr. De Moraes and her colleagues did labeling experiments to clock a plant’s systemic response time and found that, in less than 20 minutes from the moment the caterpillar had begun feeding on its leaves, the plant had plucked carbon from the air and forged defensive compounds from scratch.
Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.
Enemies of the plant’s enemies are not the only ones to tune into the emergency broadcast. “Some of these cues, some of these volatiles that are released when a focal plant is damaged,” said Richard Karban of the University of California, Davis, “cause other plants of the same species, or even of another species, to likewise become more resistant to herbivores.”
Yes, it’s best to nip trouble in the bud.
Dr. Hilker and her colleagues, as well as other research teams, have found that certain plants can sense when insect eggs have been deposited on their leaves and will act immediately to rid themselves of the incubating menace. They may sprout carpets of tumorlike neoplasms to knock the eggs off, or secrete ovicides to kill them, or sound the S O S. Reporting in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Hilker and her coworkers determined that when a female cabbage butterfly lays her eggs on a brussels sprout plant and attaches her treasures to the leaves with tiny dabs of glue, the vigilant vegetable detects the presence of a simple additive in the glue, benzyl cyanide. Cued by the additive, the plant swiftly alters the chemistry of its leaf surface to beckon female parasitic wasps. Spying the anchored bounty, the female wasps in turn inject their eggs inside, the gestating wasps feed on the gestating butterflies, and the plant’s problem is solved.
Here’s the lurid Edgar Allan Poetry of it: that benzyl cyanide tip-off had been donated to the female butterfly by the male during mating. “It’s an anti-aphrodisiac pheromone, so that the female wouldn’t mate anymore,” Dr. Hilker said. “The male is trying to ensure his paternity, but he ends up endangering his own offspring.”
Plants eavesdrop on one another benignly and malignly. As they described in Science and other journals, Dr. De Moraes and her colleagues have discovered that seedlings of the dodder plant, a parasitic weed related to morning glory, can detect volatile chemicals released by potential host plants like the tomato. The young dodder then grows inexorably toward the host, until it can encircle the victim’s stem and begin sucking the life phloem right out of it. The parasite can even distinguish between the scents of healthier and weaker tomato plants and then head for the hale one.
“Even if you have quite a bit of knowledge about plants,” Dr. De Moraes said, “it’s still surprising to see how sophisticated they can be.”
It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive. Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. Don’t expect them to boast: they’re too busy fighting to survive.


  1. 'fighting' and 'enemies' where every"thing" (meshed together) is at some war with each other seems just as goofy as the rest of the language we throw around thats so critical to the basis of philosophy. it kind of just reeks of Hobbesian nonsense tossed onto a biological lens.

    but it seems to me relationality is 100 fold more complex than the inaccurate scaffolding we give these examples of defense mechanisms and processes of development. its not always about defenses, walls, war strategies we project onto other species (even our own), survival and reductive selfish gene actions "DNA says so! man your battle stations!"

    even latching on to mainstream Sciences lexicon, like Dawkins memes, etc., is grasping at something that is nothing more than a corny idea. there is no "meme" or culturgen acquired or transmitted anywhere. just as there is no war going on. maybe looking at the relationality of Things through an ethical lens is completely off-base in general.

  2. "Sorry Non-Cannibals: But Cows Like to Live, Too." This wouldn't work as an argument for eating people any more than the title of Angier's essay works as an argument for eating meat. There are positive reasons for not eating cows or chickens that are not negated by recognizing that various plants possess powerful defenses, sensitivity to their environment, and perhaps even forms of intelligence.

    I am oversimplifying by suggesting the article is meant as a straightforward attack on vegans, even though the title frames it that way. The essay itself does not really offer an argument against veganism but seems to claim only that ethical decisions about what, and what not, to eat are not as clear-cut as (some) vegans/vegetarians believe. But anyone who has been a vegetarian (I'll use the broader term to include both vegans and vegetarians) for any length of time has been been confronted by a similar challenge to her dietary choices: "Carrots may have feelings, too, and you eat carrots, so get off your high horse and eat meat like the rest of us (but not your horse of course, because horses are nice!)." It is not a very strong argument and is usually countered by pointing out the obvious differences between the intelligence and sentience of the animals and plants we eat, often on the basis of anatomy (plants may sense light or detect the presence of certain chemicals, but do they feel pain? do they suffer for it?). One could also point out to Angier that the fact that all organisms have survival mechanisms (a basic component of evolutionary theory) doesn't necessarily imply any kind of intention or desire on the part of individual plants (as one commenter on the Times site points out, plants often survive by allowing themselves to be eaten). Or we might point out to Angier that "like" (in the phrase "Brussel sprouts like to live") may mean something entirely different when applied to a Brussel sprout than it does when applied to a mammal or bird. Saying a plant likes or wants to live, in other words, may involve what we normally call anthropomorphism--but perhaps zoomorphism would be more precise in this case.

    The differences between a pig and a carrot in terms of sentience, intelligence, and awareness are huge and are probably sufficient to counter an attack on vegetarianism that was not made in good faith in the first place (the self-styled carrotist doesn't really care about lessening the suffering of carrots; she just wants to absolve herself of the guilt of eating meat). Yet in defending the line between plant and animal, the vegetarian finds herself in a position similar to those who try to maintain a strict line between human and animal. Both are policing boundaries, and while I realize that humans actually are a kind of animal while animals are not a kind of plant, I have to ask, is policing boundaries the best way to argue for more compassion in the world? Angier is arguing that plants can sometimes be human- or animal-like. But what if we turn this around: is it possible that allowing that animals, including humans, may be plant-like in various ways might actually advance attempts to interact with the world in a more ethical and compassionate way, including (but not limited to) vegetarianism? (I have some thoughts on this, but I'll let others chime in first.)

  3. Implicit in the article is the idea that eating is a violence that is unavoidable. Rachel Swinkin (Hi, Rachel) makes a strong point regarding leveling all eating as equal. The article makes eating plants more complex but only then to equate this complexity with that of eating animals.

