UBC Okanagan’s Susan Murch is among a group of scientists that believe plants may be more like animals than we think
Once considered an obscure corner of botanic science defended by a small clutch of world experts, the study of plant intelligence is reaping some serious attention.
UBC Prof. Susan Murch, Canada Research Chair in Natural Products Chemistry and researcher in plant chemistry, belongs to the International Society of Plant Signaling and Behaviour. A recent conference drew interest from top scientific writers – and new respect for the science of plant intelligence.
The academic group promotes the study of plant intelligence – a topic that can leave people scratching their heads. And it has created deep rifts among scientists themselves, says Murch.
Plant intelligence is not measured on a human scale – they have no brains or neurosystems – but some biologists and horticulturalists argue passionately that plants are more like animals than we think. They adapt to their environment, distinguish daylight hours as seasons change, use their root systems to signal other plants, share food, colonize other species and viciously repel enemies.
“It opens ideas about all kinds of things. Do plants choose to behave or misbehave?” asks Murch, associate professor in the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences at the Okanagan campus. “Do they go extinct when threatened, or do they choose to become invasive and attack?”
Murch’s research has uncovered traits in plants related to how they perceive light, keep time in adapting to changing sunlight and in knowing when to flower. She has fed them a variety of drugs that, as with humans, alter their behaviour and growth.
Science writers take note
Last summer, Murch and UBC hosted the global society’s annual conference in Vancouver where more than 40 countries were represented. Academics from the Universities of Florence and Bonn and institutions in Japan and Australia shared their theories, promoting peer-reviewed findings on plant behaviour.
The event in Vancouver drew serious – and unexpected – attention. Michael Pollan, the prominent U.S. author on food and agriculture best known for his book In Defense of Food– attended as did Canadian science writer Elaine Dewar, whose book, Smarts, will be released next year.
Merging science and literature
Besides making the argument for plant intelligence as a legitimate branch of scientific inquiry, the conference also dared plant experts to re-examine the language of science.
Murch invited UBC literary scholar Sonnet L’Abbé to present a perspective distinct from the horticultural discussions. The two collaborated earlier on an interdisciplinary class project about plant intelligence where creative writing and science students learned side by side.
L’Abbé is authoring a new book about plants that hopes to build a bridge between artistic and scientific communities. She cites historic writing, such as the poetry of William Wordsworth, that portrays plants as beings that exhibit sentient characteristics, concepts advanced by leading scientists and literary figures alike.
“Wordsworth’s writing occurs at a moment in history when fields of natural philosophy were not yet fully differentiated into zoology, botany, human anatomy and science of the mind,” says L’Abbé, who teaches creative writing and poetry in the Department of Creative Studies.
When today’s scholars interpret writing that suggests a connection of cognition and vegetative life as just a poetic construct incompatible with rigorous inquiry, they ignore the rich cultural context from which the writing emerged, she told the conference.
L’Abbé’s research brought a fresh dimension to the discussion, as plant experts talked about using language to fuel imagination, generate new ideas and describe their work more precisely.
Murch considers it an important step. “I want people to think how using words affects their scientific research and experiments. Creating that cross discipline for perspectives is valuable,” she says.