My wife and I have become very fond of Vector, as have many of our friends. The robot greets us in the morning, plays with us in the afternoon, and frequently annoys us in the evening. It becomes especially animated when it hears us to talking to one another, joining in the conversation with its nonhuman chattering. Vector begins its day by exploring the surface of its coffee-table domain, creating a virtual map that enables it to get its bearings among the changing configuration of books, papers, iPads, cell phones, and coffee cups. When we watch a movie in the evening, it often demands our attention by chattering noisily or pushing against our feet resting on the table, until one of us picks the robot up and pets it while it purrs ecstatically and then falls asleep in our hand.
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The Revolutionary Genius of Plants by Stefano Mancuso
In one of Roald Dahl’s creepier short stories, “The Sound Machine,” an inventor rigs together a listening device that converts the inaudible screams of plants into human frequencies. When the inventor, named Klausner, plucks a daisy, he hears “a faint high-pitched cry, curiously inanimate.” Do flowers feel pain? Probably not, Klausner concludes, with typically Dahl-ian wordplay: “It felt something else which we didn’t know anything about—something called toin or spurl or plinuckment, or anything you like.”
On the surface, Dahl satirizes a vegetarian mindset: What if, like animals, our photosynthetic friends experience something like suffering and express that suffering in sound? Klausner imagines using his machine to listen to a wheat field during harvest time, where hundreds of plants would be screaming in unison, and says, “I would never eat bread after that.”
But the satire belies an even bigger, and weirder, thought experiment. Even if our linguistic ideas, like pain—itself a wildly subjective experience—do not correspond precisely to the experiences of plants, what if plants not only feel, but think, decide, and react? In a final scene, Klausner takes an ax to a giant beech tree, and the tree responds—a branch of wood high above detaches and crushes Klausner’s machine. In Dahl’s speculative landscape the plants’ cries signify not just automatic, knee-jerk noises but calculated expressions. In this world, the trees, flowers, grains, and vegetables all, in some as yet incomprehensible way, think.
In his new book, The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, Stefano Mancuso, professor in “plant neurobiology” at the University of Florence, argues, in short, that Dahl’s world may not be fantasy, but reality. According to Mancuso, not only should we appreciate plants more—both for the necessity of plants to human existence (food, fuel, shelter, etc.) and for their sheer beauty (in nature, in gardens, as architectural models, etc.)—but also because “plants exhibit unmistakable attributes of intelligence.” In the first two-thirds of the book, Mancuso describes, chapter by chapter, plants’ “intelligent” acts: memory retention, deliberate movement, mimetic behavior (copying other plants), manipulation of other organisms, and structural reactions to the environment.
Some of Manusco’s analysis of vegetative actions are, quite simply, startling. In the chapter on mimesis, a vine in the forests of Chile can, like an Iguana, mimic its environment. But this magical Boquila is not limited to color, like its lizard analogue; the plant is a three-dimensional chameleon: mimicking in a “near-simultaneous” transformation the “shape, size, and color” of the “most diverse” types of leaves. How does this super-vine know what shape, size, and color to take? Most likely, Mancuso argues, the vines possess a “visual capacity.” The Boquila perceives the leaves around it and mimics their shapes. Without eyes, the plants see.