    What the article does help us do is think about all eating engaging with the question of "eating well." How is our eating staged and managed? and by whom?

  4. we all have to eat, animals including humans AND plants, it is that we do it differently, and that is all. more to the point ... when you as a vegan are walking along a garden path and pull a leaf off a tree for no reason, are you really engaged with nature, being totally in tune with your inner senses and place within the greater whole, or are being like any meat-eater? we, as humans, need at least plant life to live, that is a biological reality, but are we being compassionate and respectful of life at all times?

  5. Rachel Swinkin eloquently makes an argument with which I agree. As a vegetarian/vegan for the last 30 years I have heard the "what about plants?" argument against my ethical choice more times than I care to count. Many of these times were long before people began to consider the agency of plants. As someone who senses the sentience of trees, I also feel the sensitivity of plants to the world around them is not a valid argument FOR eating animals, but a wake up call to a continuum of living beings of which we are part, and a small one at that.

  6. I have a friend who believes that sentience is not a good dividing line between OK-to-eat and not-OK-to-eat, partially b/c he believes plants are sentient. He writes, "Veganism without environmental concerns and behaviour appropriate to respecting global ecosystems is absurd." I have to agree (although perhaps absurd is a bit strong).

    I've listed some sources of the sort of material contained in the article, which I believe would be helpful in formulating a compelling stance, here:

  7. I am very pleased to see that the subject of plants has triggered such an interesting debate. There are however a few things I would like to point out in order to perhaps push this discussion towards a more productive direction. Firstly, I'd like to point out that Angier's is not technically an essay, but a newspaper article and that failing to recognize the peculiarities of such genre does unavoidably lead to misinterpretations. As far as I am concerned the article is not arguing anything, at least not in academic terms. A newspaper article's main purpose is information and at that this piece delivers an amount of new and exciting info about plants. This information is something that almost everyone who has thus far commented on the thread seems to have belittled or either deliberately ignored. Yes, Angier's piece starts from "eating" but it is clear that this premise is a trick, a humorous one, to engage the reader. It does not constitute the premise to a solid argument. Likewise its title is a call for attention, more than anything else.
    It is interesting that vegetarians/vegans feel this is an attack on vegetarianism, when I personally only understand this article as a welcome opportunity to make the general public think about plants in a different light. How else would engage a wide audience on such topic? Moreover so, the piece never does invite readers to give up vegeterianism in the light of plant's newly discovered agencies. In a discounted diaristic style, it only aims to invite the reader to think of their own everyday reality.
    Carol may be right in saying that the argument that plants suffer too has been around for 30 years, but the newly gathered information on plants we are offered by the text is not. What about that? Do we decide that it is worth looking into this newly discovered evidence or do we think we are somehow above it and that plants do not deserve such attention? I would only like to remind everyone that many academics involved in the study of classical subject frown upon us human-animal studies people for devoting so much focus on animals. Are we witnessing similar dynamics in the animal-studies community towards those interested in micro-fauna?
    Whether an animal or plant is sentient or not is simply not the point. We will never know how certain things feel to these “others” and comparing pain should no longer be seen as the main indicator of "being sentient" for "being sentient" is a much more complex and subtle matter. Isn't the idea of exploring new kinds of "being sentient" exciting? Well, if we are truly interested in exploring these different ways, plants are offering a way forward as much as insects, amphibians and other cold-blooded animals do. It is by trying to move as far as possible away from anthropomorphic approaches that we may create new and challenging knowledge about other beings. Considering that posthumanism has worked so hard at questioning boundaries why would one so keenly want to preserve the one dividing animals and plants? What productive opportunities are there in maintaining such clear division if not the creation of fictitious certainties and comfort. In my opinion thinking in a "contemporary way" is an uncomfortable task, one that aims at making the world in which we live in less comfortable. Secular divisions only make the world a comfortable, simplified and predictable place.

  8. Giovanni, You neglected, perhaps, to read the rest of my comment: "As someone who senses the sentience of trees, I also feel the sensitivity of plants to the world around them is not a valid argument FOR eating animals, but a wake up call to a continuum of living beings of which we are a part, and a small one at that." What does one do with the all this new information, then? Do we merely file it as interesting and exciting and continue to eat up our salad? My goal is not to preserve the border that has been erected between animals and plants, but to continue to make transparent the consequences of borders between all species, while respecting differences. I am not so interested in "moving as far away as possible from anthropomorphic approaches", though I am interested in moving away from anthropomorphic approaches. As a number of cognitive ethologists, such as Marc Bekoff and G. A. Bradshaw, tell us "Anthropomorphism is a much more complex phenomenon than we would have expected. It may very well be that the seemingly natural human urge to impart emotions onto animals - far from obscuring the "true" nature of animals - may actually reflect a very accurate way of knowing. And, the knowledge that is gained, supported by much solid scientific research, is essential for making ethical decisions on behalf of animals" (Bekoff,M. The emotional life of animals).
    As well, those ways of knowing are linked to both imagination and empathy, something that making art teaches us, as well as the relatively recent cognitive research of Lakoff and Johnson (Philosophy of the Flesh). Both imagination and empathy play huge roles in creative thinking as well as in making ethical decisions. And "anthropomorphism," used well, allows us to "sense" both similarities and differences. I think this works, if one is open to it, in sensing other ways of being across and within species.

    I do not think that the ethical issues around the lives of animals and the lives of plants are separate, but I do think that what we do with all this new knowledge is crucial for the lives of the beings involved and the life of the planet as a whole.

  9. errata: the sentence should read as below:

    I am not so interested in "moving as far away as possible from anthropomorphic approaches", though I am interested in moving away from anthropocentric approaches.

  10. The information being presented in the article is interesting in terms of what science is putting forward as its current set of propositions. But, to me, what is more interesting is, of course, the implications of that in terms of our own behaviours.

