Saturday, August 19, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

No one I spoke to in the loose, interdisciplinary group of scientists working on plant intelligence claims that plants have telekinetic powers or feel emotions. Nor does anyone believe that we will locate a walnut-shaped organ somewhere in plants which processes sensory data and directs plant behavior. More likely, in the scientists’ view, intelligence in plants resembles that exhibited in insect colonies, where it is thought to be an emergent property of a great many mindless individuals organized in a network. Much of the research on plant intelligence has been inspired by the new science of networks, distributed computing, and swarm behavior, which has demonstrated some of the ways in which remarkably brainy behavior can emerge in the absence of actual brains..

“If you are a plant, having a brain is not an advantage,” Stefano Mancuso points out. Mancuso is perhaps the field’s most impassioned spokesman for the plant point of view. A slight, bearded Calabrian in his late forties, he comes across more like a humanities professor than like a scientist. When I visited him earlier this year at the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, at the University of Florence, he told me that his conviction that humans grossly underestimate plants has its origins in a science-fiction story he remembers reading as a teen-ager. A race of aliens living in a radically sped-up dimension of time arrive on Earth and, unable to detect any movement in humans, come to the logical conclusion that we are “inert material” with which they may do as they please. The aliens proceed ruthlessly to exploit us. (Mancuso subsequently wrote to say that the story he recounted was actually a mangled recollection of an early “Star Trek” episode called “Wink of an Eye.”).

In Mancuso’s view, our “fetishization” of neurons, as well as our tendency to equate behavior with mobility, keeps us from appreciating what plants can do. For instance, since plants can’t run away and frequently get eaten, it serves them well not to have any irreplaceable organs. “A plant has a modular design, so it can lose up to ninety per cent of its body without being killed,” he said. “There’s nothing like that in the animal world. It creates a resilience.”

Indeed, many of the most impressive capabilities of plants can be traced to their unique existential predicament as beings rooted to the ground and therefore unable to pick up and move when they need something or when conditions turn unfavorable. The “sessile life style,” as plant biologists term it, calls for an extensive and nuanced understanding of one’s immediate environment, since the plant has to find everything it needs, and has to defend itself, while remaining fixed in place. A highly developed sensory apparatus is required to locate food and identify threats. Plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five: smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light as well as to shadow); touch (a vine or a root “knows” when it encounters a solid object); and, it has been discovered, sound. In a recent experiment, Heidi Appel, a chemical ecologist at the University of Missouri, found that, when she played a recording of a caterpillar chomping a leaf for a plant that hadn’t been touched, the sound primed the plant’s genetic machinery to produce defense chemicals. Another experiment, done in Mancuso’s lab and not yet published, found that plant roots would seek out a buried pipe through which water was flowing even if the exterior of the pipe was dry, which suggested that plants somehow “hear” the sound of flowing water..

The sensory capabilities of plant roots fascinated Charles Darwin, who in his later years became increasingly passionate about plants; he and his son Francis performed scores of ingenious experiments on plants. Many involved the root, or radicle, of young plants, which the Darwins demonstrated could sense light, moisture, gravity, pressure, and several other environmental qualities, and then determine the optimal trajectory for the root’s growth. The last sentence of Darwin’s 1880 book, “The Power of Movement in Plants,” has assumed scriptural authority for some plant neurobiologists: “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle . . . having the power of directing the movements of the adjoining parts, acts like the brain of one of the lower animals; the brain being seated within the anterior end of the body, receiving impressions from the sense organs and directing the several movements.” Darwin was asking us to think of the plant as a kind of upside-down animal, with its main sensory organs and “brain” on the bottom, underground, and its sexual organs on top.


The sessile life style also helps account for plants’ extraordinary gift for biochemistry, which far exceeds that of animals and, arguably, of human chemists. (Many drugs, from aspirin to opiates, derive from compounds designed by plants.) Unable to run away, plants deploy a complex molecular vocabulary to signal distress, deter or poison enemies, and recruit animals to perform various services for them. A recent study in Science found that the caffeine produced by many plants may function not only as a defense chemical, as had previously been thought, but in some cases as a psychoactive drug in their nectar. The caffeine encourages bees to remember a particular plant and return to it, making them more faithful and effective pollinators..

