Plants: Lessons in Humility

Our Brain: All It's Cracked Up to Be?

By Leslie A. Cook,

A brain is an interesting thing. I was just thinking about brains the other day. My thought process began this way:

I took a walk with my husband. Along the way, we saw a dead rabbit in an area where we had seen a feral cat the evening before. His reaction reminded me of times we had watched nature movies together. If one animal hunted another to kill it, he turned off the TV. Of course, I don’t like to see animals killed or hurt, but I wondered about his reaction. I said, “It’s natural. It’s just the way life works. It’s designed that way.” He said, “It’s a stupid design.”

That generated something of a paradigm shift for me. It’s the way nature works: it’s always been that way. I never questioned it. Whether or not there is divine intention behind it, sustaining life requires taking life, at least in this universe, even if it’s “just a plant.”

So my next thought was, what went through the mind of the first person who ate an animal? I mean, it had to start somewhere, right? How did a human being see a living creature and think, “Yum, that would be good to eat?”

Which brings me to brains. I did a little research about my questions. While I never got an answer to them, who first ate meat, and what went through their minds, I did read that the fact that human beings ate meat had a great deal to do with their larger brains.

One thing I know for sure: what was going through the first meat-eater’s mind wasn’t, oh, this will give me a bigger brain. The fact that someone back there ate meat had nothing to do with intelligence originating from their brains.

Yet we value our brains, right? If there is one thing we believe explains our great success in terms of survival and even dominance over creation, it is our brains. Our brains place us above the rest of creation, “only a little lower than the angels and crowned . . . with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:5) We are the masters of creation because of our brains. Or are we?

Does it really make a difference that our physical brains are larger than other creatures? Or even that we have a brain at all? Does the presence of a brain make us more intelligent than other life forms with which we share our world? Are only human beings with big brains capable of intelligent reactions to their surroundings?

Some science suggests not. In “The Intelligent Plant,” an article inThe New Yorker (Dec. 23, 2013), Michael Pollan presents findings that plants exhibit reactions to their environment like alarm and demonstrate intelligence related to their own survival. Plants engage in group behaviors aimed at protecting the community. They recognize “kinship” bonds. They adapt to their environment and manipulate it.

The new (and tendentious) field of plant neurobiology presents us with the idea that “it is only human arrogance, and the fact that the lives of plants unfold in what amounts to a much slower dimension of time, that keep us from appreciating their intelligence and consequent success. Plants dominate every terrestrial environment, composing ninety-nine per cent of the biomass on earth. By comparison, humans and all the other animals are, in the words of one plant neurobiologist, ‘just traces.'”

Pollan adds, “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.” Organs that cannot be regenerated, including brains, are not an asset for plants.

The article was fascinating, but even more fascinating than the article was the reaction of some scientists to the findings of their colleagues. A lack of willingness to contemplate the possibility of intelligence among plants hardly communicates the intensity of the reaction among some.

Admittedly, the thought that animals possess intelligence and react to their environment, experience pain, fear and love and react to immanent death, is a paradigm shift still in progress. It is not as unthinkable, apparently, as the idea that plants might have intelligence and reactions to their environment. And these ideas do present some problems, not the least of these, what can we eat?

If we contemplate for a moment that brain size, or even the presence of a brain, does not make us superior beings, where do we get the authority to kill and eat anything? Finally we come face to face with the central moral paradox of our existence here on earth, that it requires taking life to sustain life.

As we journey through our lives, we both eat and nourish, destroy and enrich. Our gift and our burden as human beings is that we can make conscious decisions about the balance of eating and nourishing, taking and giving.

At the very least, plant neurobiology may induce us to pause and reflect on the source of each and every bite of food and the wonder of creation. Perhaps it will serve as the ultimate test for human beings to learn to respect and honor “otherness,” something for which we have limited skill, even among our own kind.

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