    It seems to me that the issue that is being addressed - are plants sentient and so what - is only interesting because of the movement that has existed that put forward sentience, ability to suffer pain, existence of emotion etc as the underpinning of 'animal rights'. Personally, I have never been attracted by that line of thought. To my mind it is anthropocentric in that is uses 'similarity to us' as the reason for treating animals well. This thinking is deeply embedded as evidenced by the very first sentence in Angier's article and the general thrust of the whole article.

    My preference is for a philosophy that treats everything around us with respect - whether sentient or not; whether similar to us or not; etc. A rock deserves as much respect as a chimpanzee. This is far from a new philosophy of course. It has been part of Eastern philosophies for centuries but it has never had any traction in the West. Why? I'll come to that later.

    But, if one accepts the philosophy of broad respect, and also accepts the fact that we have to eat something, then 'ethical' food choices should depend on whether that food has been raised and treated with due respect not whether it is plant or animal, sentient or not, biologically sophisticated or not. Under this philosophy, this new information that is being put forward is irrelevant to one's food choices.

    However, this is not how we seem to behave. The idea of sentience as driving ethical choices is embedded. Further, some seem to believe that only sentience as defined through the methods of traditional western science matters. So, although we have had many writings in different disciplines in the past about plants, their importance to humans in many ways, how people believe they are sentient, etc, our western culture largely ignores that. Only when science partially catches up and starts coming up with 'evidence' of sentience are we supposed to get excited and start re-considering our ethical choices.

    This post-Enlightenment primacy of Science in our western culture causes us to dis-respect things about which we are scientifically ignorant. Only when Science has something to say do we listen. And this is one reason why the eastern philosophies of broad respect - a concept that is mystical and philosophical rather than scientific - never gets traction in the west.

    In response to Giovanni's question as to whether this new information is interesting and worth pursuing, my view is that it is. New knowledge expressed within the scientific paradigm is, to me, always interesting and may eventually be found to be practically useful. So I find the new information interesting in providing one more perspective on life on Earth. But it makes no difference whatsoever to my own world view or my own definition of ethical choices. Neither do I give this information any special primacy because it is phrased in the language of science rather than other languages we speak.

  11. I'm not responding to the article directly.

    But living in Southeast Asia with an interest in trees and in wood, it occurs to me how not all plants are equal. Some trees for example are experienced as familiars-- perhaps because they stand tall and vertical (like us) and ascribed a sentience/wisdom that is greater than other plants.

    This is the case both in historic or vernacular tree lore, evidenced in beliefs in various kinds of tree spirits throughout the archipelago, and also in the representational iconography of ecological activism:

    There are regular comments and images in mass media and online postings about logging and deforestation, which evoke the slaughter of animals:
    The "wounds" created by the chainsaw; Logs and sawn planks are depicted stacked up like corpses and so forth.

    Perhaps indeed this anthro/zoopomorphism is leading us somewhere--to a "way of knowing" trees. But there appear to be representational differentiations, hierarchies between more and less familiar, more or less charismatic plants.

    And then there are of course differences between wild plants and trees, the rainforest and plantation plants.

    Palm oil is evil invasive, destructive. Rubber regimented.

    Teak is interesting as teak was the palm oil of the 16 and 17 century, responsible for the destruction of large areas of Indonesian rainforest when introduced as plantation timber crop from Burma and India. But now teak trees are venerated in their own right, ascribed konservasi conservation status.

  12. I find myself in strong agreement with Joe Zammit-Lucia’s perspectives on the relevance of the new evidence concerning plants and also embrace the view that our dependency on scientific knowledge leads us to dis-respect beings about which we are scientifically ignorant. From this perspective I do not necessarily believe that understanding or valuing something may not involve eating that something. The opposite is indeed true. Culinary knowledge is also a form of “knowledge of nature” and to some of us it is the only direct form of knowledge concerning the living that one may desire. I do not necessarily believe that eating something is a form of disrespect for something. Native Americans (and other cultures) thanked the food they ate and respected the animals they killed for they indeed appreciated the values of the lives which were lost in order to provide nourishment. One can indeed eat and value in recognition that life, on this planet, relies on the eating of something for its substantiation, whether animal or vegetable. Hunting, as artists Bryndis Bjornsdottir and Mark Wilson have demonstrated through their artworks is also a form knowledge creation which however ends in the killing of the animal itself.
    As previously said, I have never read the article as invitation to eat animals instead of plants and believe the author never makes a case for this. I think the article interestingly brings us to think on what grounds one may decide what to eat.
    Erica Fudge and Tom Tyler also have carefully evaluated the pros and cons of anthropomorphism and I am very aware that both have mainly thought it through the animals with which we have been forging relationships for millennia. Pets and farm animals belong to a different category altogether, in my opinion. Our closeness with them has influenced our relational modes in such way that there may be no way to effectively mark the boundaries of anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic traits. When it comes to cats and dogs, one may argue that the entire relationship is shaped by anthropomorphism and that pet owners are not interested in other kinds of knowledge for the cat and the dog are no longer non-human animals but something else altogether. Here anthropomorphism may be a productive avenue for the animal involved has entered a sort of becoming-human anyway. However, when it comes to cold-blooded animals and even plants, then the lens of anthropomorphism can be indeed counterproductive, limiting and distortive. I indeed do not believe that anthropomorphism “may actually reflect a very accurate way of knowing” because accuracy simply cannot be the quality of anthropomorphism in that anthropomorphism is too much reliant on subjectivity. This is the very problem of anthropomorphism. At a stretch, from a structuralist perspective, I think anthropomorphism could be equated to culinary knowledge, where the knowledge of the animal is indeed a form of “knowing” but it is largely relying on personal and cultural taste.

  13. This is why I find utilitarianism becomes almost completely meaningless if we try to practice it on a massive scale. I have enough trouble figuring out what my own interests are, and am probably wrong about that more than half the time. How can I hope to identify, much less balance, the interests of wolves, frogs, chickens, beetles, trees, and so on? It's crazy!
    Boria Sax

  14. If we say that "anthropomorphism" consists of imputing human traits to animals or plants, we raise the question of, "What are 'human' traits?" There are as many kinds of anthropomorphism as there are people.