One of the most productive areas of plant research in recent years has been plant signalling. Since the early nineteen-eighties, it has been known that when a plant’s leaves are infected or chewed by insects they emit volatile chemicals that signal other leaves to mount a defense. Sometimes this warning signal contains information about the identity of the insect, gleaned from the taste of its saliva. Depending on the plant and the attacker, the defense might involve altering the leaf’s flavor or texture, or producing toxins or other compounds that render the plant’s flesh less digestible to herbivores. When antelopes browse acacia trees, the leaves produce tannins that make them unappetizing and difficult to digest. When food is scarce and acacias are overbrowsed, it has been reported, the trees produce sufficient amounts of toxin to kill the animals..

Perhaps the cleverest instance of plant signalling involves two insect species, the first in the role of pest and the second as its exterminator. Several species, including corn and lima beans, emit a chemical distress call when attacked by caterpillars. Parasitic wasps some distance away lock in on that scent, follow it to the afflicted plant, and proceed to slowly destroy the caterpillars. Scientists call these insects “plant bodyguards.”.


“I define it very simply,” Mancuso said. “Intelligence is the ability to solve problems.” In place of a brain, “what I am looking for is a distributed sort of intelligence, as we see in the swarming of birds.” In a flock, each bird has only to follow a few simple rules, such as maintaining a prescribed distance from its neighbor, yet the collective effect of a great many birds executing a simple algorithm is a complex and supremely well-coördinated behavior. Mancuso’s hypothesis is that something similar is at work in plants, with their thousands of root tips playing the role of the individual birds—gathering and assessing data from the environment and responding in local but coördinated ways that benefit the entire organism.

“Neurons perhaps are overrated,” Mancuso said. “They’re really just excitable cells.” Plants have their own excitable cells, many of them in a region just behind the root tip. Here Mancuso and his frequent collaborator, František Baluška, have detected unusually high levels of electrical activity and oxygen consumption. They’ve hypothesized in a series of papers that this so-called “transition zone” may be the locus of the “root brain” first proposed by Darwin. The idea remains unproved and controversial. “What’s going on there is not well understood,” Lincoln Taiz told me, “but there is no evidence it is a command center.”

How plants do what they do without a brain—what Anthony Trewavas has called their “mindless mastery”—raises questions about how our brains do what they do. When I asked Mancuso about the function and location of memory in plants, he speculated about the possible role of calcium channels and other mechanisms, but then he reminded me that mystery still surrounds where and how our memories are stored: “It could be the same kind of machinery, and figuring it out in plants may help us figure it out in humans.”


Mancuso and his colleagues are writing the next chapter in “The History of Increasing Humiliation.” Their project entails breaking down the walls between the kingdoms of plants and animals, and it is proceeding not only experiment by experiment but also word by word. Start with that slippery word “intelligence.” Particularly when there is no dominant definition (and when measurements of intelligence, such as I.Q., have been shown to be culturally biased), it is possible to define intelligence in a way that either reinforces the boundary between animals and plants (say, one that entails abstract thought) or undermines it. Plant neurobiologists have chosen to define intelligence democratically, as an ability to solve problems or, more precisely, to respond adaptively to circumstances, including ones unforeseen in the genome.

“I agree that humans are special,” Mancuso says. “We are the first species able to argue about what intelligence is. But it’s the quantity, not the quality” of intelligence that sets us apart. We exist on a continuum with the acacia, the radish, and the bacterium. “Intelligence is a property of life,” he says. I asked him why he thinks people have an easier time granting intelligence to computers than to plants. (Fred Sack told me that he can abide the term “artificial intelligence,” because the intelligence in this case is modified by the word “artificial,” but not “plant intelligence.” He offered no argument, except to say, “I’m in the majority in saying it’s a little weird.”) Mancuso thinks we’re willing to accept artificial intelligence because computers are our creations, and so reflect our own intelligence back at us. They are also our dependents, unlike plants: “If we were to vanish tomorrow, the plants would be fine, but if the plants vanished . . .” Our dependence on plants breeds a contempt for them, Mancuso believes. In his somewhat topsy-turvy view, plants “remind us of our weakness.”

