Pollan on Plants

Unprepared to consider the ethical implications of plant intelligence, I could feel my resistance to the whole idea stiffen.  –Michael Pollan

A recent article in The New Yorker has two significant triggers for readers who happen to be vegan: (1) it considers the intelligence and the moral significance of plants and (2) it is written by Michael Pollan.

Anyone who has been vegan for more than 90 minutes has likely been asked multiple times: “What about plants?”  Almost always, the question is asked by someone who has never sincerely thought about animals but nonetheless feigns concern about the morality of harvesting vegetables.

As for Michael Pollan, I would simply refer curious readers to the work of Vasile Stanescu of Stanford University for a thorough-going animal rights critique of Pollan’s work.  Stanescu’s article “Green Eggs and Ham: The Myth of Sustainable Meat and the Danger of the Local” would be a good starting point.

Unfortunately, these two triggers may discourage readers who are vegan and supportive of animals rights from engaging questions about the intelligence of plants and/or our ethical obligations concerning how we interact with plants.  This is particularly unfortunate because such readers may be amongst the most perceptive in recognizing dubious rationalizations for drawing sharp lines between species (and now kingdoms).   Many of the arguments concerning plants clearly echo more familiar arguments concerning the moral significance of animals.

Quotation Marks and Metaphors

Very early in Pollan’s article we are told that:

The controversy is less about the remarkable discoveries of recent plant science than about how to interpret and name them: whether behaviors observed in plants which look very much like learning, memory, decision-making, and intelligence deserve to be called by those terms or whether those words should be reserved exclusively for creatures with brains.

The parallel with questions regarding animals is evident to anyone who has ever read or listened to Marc Bekoff who abhors the use of scare quotes that are often employed in discussions about animal emotions.  Animals reportedly don’t experience grief, but merely “grief” or perhaps act in a way “as if” they were experiencing grief.  It is a signal that such things are not to be taken too seriously because it’s not real grief.

The same division purportedly exists amongst plant scientists: some feel compelled to use scare quotes for various terms while others drop the quotes and attribute actions such as decision making and learning to plants.  The term “plant intelligence” irks some and is accepted by others.  The Society for Plant Neurobiology quickly changed its name to the Society for Plant Signalling and Behavior.

The difficulty is knowing if there is legitimate reason withholding certain terms or if it is based purely on species (or kingdom) membership; for many “neuro-“ means brain and simply cannot apply to plants.  Likewise, for some, intelligence means human intelligence and cannot apply to animals.

Human-like and Animal-like Qualities

A second signficant parallel is by what standard and on what grounds others—animal others or plant others—are said to merit respect and consideration.  Animal advocates have adopted two significantly different although not mutually exclusive strategies.  There are times when animals are praised and defended based on the qualities they share with humans.  This is most notable in considering the interests of primates and other large-brained animals.  It is suggested that they are so much like us that they must be members of the moral community and necessarily warrant a greater level of consideration.  Others dismiss this approach as insulting toward animals and self-serving on the part of humans suggesting that being like “us” shouldn’t be what matters; animals must be respected on their own terms and for who they genuinely are.

Likewise, this same discussion is apparently taking place amongst plant scientists.   Should plants be respected or judged based on the animal-like qualities they possess or should they be judged for qualities that are to uniquely their own?  Pollan quotes several advocates of this later approach who say “I have no interest in making plants into little animals” and “There is no reason…to call them demi-animals.”  An animal advocated could easily provide similar lines: “I have no interest in making animals into little humans”.


The question of pain might be the most contentious issue in discussing the abilities of plants; it sounds too much like the snarky “What about plants?” question.  But at the same time, it highlights the difficulty of many of these questions for it hinges on what one means by pain.

When Michael Pollan asked Stefano Mancuso if plants feel pain, Mancuso replied ““If plants are conscious, then, yes, they should feel pain,” he said. “If you don’t feel pain, you ignore danger and you don’t survive. Pain is adaptive.”

In reading Mancuso’s reply, do not invest too much weight in the “if” that precedes his affirmative answer.  Mancuso is not hedging his bets as he was already on the record as affirming that plants are conscious (by his understanding of that term) so his prefacing of his reply in that way should not be read as a disclaimer.

Of course, it was not long ago that scientists denied animals feel pain (perhaps they felt “pain” or acted “as if” they were in pain).


As the quote the quote from Michael Pollan prefacing this post indicates, there are psychological (and perhaps highly practical) reasons for avoiding inquiry into the question of how we might ethically interact with plants.  These are the same reasons that people avert their gaze when confronted with violent images of animals in slaughterhouses; the same reasons people don’t want to know about animal suffering.  It would be a mistake for animal advocates to mimic that level of denial.

Acknowledging that the lives of plants have a moral signficance and that their might be limits on how we interact with them does not threaten animals.  Animal advocates dismiss the crude suggestion that human rights and animal rights are in tension and instead assert that they depend on one another; the same line of thinking could be extended to plants.  Treating plants with the requisite level of respect may reinforce—or even be necessary for the realization of—animal rights and human rights.

Pollan writes that it is Stefano Mancuso’s view that

because plants are sensitive and intelligent beings, we are obliged to treat them with some degree of respect. That means protecting their habitats from destruction and avoiding practices such as genetic manipulation, growing plants in monocultures, and training them in bonsai.

It might be important to note that Mancuso does not think that there is a moral prohibition on consuming plants and there is nothing in Pollan’s article to suggest what Mancuso’s views are on consuming animals either.

In conclusion, it may be tempting to dismiss the whole of Pollan’s article as a less succinct but equally trollish way of asking “What about plants?” but we would be wise to divorce the messenger from the message.   If expressing concern for animals often makes a person  vulnerable to ridicule, then expressing concern for plants must make one that much more vulnerable but we ought not aim to curry favor with the mainstream by letting the bulk of their prejudices go unchallenged.  We must not merely extend Singer’s moral circle to include animals only to then nail it down and lock others out.

Stefano Mancuso. The Roots of Plant Intelligence. TED Talk.  (2010)

The Power of Movement in Plants by Charles Darwin (1880)

The Power of Movement in Plants by Charles Darwin (1880)