    Another way to think of anthropomorphism is as a merging of identity with other beings. As we contemplate, touch, speak to, or eat, other forms of life, we seem to merge with them, both as individuals and as representatives of humankind.

  15. I agree wholeheartedly with Giovanni that eating something is not necessarily a form of disrespect - that line of thinking would not lead us anywhere productive. Hunting for food is, in my opinion, much more desirable than, say, battery farming. None of us would suggest, for instance that the lion is disprespectful of the zebra he has just killed for food. Or the giraffe disrespectful of the trees she is munching on, or the Venus fly-trap disrespectful of the fly.

    But I think the discussion about anthropomorphism is worthy of further discussion.

    "However, when it comes to cold-blooded animals and even plants, then the lens of anthropomorphism can be indeed counterproductive, limiting and distortive." I am interested in understanding this viewpoint further ie the dividing line between when anthropomorphism is useful vs not and why there should be that line.

    I am drawn to Boria's idea of 'merging' and would love to hear more as to where that has been explored.

    I also find myself drawn to Carol's perspective: "I am not so interested in "moving as far away as possible from anthropomorphic approaches", though I am interested in moving away from anthropocentric approaches."

    One way of looking at this is that anthropomorphism is simply one approach to help us empathize and maybe 'understand' those that are unlike us (Boria's merging being one form of expression of this). I know many will disagree with the use of 'understand' in this context, but, not to labour the point, I believe that that is because our cultural concept of understanding has become almost totally hijacked by science. Science has become primary in what we define as 'knowledge' or 'understanding' and the natural sciences have rejected anthropomorphism as a form of understanding, replacing it by their own paradigms and arbitrary structures that represent 'the truth' - or so the Nietzschean power structure of science would have us believe.

    Like Carol, I am more bothered by anthropocentrism than anthropomorphism. The former puts humans at the centre of the universe and subordinates all else. This I believe to be harmful. I do not see anthropomorphism as harmful but merely a way of seeing that is somewhat inevitable since as we are all human.

    Giovanni, I am not sure I fully understand the view which you expressed on anthropomorphism. If one contends that anthropomorphism is 'distortive' what lens are we offering in its place that is non-distortive and therefore represents 'truth' or 'reality'? If anthropomorphism is 'subjective', what are we putting forward in its stead that is 'objective' and, presumably therefore 'true'?

    Personally, I take a post-structuralist view of all this and have difficulty buying into the idea of an objective truth. I believe that what we can usefully strive for is to develop different ways of seeing or 'understanding' without believing that one of those ways represents the truth and the others do not. Anthropomorphism is one such way.

  16. It is my understanding that the animal/plant binary that continues to frame many conceptions of life on Earth has been shown by microbiologists, for some time now, to be erroneous. All life on Earth is known to be composed of either nucleated cells (making them eukaryotes) or non-nucleated cells (making them prokaryotes). The first group includes plants, fungi, and animals - three broad groups with fuzzy borders owing to their shared cellular heritage. The second group includes bacteria. Considered on a cellular level, eating a plant is not so different from eating an animal, since it is ultimately a case of one eukaryote consuming another eukaryote. Of course, the question of how much of our daily experience of life we wish to consider in terms of its cellular basis remains very much open to question.

    More to the point, debates about the sentience of animals, plants and fungi seem consistently problematised by the requirement to "rethink" what is meant by fundamental terms such as "sentience," primarily because of the incessant wariness of fallacies and mistakes attributable to anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism. However, if we consider ourselves Darwinists, then it should be relatively unproblematic to apprehend the likelihood that a range of continuities (morphological and mental) extends throughout all eukaryotic life forms. I'm not saying we're there yet, but to me, it seems this is the only possible outcome of our current philsophical and biological paradigm.

  17. Following on from Joe's entry, I just wanted to explain further my perspective on anthropomorphism. In identifying anthropomorphism as limiting and distorting I do not wish to automatically claim that there is an objective or "true" approach that could be used instead. Of course, ultimately everything is seen by us and therefore is in one way or the other distorted. One can argue that truth does not exist. My argument is about differentiation in approaches in the consideration of bio-diversity and the challenges that bio-diversity poses. As I mentioned, anthropomorphism may work in productive ways with mammals and especially with pets and farm animals. And this is largely due to the fact that a human-animal becoming has characterized such such relationships. The same cannot be said for relationships between humans and snakes or frogs for instance. There is a need to define different approaches for the relational involved with these animals - "those who do not return the gaze".
    Turning to eastern cultures and philosophical approaches has become more and more a feature in the questioning of our western ways based on the logocentric emphasis on culture which thus far has prevented a consistent shift from an ‘I-centerdness’ humanist position. The work of Kinji Imanishi, a Japanese ecologist and anthropologist, founder of Kyoto University's Primate Research Institute suggested a different relational model with nature as early as in 1941. In his book, A Japanese View of Nature, Imanishi re-thinks our understanding of animals, environment and humans by outlining a holistic cosmos where animals are integral part of environmental systems and environments are seen as extensions of living things. The work of Imanishi is of particular interest as it operates across the fields of biology and philosophy, whilst pioneering views that today have come to the fore of ecological concerns. In the chapter Similarity and Difference of the book, Imanishi explains that: “The category of living things includes both, animals and plants, advanced and primitive things, and many in between; each inhabits its own world and leads a particular life so that each living thing should be studied in its own proper perspective”.
    Which new methodological approach to use is for us to find out and develop. What I am suggesting is not that there may be a "truer" counterpart to anthropomorphism, but that we can develop, in conjunction with scientific knowledge (something anthropomorphism does not do) something alternative that may bridge the wide abyss between us and cold blooded animals and plants.
    Jakob von Uexküll offered an interesting opportunity for a change in attitudes towards animals in general and moreover so towards those taxonomically distant beings as he formulated the concept of Umwelt whilst studying ticks at the beginning of 1900. His interest in the infinite variety of perceptual worlds of imperscrutable animals drove him to develop the concept in order to avoid being trapped in the false knowledge imposed by human judgement, anthropomorphism and the superimposition of human values. Agamben describes Umvelt as follows:

    "Where classical science saw a single world that comprised within it all living species hierarchically ordered from the most elementary forms up to the higher organisms, Uexkull instead supposes an infinite variety of perceptual worlds that, though they are uncommunicating and reciprocally exclusive, are all equally perfect and linked together as if in a gigantic musical score".