- Intelligent Plant by Michael Pollan

Quote of the Day

Friday, August 18, 2017

Quote of the Day

Far from making America great again, Mr. Trump has betrayed the foundations of our common citizenship. And his actions are jeopardizing any prospect of enacting an agenda that might restore the promise of American life.

I Voted for Trump. And I Sorely Regret It

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Quote of the Day

Questioning the ostensibly unquestionable premises of our way of life is arguably the most urgent of services we owe our fellow humans and ourselves.

- Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Don't Be a Sucker - 1947 Post-WW2 Anti-Fascist Educational Film by USA

1947 anti-fascist video made by US military to teach citizens how to avoid falling for people like Trump is relevant again.

Quote of the Day

While it is true that many people simply can't afford to pay more for food, either in money or time or both, many more of us can. After all, just in the last decade or two we've somehow found the time in the day to spend several hours on the internet and the money in the budget not only to pay for broadband service, but to cover a second phone bill and a new monthly bill for television, formerly free. For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority.

-  Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Quote of the Day

The planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble, and if the tree takes root it will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil.

- George Orwell

Monday, August 14, 2017

Compassion vs. Cruelty: Why You Should Read “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy never reveals the origin of the cataclysm because the novel is not concerned with how the world came to ruins. It’s concerned about the state of morality in a post-apocalyptic world.

And the father, who is unnamed to highlight the universality of the book, is crossed, like we are, as he attempts to raise his child to be decent and civil in an indecent and uncivilized world.

Son: We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?
Father: No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We’re starving now.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes.

The Road forces its characters and its readers to weigh the costs of both compassion and cruelty.
That moral divide of, “Do I dehumanize others for my own survival?” 

The cannibals have resorted to dehumanization to fill their stomachs with food. Yet in doing so, they are selfishly killing humanity’s chances of survival.

McCarthy parallels such selfish cruelty with the father’s heroic attempts to teach his son why compassion, more than cruelty, is necessary for humanity’s survival.


The Road as a Guide to Parenting

"You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were."

You will never find The Road waiting on the shelves in the Parenting section of a bookstore. But beyond the terse, dystopian, survival story it’s about how to raise a child in the bleakest of hours.

Read the dedication page.

McCarthy dedicates The Road to his then 7 year old son John Francis.

In his interview with Oprah, McCarthy calls his son the coauthor of the book. Because many of the conversations in the book were based on real conversations McCarthy had with his own son.

McCarthy has said that The Road is everything he wants to teach his son about growing up, about life, about being “a good guy.”

The father continually tells his son, that no matter what, “You must carry the fire.”

Yes, the fire is literal–the boy needs the fire for warmth and to cook but fire is metaphorical for compassion and love.

Because, the father believes it’s the fire that will spring the boy’s survival.

And I couldn’t agree more.

- More Here from Jay Armstrong

Quote of the Day

It’s a self-organizing process, by which selection will arrive at some standard of beauty all by itself, in the absence of any adaptive benefit—or, indeed, despite maladaptive disadvantage.

- The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World - and Us by Richard O. Prum

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Quote of the Day

If a man has frequent intercourse with others either for talk, or drinking together, or generally for social purposes, he must either become like them, or change them to his own fashion. For if a man places a piece of quenched charcoal close to a piece that is burning, either the quenched charcoal will quench the other, or the burning charcoal will light that which is quenched. Since then the danger is so great, we must cautiously enter into such intimacies with those of the common sort, and remember that it is impossible that a man can keep company with one who is covered with soot without being partaker of the soot himself. For what will you do if a man speaks about gladiators, about horses, about athletes, or what is worse about men? Such a person is bad, such a person is good: this was well done, this was done badly. Further, if he scoff, or ridicule, or show an ill-natured disposition?

- Discourses, 3.16 by Epictetus