In 2018, a German newspaper asked me if I would be interested in having a conversation with the philosopher Emanuele Coccia, who had just written a book about plants, Die Wurzeln der Welt (published in English as The Life of Plants). I was happy to say yes.
The German title of Cocciaâs book translates as âThe Roots of the World,â and the book really does cover this. It upends our view of the living world, putting plants at the top of the hierarchy with humans down at the bottom. I had been giving a great deal of thought to this myself. Ranking the natural world and scoring species according to their importance or their superiority seemed to me outdated. It distorts our view of nature and makes all the other species around us seem more primitive and somehow unfinished. For some time now, I have not been comfortable with viewing humans as the crown of creation, separating animals into higher and lower life-forms, and treating plants as something on the side, definitively banished to a lower level. (...)
After our first cup of coffee, we were soon deep into our main topic: trees and plants in general. Coccia argued that our biological classifications are not grounded in science. They are strongly influenced by theology and are dominated by two ideas: the supremacy of the human race and the world as a place humans must bend to their will. And then there is our centuries-old compulsion to categorize everything. When you combine these concepts, you get a ranking system that puts humankind at the top, animals in the middle, and plants way down at the bottom.
I listened, fascinated by what he had to say. Here was a man of my own heart. I would prefer it, I told Coccia, if science categorized species one beside the other. That would still allow an order, a system of sorting, without imposing any kind of a hierarchy. He immediately agreed. He reiterated his belief that the ordering system we have today is not scientific but rather influenced by cultural, historical, and religious values. For Coccia, the hard boundary between the plant and animal world does not exist. He believes plants can experience sensations and even reflect on them. And he is not the only one who thinks this. (...)
BaluÅ¡ka was ready with other quite different discoveries. Thereâs a vine that grows in South America that adapts to the form of the tree or bush it is climbing on. Its leaves look just like the leaves on the host plant. You might think this is chemically controlled. In that case, the vine might be detecting scent compounds from the bush and changing the shape of its leaves in a way that was genetically predetermined. Three different leaf shapes had been observed. Then a researcher came up with the idea of creating an artificial plant with plastic leaves and relocating our botanical chameleon to its new home. What happened next was amazing. The vine imitated the artificial leaves, just as it had imitated the leaves in nature. For BaluÅ¡ka this is clear proof that the vine can see. How else could it get information about a shape it had never encountered before? In this case, the usual suspectsâchemical messages released by the host plant or electric signals between both plantsâwere absent. He went further. In his opinion, it is conceivable that all plants might be able to see. (...)