    Would there be an opportunity to expand or adapt this concept to different species and even plants?

  18. Here's a link to a recent BBC report on ability of plants to "remember." Apart from the reported findings, it's interesting to note the use of hesitant scare quotes throughout the article.

  19. I strongly agree with the remarks by Joel Zammit-Lucia about sentience. Drawing a moral line at sentience, with the implication that non-sentient beings warrant no direct moral consideration, is an unsatisfactory moral theory. Adam Dodd’s point about continuity is also well put. Once one accepts the idea that non-sentient beings (as well as ecological systems, and so on) warrant moral consideration in their own right—-which is to say that it is small-minded to view such things as “mere” resources—-one can see that even if Angier’s description of plants is “merely” anthropomorphic, this wouldn’t justify dismissing plants from moral attention and concern. I agree that the title of Angier’s piece ultimately distracts from the value of her work, insofar as an account of the biological complexity of plants is the sort of writing that can open up a person to seeing plants anew (see below). She reveals in her article that plants can be seen as exhibiting what Albert Schweitzer described as the “will to live” manifest in all living beings--something to which he insisted we should cultivate an attitude of reverence.

    As for Angier’s reservations about “[cedeing] the entire moral penthouse to ‘committed vegetarians’ and ‘strong ethical vegans,’” I think the point to make here is one that Thoreau made, which is that no dietary habit or restriction, in itself, makes one virtuous, because virtue in consumption depends not only upon what one eats, but also how one eats—and even a vegetarian or vegan could consume without respect for one’s food, or oneself (e.g. in a spirit of indifference on the one hand or gluttony on the other). Thoreau: “A puritan may go to his brown-bread crust with as gross an appetite as ever an alderman to his turtle. Not that food which entereth into the mouth defileth a man, but the appetite with which it is eaten” (Walden, “Higher Laws”). One could thus extend the critique of those who attempt to justify eating animals on the ground that “they’re just animals” to the case of plants by pointing out that the claim, “they’re just plants,” is equally dismissive. This doesn’t mean one should resist eating plants (or, some would argue, animals either), but rather that one cannot eat respectfully if one’s rationalizations rest on the logic of dismissal: “it’s just an X.” Such an attitude is incompatible not only with respect, but also with training one’s eye toward the amazing intricacy of even the most ordinary things. In my view, cultivating that sensibility is an essential part of moral and spiritual development.

    Matthew Pianalto
    Department of Philosophy & Religion
    Eastern Kentucky University

  20. Giovanni, I take your points. I guess we can agree to disagree about anthropomorphism. Maybe an Antennae issue devoted to the subject could be interesting?

    As regards "the false knowledge imposed by human judgement", is science not precisely that?

    I guess reading these posts, I am led to reflect on why, individually, we are interested in these things. My own interest is not philosophical or academic but practical. I am interested in how we can create a solid, sustainable and 'sellable' underpinning for an improved human relationship with 'nature' and 'the environment' (we won't get into trying to define those!). It is from this perspective that I see prejudice against anthropomorphism as counter-productive besides, in my opinion, being poorly grounded.

    As to the issue of 'returning the gaze', here are two quotes. The first is from Sir David Attenborough - a scientist no less:

    “there is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know….We see the world the same way they do.”

    I find this statement self delusional in the extreme. On the other hand I find myself in sympathy with Berger's view:

    “The animal scrutinizes [Man] across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension… The man too is looking across a similar, but not identical, abyss of non-comprehension…He is always looking across ignorance and fear.”

    I believe this applies equally to a gorilla and a lizard or a fish that one exchanges long gazes with when scuba diving.

    I am also intrigued by Matthew's comment that "an account of the biological complexity of plants is the sort of writing that can open up a person to seeing plants anew". This is one of the valuable things that scientific description (I am trying to avoid the word 'knowledge') can do - as in Angier's article. But ultimately, it's not the scientific description that matters but our ability to open our minds to seeing things anew and, eventually, to grant them respect. If science be the trigger for that, all well and good. Any other trigger welcome.

  21. "Any other trigger welcome."

    Joe: Yes, I agree. (And perhaps it should be added that "seeing anew" here is connected to something like renewing one's ability to see things with a sense of wonder.)

  22. Just as a follow up to Joe's Attenborough quote. I have been interested in Attenborough's anthropomorphism for a number of years now. He seems to maintain a deeply unstable position on the matter. Apart from his comments about gorillas, he has also said this about spiders (in 2005):

    "I think the thing that surprises you is that when you watch invertebrates normally, say spiders, you think, 'well, they're just spiders and mechanical little creatures,' but when you start to film them, you discover they have individual personalities...I mean, you can watch spiders of the same species, and some are lazy, some are hard working, some don't like light. They all have personalities, there's no doubt about it."

    Here we have a great example of how turning one's close attention to a nonhuman animal results in the emergent apprehension of nonhuman personality - even in an animal as "mechanical" as a spider.

