Planta Sapiens review by Paco Calvo – talk to your plants and you just might learn something | science and nature books

Pthrobbing blindness. It’s what scientists call the way we humans often fail to notice the staggering diversity and complexity of plant life around us. The philosopher Paco Calvo seems happily free from this affliction – he runs a laboratory in Spain that studies the behavior of plants, trying to figure out whether that half-dead fern you forgot to water on the windowsill should be classed as “intelligent”.

Some flowers turn to the sun as it crosses the sky, and some plants close their leaves when touched, but traits like these are generally assumed to be automatic reflexes, no different from the way your leg straightens when you get tapped on the knee. .

In Plant Sapiens, Calvo is trying to show us that our green friends do more than just react blindly. He believes they “plan ahead to achieve their goals” and “proactively engage with their surroundings” as they grapple with gradual changes in the ground or the sudden appearance of a predator.

In a way, that shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, plants have evolved in the same unpredictable world as us and, like us, must be able to react to changing circumstances in order to survive.

Scientists have long known that plants can communicate with each other using chemical compounds and it has also long been understood that they use electrical signals (much like animals) to coordinate their internal response to the world around them. .

Calvo describes more sophisticated examples of plant behavior; how some plants seem to “remember” previous droughts, for example, conserving water more efficiently than plants that have never experienced long periods of drought. Or how some behave differently when competing for resources with other species, rather than their own species.

However, proving that these behaviors are evidence of cognition, rather than being automatic reflex responses, however impressive, is a difficult hurdle to jump and Calvo doesn’t quite get over it.

But just asking the question makes this book part of a larger movement, starting with Peter Singer’s animal liberation (1975) and including Frans de Waal’s pioneer Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? (2016) and the masterful by Peter Godfrey-Smith Other Spirits (2016), which challenges anthropocentric ideas about intelligence, suggesting that it is not a uniquely human trait.

It is perhaps the most significant intellectual shift taking place today, opening up the possibility that we can radically realign our relationship with the natural world. Instead of blithely thinking that we are somehow superior to – and separate from – the animals and plants around us, we might begin to realize that we are deeply and irrevocably connected to these fragile ecosystems.

The smell of freshly cut grass “comes from the chemicals released by the injured plant to warn nearby grasses to mobilize their defenses.” Photography: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Simply by being part of this radical philosophical shift, Plant Sapiens is an important, if not particularly compelling, book. It has some interesting vignettes. I had no idea, for example, that the smell of freshly cut grass comes from chemicals released by the injured plant to warn nearby grasses to mobilize their defenses. At least now I have an excuse not to mow the lawn: I don’t want to hurt his feelings.

The most intriguing nugget concerns mimosas, which close their leaves when touched to protect themselves from predators. It turns out that some mimosas close quickly, while others are slower, suggesting, Calvo claims (not so convincingly), that individual plants have different “personalities”.

But as fascinating as these treats are, you have to cut through reams of deadwood on the author’s career to reach them. That’s a shame. This subject deserves writing that fills the reader with a sense of wonder, encouraging us to see ourselves as part of a complex and intelligent biosphere that encompasses both flora and fauna.

It’s not that book. But the good news is that anyone who wants to be captivated by plant behavior can tune in to the sublime recent BBC series The green planet. Sir David Attenborough’s closing monologue deserves to be heard in the distance: “Our relationship with plants has changed throughout history and now it must change again. If we do, our future will be healthier, safer and happier. Plants are our oldest allies and together we can make this planet an even greener one.

You don’t have to be as smart as a houseplant to see the wisdom in these words.

Planta Sapiens: unmasking the intelligence of plants by Paco Calvo with Natalie Lawrence is published by Little, Brown (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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