“Green-man” © Emil Alzamora

In Plant Studies, especially its critical branch, the most recent empirical evidence is used to show the sophisticated ways that plants go about their lives. Challenging traditional zoocentric perceptions of plants as passive objects, such research reveals that plants are dynamic and sentient beings capable of responding to environmental stimuli such as touch, temperature, gravity, water and chemicals in many ways. The new science of plant behaviour and signalling addresses various issues related to adaptive behaviours in plants, including sensory perception, communication and memory. In a parallel move, plant biologist Anthony Trewavas declared the need to recognise “plant intelligence,” which he defines as “adaptive variable growth and development during the lifetime of the individual”.[1] More recently, scientists have provided significant evidence that plants behave intelligently and that something that qualifies as decision-making is taking place in their roots. This so-called “root brain”[2] is actually a decentralised communicative network absolutely unlike the centralised and hierarchically-structured self supposedly governing our own animal bodies.

Not only do we recognise that plants energise the earth, connecting us terrestrial animals to solar energy, but we also witness that they demonstrate sensitivity and communication beyond individuality. This creates an urgent need to reinvent human-plant relations not only on the discursive level but also through the materialities of bodies, metabolic systems, energy and time (including the geological past and future), as well as through technologies that fuse and appropriate human and other bodies with those of plants, allowing interconnectivity far beyond what has ever been imagined. Some of the results of plant-technology entanglements include direct intervention on the molecular level (DNA), plant-computer interfaces[3] and inspiration drawn from plant and human body plans resulting in chimeras, cyborg plants and plantoids. Transgenic plants or plant-related chimeras are products of bioengineering capable of creating new plant species, unattainable by traditional techniques of horticulture, such as a deliberate cross-pollination, selective breeding, or grafting and budding.[4] And yet, plantoids, analogous to androids, are plant-inspired self-growing robots. With the ability to absorb materials from the surrounding environment, they can build their own structure as a mode of self-movement.[5] The future environment of plants may also be elsewhere than Earth. So far, the only non-terrestrial environment where plants have been cultivated is within space stations in which they are grown without soil.

Although historically excluded from moral consideration as insensitive and inanimate beings, plants have been slowly accepted as subjects rather than objects. The predominant zoocentric perspective has wrongly maintained a hierarchy of living beings in which plants occupy the lowest position. Confronted with this predicament, the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Nonhuman Biotechnology published a document entitled The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants: Moral Consideration of Plants for their own Sake. The committee explained that dignity is understood as “inherent worth, good of its own and own interests”.[6] Rather predictably, the Swiss report caused a major controversy among scientists, humanities scholars as well as the general public. The responses from scientists were contradictory, with strong voices set against awarding rights to plants, which could allegedly halt scientific development, on the one hand, and enthusiasm and hope for better treatment of plants on the other. Within the humanities, conservative voices tend to see plant rights as an act of diminishing the superior status of humans.

Some posthumanist thinkers are also reluctant to grant rights to plants, as this gesture might be seen as another ‘paternalistic’ move that merely preserves the anthropocentric tradition of inclusions and exclusions based on presupposed hierarchies, and which Rosi Braidotti identifies as “compensatory humanism”. Granting rights to nonhumans can be seen as a manifestation of a postanthropocentric gesture to promote solidarity between human and nonhuman others in times of environmental crisis but it does not really offer any radical re-imagining of human-nonhuman ontological positions and relations. In other words, the future of plants remains largely determined by direct and indirect human interventions into their bodies and ways of being, which often results not only in the devastation of their habitats and biodiversity, but also in the emergence of vegetal newcomers.

Recent ecological research findings suggest[7] that current speciation rates in the plant kingdom are particularly high (perhaps the highest ever since terrestrial plants evolved). This acceleration, resulting in novel forms of biodiversity, is being induced by anthropogenic pressures. It thus becomes urgent, as plant biologist Matthew Hall insists, that “these conflicts between human wants and plant needs should be the primary focus of a wide-scale deliberation on and negotiation of appropriate human-plant relationships”.[8] Yet, as autotrophic beings tend to be more resilient than animals, plants occupy a position in the web of life that is a lot stronger than ours.

– Adam Mickiewicz University, November 2017



[1] Anthony Trewavas, ‘Aspects of Plant Intelligence’, Annals of Botany, 92 (2003), p. 1.

[2] Charles Darwin, The Power of Movements in Plants, (London: Murray, 1880).

[3] Flora Robotica is a project aiming to build “societies of symbiotic robot-plant bio-hybrids as social architectural artifacts”. The project is accessible at: <www.florarobotica.eu>.

[4] Edunia, a plantimal artwork, from the series Natural History of Enigma by Eduardo Kac, is a plant petunia containing genetic material of the artist. Accessible at: <http://www.ekac.org/nat.hist.enig.html>.

[5] See, for example: <http://okhaos.com/plantoid/>.

[6] Federal Ethics Committee on Nonhuman Biotechnology, ‘The Dignity of Living beings with Regard to Plants: Moral Consideration of Plants for Their Own Sake’, ed. Ariane Willemsen, (Berne, 2008), p. 7. Accessible at: <http://www.ekah.admin.ch/fileadmin/ekah-dateien/dokumentation/publikationen/d-Broschure-Wurde-Pflanze-2008.pdf>.

[7] Chris D. Thomas, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction (London: Penguin Random House, 2017).

[8] Mathew Hall, ‘Plant Autonomy and Human-Plant Ethics’, Environmental Ethics, 31 (2009), p. 180.


Further Reading

Monika Bakke, ‘Plant Research’, in Gender: Nature, ed. Iris van der Tuin (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses of Your Garden – and Beyond (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2012).

Richard Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noosphere (Washington: University of Washington Press, 2011).

Aubrey Streit Krug, ‘Reproducing Plant Bodies on the great Plains’, in Plants and Literature: Essays in Critical Plant Studies, (Amsterdam: Brill/Rodopi, 2013).

Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola, Brilliant Green. The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, trans. Joan Benham (Washington: Island Press, 2015).

Michael Marder ed., Critical Plant Studies, (Amsterdam: Brill/Rodopi, 2013).

Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking. A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

Elaine, P. Miller, The Vegetative Soul: From Philosophy of Nature to Subjectivity in the Feminine (Albany: SUNNY University Press, 2002).

Jeffrey T. Nealon, Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2015).

Anthony Trewavas, Plant Behavior and Intelligence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).