  23. Yes an Antennae issue on the subject should certainly arise in the near future. About your point on my sentence: "the false knowledge imposed by human judgement", is science not precisely that?" I would argue that the main differences between anthropomorphic approaches and scientific approaches lay in that the latter relies on methodologies that are tested and recognized or agreed upon (or dismissed) by a inter-communicating community. Anthropomorphism doesn't follow a methodological approach that can be tried and tested. As such I would not confuse the kinds of "falsity" they produce, for they are very different indeed.
    I am also very interested in Adam's quote of Attenborough for it poses an interesting point: that of the personality within the species. How are we to understand such differences between animals of a same species, is indeed a challenge. Although the use of the work "mechanical" is greatly problematic here, there is something underneath the surface for sure. Nobody would deny that cats and dogs have personality beyond their species identity and I would assume that the same could indeed be said for spiders or other insects. However, how are we to measure, judge, understand these differences is a challenge. But it is, as a starting point important to not deny these agencies to invertebrates just because we have cannot notice them directly. Furthermore, can the concept of "personality" be applied to plant or would we be falling straight back into anthropomorphism?

  24. Giovanni, it is not clear to me that there is any way that the very word 'personality' and its direct derivation from 'person' can in any way be separated from an anthropomorphic interpretation of what we see - whatever species it is applied to other than the human. But, in my opinion, talk of personality is no less valuable for that.

    A further discussion about the framework that you put forward for defining the scientific approach would be fascinating but it would need lots of space and I'm not sure it fits within the intent of this particular blog. So I won't pursue it unless it is felt that going down what would be a very extensive sidetrack would be productive here.

  25. Dear Joe,
    In my last sentence I do not refer to the "word" personality, but the "associated concept". The two differ. Maybe using the word "individuality" would better aid the concept I expressed in the last entry.
    With regards to the "scientific approach" I would not want to be seen as stirring the conversation in any specific direction, however this specific entry is part of a project that will be published on a forthcoming issue of Antennae and therefore there is somewhat of a pressure to keep it (albeit relatively) on topic. Under different circumstances I would very much like to see conversations developing in a very free way.

  26. Antennae Blog Post.

    I’ve just read the discussion right through; an experience certainly of seeing something living, but not so much of watching one singular thing grow and flourish as of experiencing various shoots: vigorous, alive, quickening. It’s this reading experience of the discussion itself as something vegetable that inspired me to comment.

    I think that Giovanni's early injunction to think about the form of the original article is important here. He says that the function of a newspaper piece is, effectively, to inform (i.e. about new salient empirical information about plant ontology). But he also raises the issue of rhetoric and the pragmatics of communication, by asking "How else would [it] engage a wide audience on such topic?". I believe that the form of Angier's piece does indeed frame how it can be read and received...and not in a good way (as they say). For example, its rhetorical effects are gained by overplaying false binary oppositions (human-animal; vegan-omnivore; mammal-plant) in order to situate the knowledge she wants to impart in n context that readers will recognise. That context (the ethics of meat-eating) is itself by now so over-determined that adequate public discussion of it is nearly impossible; instead such basically flawed oppositions consistently form the logic by which it makes sense in the public sphere.

    The underlying question that the article poses—we’ve thought about animals, what about plants? —is crucial; but it is not well served by its rhetorical-logical form. This is because the binary conceptual network immunises against the real threats that thinking about plants might pose. How much is all of our thinking about ethics conditioned by the synatx of subjectivity and action/passivity that language can't avoid? How do we make any decisions at all in a world that is made up of multiple and heterogeneuos relations of difference and similarity, rather than identity? Similarly I think the question of whether or not anthropomorphism is (just) anthropocentrism relies on too simple a conception of representation that assumes a too rigid opposition between the (inhuman) object world and the (human) representing subject. I would much rather argue that all representation is fundamentally inhuman, both its functioning and its objects are perpetually beyond our capability.

    So: I’m essentially unhappy with the newspaper opinion piece itself as an ‘organ’ for this kind of thinking. Does the form of the blog comment discussion offer something different? Most people have launched their post in explicit response to one or two of the other posts, with points to make, and each contributor has had really valuable things to say (not unlike Angier). But the blog’s ongoing discussion format formally undermines the idea that debate might produce a single answer on how ‘humans’ should live in the world with plants, because unlike Angier’s piece the full discussion archive makes a mockery of the idea that any one utterance can respond adequately to the total field of opinion. So thanks to Giovanni for starting the discussion forum going. But what about other forms beyond this? We’re used to “plastic” arts: maybe we need vegetable arts?

  27. Hi Giovanni, I understand that you were referring to the concept. I guess my point, not very well made in my post, was that we cannot really avoid thinking and communicating in a human-defined way. So 'individuality' is a human-defined concept and, even among humans, has a meaning that is different in different human cultures. It is likely to mean something totally different among ants or plants than among humans but we can only talk about it in our way and apply it to ants. Or, looking at it another way, we can only look at ants or plants and interpret within a limited set of human constructs. The search for objectivity is futile and delusional and interpreting things within the arbitrarily constructed and self-referential human framework of science does not get us any closer to such objectivity.

    As Memoring points out "How much is all of our thinking about ethics conditioned by the syntax of subjectivity and action/passivity that language can't avoid?"

    I suspect that we are all in agreement with Memoring's point that the debate will not "produce a single answer on how ‘humans’ should live in the world with plants". As he suggests, the value of such a debate is to show exactly the opposite - that there is no single answer and that we should be open to looking through very many different windows rather than attempting to find 'the answer' or to give one or two windows of the world some sort of primacy over others.

  28. "The search for objectivity is futile and delusional and interpreting things within the arbitrarily constructed and self-referential human framework of science does not get us any closer to such objectivity."

    This strikes me as overstated. Let's recall Angier's article. We have wonderful descriptions of the complex activity of plants in relation to the surrounding environment; the claims about the physiology are, or legitimately aspire to be, objective. Now it's true that questions about "objectivity" arise when this activity (or behavior, if you prefer) gets described with language (and particularly verbs) that usually imply intentionality (or subjectivity).

