I once put a passage from Aldous Huxley’s Jesting Pilate in front of an associate who suffers a bizarre malady afflicting his objectivity. Now, obectivity, while important, isn’t the biggest deal in the world; people are subject to all manner of quirks about their outlooks. But it’s a particular object of pride for him. To wit, he doesn’t like religion because faith isn’t objective.
But when it comes to vegetarianism, he is completely bent. People who eat meat are akin to those who rape and kill children, by his “objective” logic, and when one dangles the excerpt from Huxley, or a passage from Douglas Adams in front of him, he goes into this long explanation of how plants don’t have a central nervous system, don’t feel pain, and are thus exempt from the moral considerations of the torture involved in killing and eating an animal.
So, yes, I think of him every time I come across one of these stories in the news. The latest comes from the BBC, and is no surprise to me insofar as I expected something along these lines. Not being a botanist, however, I could only guess at what the data would look like:
Plants are able to “remember” and “react” to information contained in light, according to researchers.
Plants, scientists say, transmit information about light intensity and quality from leaf to leaf in a very similar way to our own nervous systems.
These “electro-chemical signals” are carried by cells that act as “nerves” of the plants.
In their experiment, the scientists showed that light shone on to one leaf caused the whole plant to respond.
And the response, which took the form of light-induced chemical reactions in the leaves, continued in the dark.
This showed, they said, that the plant “remembered” the information encoded in light.
“We shone the light only on the bottom of the plant and we observed changes in the upper part,” explained Professor Stanislaw Karpinski from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences in Poland, who led this research.
He presented the findings at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual meeting in Prague, Czech Republic.
“And the changes proceeded when the light was off… This was a complete surprise.”
In previous work, Professor Karpinski found that chemical signals could be passed throughout whole plants – allowing them to respond to and survive changes and stresses in their environment.
But in this new study, he and his colleagues discovered that when light stimulated a chemical reaction in one leaf cell, this caused a “cascade” of events and that this was immediately signalled to the rest of the plant by via specific type of cell called a “bundle sheath cell”.
The scientists measured the electrical signals from these cells, which are present in every leaf. They likened the discovery to finding the plants’ “nervous system”.
Professor Karpinski also noted that plants responded differently depending on the color of light, and conducted experiments that seem very nearly Pavlovian:
“When we shone the light for on the plant for one hour and then infected it [with a virus or with bacteria] 24 hours after that light exposure, it resisted the infection,” he explained.
“But when we infected the plant before shining the light, it could not build up resistance.
“[So the plant] has a specific memory for the light which builds its immunity against pathogens, and it can adjust to varying light conditions.”
The outcome, Karpinski asserts, means the plants are responding to “information encoded in the light”, which seems a fancy way of saying they respond to specific wavelengths. “Every day or week of the season,” he explains, “has a characteristic light quality”.
At the University of Leeds, botanist Christine Foyer said Karpinski’s work “took our thinking one step forward”.
“Plants have to survive stresses, such as drought or cold, and live through it and keep growing,” she told BBC News.
“This requires an appraisal of the situation and an appropriate response – that’s a form of intelligence.
“What this study has done is link two signalling pathways together… and the electrical signalling pathway is incredibly rapid, so the whole plant could respond immediately to high [levels of] light.”
For me, Huxley’s tale of touring the Bose Institute in Calcutta—
The spectacle of a dying animal affects us panfully; we can see its struggles and, sympathetically, feel something of its pain. The unseen agony of a plant leaves us indifferent. To a being with eyes a million times more sensitive than ours, the struggles of a dying plant would be visible and therefore distressing …. The poison flower manifestly writhes before us. The last moments are so distressingly like those of a man, that we are shocked by the very spectacle of them into a hitherto unfelt sympathy.
—always comes to mind when eating Bibb lettuce, which is often packaged on the root, so that it is to some degree alive, and thus fresher when consumed. And every time I cut away the root, and cut the leaves for a salad, I cannot help but recognize that the thing is gasping, agonizing, dying on my plate.
Sure, I prefer free range and organic meats, but the thought of a slaughterhouse has not chased me away from a bacon burger, or the Met’s divine New York Peppercorn Steak, so neither Huxley nor Adams can chase me away from a good salad. In the end, life simply is, and if living things were not supposed to consume one another, nature would not look how it does. But for those like my associate, who pride themselves on objectivity while comparing the carnivorous needs of humanity to atrocities against children, and who have no reservations about eating thoughtless, insensate plants, perhaps it is time to reconsider such blind moralism, because excepting the fact that no deity is required to foster such ravings, they really do sound religious.
(Image credits: BBC, Honest Fare.)