Book Review: Revolutionary Understanding of Plants

many chili peppers

Will plant intelligence compel future spacefarers to carry chili peppers? © Tomas Castelazo. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Stefano Mancuso’s book The Revolutionary Understanding of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior (2017) makes the case that plants are an often ignored, under-appreciated and yet extremely intelligent life form that has the ability to solve human sustainability challenges and even can teach us how to better govern ourselves.

Mancuso is an associate professor at the University of Florance and directs the Laboratorio Internazionale di Neurobiologia Vegetale (International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, or LINV).

Mancuso’s chief hypothesis can be summed up as follows. Animals can move so they escape from problems. They can run away from predators. They can migrate away from adverse environmental change. In contrast, plants are sessile (fixed in one place). Therefore, plants have no choice but to actually solve problems, and hence engage in forms of intelligence to devise and implement solutions that are sometimes obvious, yet other times subtle or downright devious.

Mancuso asserts that plants by necessity have developed intelligence that differs greatly from animal intelligence. Animals have a central brain, which is a suitable strategy for animals who can get out of the way of destruction. Plants cannot directly escape trouble. They have to survive partial destruction of a magnitude that would kill most animals. For example, plants and their intelligence mechanisms often get partially eaten. Plants have overcome this existential challenge to their intelligence by utilizing extensive redundancy and decentralized intelligence.

For example, acacia trees has developed a solution to discourage predators involving excreting nectar along their branches. That nectar attracts ants who discourage harmful insects from attaching the tree. The subtle element is that the nectar also contains chemicals that make the nectar highly addictive, hence enslaving the ants to the tree. The devious element is that the nectar also contains drugs that make the ants so frenzied and aggressive that they will attach much larger animals who approach the tree. Mancuso takes passionate joy from pointing out that plants are not the mere servants and victims of animals, but often the actual master of animals. Although this could be dismissed as mere professional bravado to position oneself as the alpha biologist at conferences, Mancuso makes a compelling case.

Another example, relevant to space travel, concerns humans being one of the best spreaders (“carriers”) of plant species. Humans have spread local plant species such as potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa and coffee plants across the globe. One poignant example is that of chili peppers, which originated in a region in Mexico. Chilis are painful to eat, but that pain releases highly addictive endorphins in humans. Chili plants have in essence manipulated humans to cultivate chili peppers across the world, to such a degree that chilis, in a just few hundreds of years, have become such highly traditional foods in many cultures that is is difficult to image such cuisines without chili peppers. Now that humans are already transporting plants into space, it is to be wondered at what transformations plants will invoke upon future spacefarers.

A stump above electro-mechanical roots.

Plantoid capable of sol exploration. Credit: plantoid project.

Mancuso also feels that plants hold lessons for future space exploration, since they have redundant, fault-tolerant systems and structures and use only low amounts of energy. He has worked with the European Space Agency to study how decentralized root growth intelligence and mechanisms can be used to create a network of soil explorers comprising “plantoids” (robotics inspired by plants) across the Martian surface. So someday there could be robotic plants in space, perhaps carried by robotic humans!

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