    Charitably, perhaps what you (Joe) mean by the futility of the search for objectivity is the search for objective criteria for ascribing agency (or intentionality or subjectivity) to other beings, and perhaps along with this the search for an objective criteria for determining the "moral standing" of some being. The point then would be, I take it, that the model of objectivity that's useful, say, in chemistry (or something like that) should not be a universal model (or standard) for all of our judgments, beliefs, and ascriptions. And with that I certainly agree.

    Are plants "agents"? Let's look at Angier's article. It certainly doesn't seem that forced to use some intentional language, but perhaps what makes some people uncomfortable about all of this (and maybe this is connected to your remark about objectivity) is that it's very hard (impossible?) to determine just where "scientific description" ends and "poetic/metaphorical flourish" begins. Maybe this is why a newspaper seems an odd place for her piece--she's not just "reporting facts" but also allowing her poetic imagination to frame facts about plants in a way that throws into question the easy assumption that plants have no agency. Facts matter. But what we make of them also matters (and so poetry matters). And it's right to remind us that what we make of them (normatively speaking) never follows merely from the facts themselves.

    Maybe an interesting thought here is that if we take the facts about plants that Angier gives as true "news" to many readers (and Angier), then it is not surprising that the present language is ill-suited to capture in any non-contentious way the possible significance of these new discoveries. (So in a certain way, we could see the poet as someone trying to find a way to make language "fit" the world--to get it to fit--and faithfully express--the novel and the strange, which is hard, since language is predominantly shaped by the everyday and the mundane. And perhaps that includes most of the language one finds in the newspaper...)

  29. There are a few distinctions there to be made, Joe. I do not think anyone is here advocating a search for "objectivity". The opposite is indeed true. The question of the plant, or that of the insect, poses a further question for new methodological approaches. Of course these will be in some ways informed by the human condition. That should not however prevent us from attempting to shape new methodological approaches, instead of relying on what is already there. Ultimately, as anthropomorphism does not work with plants and insects, we simply do not engage with them on other levels than the objectival/scientific. As you rightly point out at the end of your entry, "there is no single answer and that we should be open to looking through very many different windows rather than attempting to find the 'answer'. However I think we can safely say that when it comes to plants and insects, one window is all we currently really have and that is 'the scientific'. At present it seems to me that the only other window available is the anthropomorphic, which in this case has a very misty pane.

  30. "Facts matter. But what we make of them also matters". This is the crux of the matter.

    First I’d like to elaborate on what I mean by the futile search for objectivity. Science, like all other human disciplines, is a cultural construct. Let’s move away from science and take accounting as an example. Accounting is a set of conventions that let us to describe the financial state of an entity in a way that allows us to understand the same things by the same words and numbers. The trouble starts when we start to believe that accounts somehow give us a set of ‘facts’ rather than merely a set of descriptions within an arbitrarily defined set of conventions. A new set of conventions might well convert these ‘facts’ into lies. That is the limitation of any arbitrary construct.

    Now take science. We have defined what we mean by the ‘molecule’. Then we assign it something that we call ‘weight’. Then we claim that the molecular weight of sodium is a ‘fact’. It is nothing of the sort. It is a description (a legitimate one) within a set of cultural constructs that we call chemistry. It is only a ‘fact’ within those self-referential constructs.

    I have nothing against these different constructs. Indeed, they are essential. But I feel we must not lose sight of what they are. I prefer to think of them as a language that allows description and communication in terms that are generally understandable. I take a post-structuralist view of language and am not convinced by the idea that we are being presented with ‘objective facts’. Hence my comments that the search for facts is futile.

    Moving on to Angier's article, it has, broadly, 3 components. The first is observational and descriptive. She describes things about plants and does so using the arbitrary language of science. The second stage is interpretative. She takes these descriptions and suggests that a possible interpretation is that plants are 'sentient'. She does not grapple with what it means to be ‘sentient’ but instead uses a new language that encourages a whole lot of cultural baggage in the interpretation. She makes a statement like “Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help.” She borrows the language of science (‘compounds’; ‘mastication’; ‘feedback’) and then abandons it for the sting in the tail which she couches in emotive terms. By calling them ‘cries for help’, she is poetically tempting us into the concept that plants are ‘sentient’. Throughout the article, she uses words like ‘howl’, and ‘eavesdrop’ – anthropomorphic interpretations designed to ensnare us in the idea of plant sentience. Finally, the third step - she hints at the idea that, if we buy into the idea of plant sentience, this may have some implications in terms of normative ethics relative to our behaviour towards plants.

    In this sequence, science has only informed the first step - that of observation and description. At best, this constitutes ‘information’. "Knowledge" comes only from the next two steps: interpretation and implications.

    In this context, I still fail to grasp the idea that we have only science (which science?) to grapple with plant and insect issues. Surely many other disciplines including philosophy, art, literature, economics, etc have addressed many relevant issues. Through the natural sciences, we have descriptions of the morphology, structure, chemical, cellular, molecular and sub-molecular components of plants and insects. We also have descriptions of their functions, physiology, behaviours, physical mechanics, and so on and so forth. But where does all this get us in terms of creating a normative ethics of how we engage with plants and insects. Precisely nowhere.

  31. Joe, I think it's worth keeping mind that the term "fact" is derived from the Latin "factum" meaning "that which is made or done." A fact is thus never something "discovered," but rather is always something produced or enacted. From the early modern period, artificial knowledge becomes supplementary to (and in some cases, replaces) Aristotle's self-evident or natural knowledge. That knowledge is artificial (ie, made by humans) in no way compromises its truth, within the scientific episteme established some 400 years ago.

  32. Thanks Adam. Fair point. I guess as long as we remain conscious that scientific 'facts' and 'truth' change over time, then we can just accept them for what they are.

    Not to stray more than we already have from the subject of this blog, I thought that this viewpoint from Peter Singer may be pertinent to Angier's piece:

    "they use language metaphorically and then argue as if what they said was literally true. We may often talk about plants 'seeking' water or light so they can survive, and this way of thinking about plants makes it easier to accept talk of their 'will to live', or of them 'pursuing' their own good. But once we stop to reflect on the fact that plants are not conscious and cannot engage in any intentional behaviour, it is clear that all this language is metaphorical; one might as well say that a river is pursuing its own good and striving to reach the sea, or that the 'good' of a guided missile is to blow itself up along with its target."

    As I said before, I don't hold with Singer's view of only according respect/rights/whatever to sentient beings but I think that his excerpt above is relevant to Angier's piece where, except through the use of metaphorical language, the piece provides no evidence whatsoever of sentience or intentional behaviour in plants.

  33. I am afraid that I do not find Singer's view particularly helpful here for the simple fact that his comparison between plants, rivers and missiles is, with all respect, ludicrous. Simply put, missiles are man-made objects; plants are not. Rivers are ecosystems; plants are not. Plants are living beings; Animals are living beings too.
    The main issue at stake here is that Singer is talking about plants from the same position that Descartes would have taken with regards to animals in his own time. Where does Singer find evidence that plants are not conscious and do not engage in intentional behaviour? I would be very curious to know.

    I am copying below the introduction to a recently published essay by the title "The ‘root-brain’ hypothesis of Charles and Francis Darwin Revival after more than 125 years" (František Baluška, Stefano Mancuso, Dieter Volkmann and Peter W. Barlow, Plant Signaling & Behavior 4:12, 1121-1127; December 2009; © 2009 Landes Bioscience)

    "Recent advances in plant molecular biology, cellular biology, electrophysiology and ecology, unmask plants as sensory and
    communicative organisms, characterized by active, problemsolving
    behavior. This new view of plants is considered controversial
    by several plant scientists. At the heart of this problem
    is a failure to appreciate different living time-scales: plants
    generally do not move from the spot where they first became
    rooted, whereas animals are constantly changing their location.
    Nevertheless, both animals and plants show movements
    of their organs; but, as mentioned, these take place at greatly
    different rates. Present day results, however, are increasingly
    coming to show that, in contrast with the classical view, plants
    are definitely not passive automatic organisms"

  34. Giovanni, yes I agree Peter Singer's passage is weak. It is also circular in that the argument he uses to underpin the fact that plants are not sentient is that they are not sentient.

    But the reason I posted it here is that I believe his point about the use of metaphorical language and passing it for fact is absolutely right - and Angier's article is a prime example.

    Personally, I am excited by the idea of plant sentience. But I find that Angier's article totally unconvincing in pushing me further in that direction. If we stripped the article down to the scientific descriptions only, I am sure that we could all re-write the article and use the same science as an argument against plant sentience. It would be easy to do.

    The passage that you put forward in your last post is also full of metaphor. Of course without reading the full paper it is impossible to know whether the metaphor is a reflection of the science or whether it is metaphor a la Angier.

    Be all that as it may, as I said in my first post, in my opinion if the objective of all this is to define what might be 'appropriate' human behaviours towards plants, then I believe that the debate about sentience is the wrong debate to be having as it further embeds the idea that sentience is the determining factor for our ethical choices. The longer the debate about sentience, the further this idea becomes embedded. To my mind, that's undesirable and counter-productive.

  35. Adam - just one more comment about 'facts' and 'truth'. My comments were in the context of what are commonly referred to as 'scientific facts' or 'scientific truth' rather than some other context of truth. I am very pro-science but as regards the interpretation of scientific truth, I find myself sitting somewhere on the spectrum between Thomas Kuhn and the cultural relativists (with my point on that spectrum being variable and largely driven by my mood of the day). I am not sure how many people still take a positivist view of scientific facts - though it seems to me that many scientists would like the common man to take a positivist view of their trade.

  36. Joe - I assumed your comments were placed within the scientific context, hence the nature of my reply. My view is that 'fact' and 'truth' are not interchangeable terms, though they certainly are often used as if they were. Modern scientists tend to state (and we see evidence of this position stretching back to early modern monographs) that science might not be capable of revealing 'the truth', but it can certainly produce facts, which are at any one time 'the best we've got.' And of course, Kuhn emphasises that facts must be overthrown from time to time in order for scientific knowledge to maintain momentum. Nevertheless, I do take your point that there are some scientific facts that are positioned as unassailable - speciation through natural selection being one that immediately springs to mind.

  37. Hi Adam. I think we are broadly in agreement. I do, however, believe that the usual interpretation of 'fact' in common parlance implies a degree of immutability - an approximation to 'truth' if you like. The one thing that we do know for sure is that scientific fact is anything but immutable. True, at any one time a scientific fact may be the best we've got but it's also almost certain to turn out, in due course, to be classified as 'wrong'. So, to my mind, qualifying the noun 'fact' with 'scientific' makes that fact changeable and, therefore, a weaker form of 'fact' than is the common interpretation of the unqualified term. This in addition to my previous comments of the idea that 'facts' are defined within arbitrary and artificial (though useful) constructs - constructs which (as per Kuhn) both define (and limit) the very way that scientists are able to conceive of their 'facts' and constructs which, from time to time, change bringing down the whole edifice - only for it to be replaced by the next house of cards which is then put forward with equal conviction and, dare I say it, a degree of scientific arrogance.

    And with sincere apologies to Giovanni for hijacking his thread on to this tangent. But I guess such is the nature of online threads.

    Happy Holidays to all.

  38. Hi Joe, I agree that we are in broad agreement :).
    However I am not so certain that scientific facts will turn out, in due course, to be classified as 'wrong.' Perhaps I am simply not prepared to go to the end by insisting that because a scientific fact is a cultural construct, that it is inherently able to be demonstrated as 'wrong,' if only we know how to do this. Speciation through natural selection, the Earth's orbit around the Sun...these are very big facts which I simply cannot comprehend as ever being considered 'wrong.' They may come to be seen as relatively unrefined in the future, but wrong - in the sense that they present a false account of the world - I am not so sure.

    Apologies from me also for taking this away from plants - but I think there is a basic relevance here.

    Merry Xmas All!