Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I have written extensively about how the Swiss Constitution declared the legal intrinsic dignity of individual plants (and an ethics committee declared the “decapitation” of a wildflower to be immoral). I have also written how Nicaragua’s new constitution created the “rights of nature,” co-equal to the rights of humans. Now the folly has gone one step further, by imputing morality to the lives of plants, spread, no less, in the august pages of the New York Times. Science columnist Natalie Angier discusses the undeniable complexity of plant life, and anthropomorphizes away. From her column:

But before we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot. This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way. The more that scientists learn about the complexity of plants — their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar — the more impressed researchers become, and the less easily we can dismiss plants as so much fiberfill backdrop, passive sunlight collectors on which deer, antelope and vegans can conveniently graze. It’s time for a green revolution, a reseeding of our stubborn animal minds.

But plants are non cognitive by nature. They don’t “aspire” to anything.  The may appear to “reach out” to the sun, but they are not reaching out as we do. It is all chemical.  But that doesn’t stop Angier from larding on the anthropomorphism:
Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.

Please. It’s a chemical reaction, not a cry for help!  And get this ending:
It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive. Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. Don’t expect them to boast: they’re too busy fighting to survive.

Sigh. Plants are not ethical. That requires thought and free will.  And what about Venus fly traps?  They digest their insect prey alive. Oh, the horror, the tragedy!

It is easy to make fun of this, but there is a deep nihilism beneath the folly. Extrapolating the sophisticated biology of plants into something involving ethics and cognition is  profoundly destructive of human exceptionalism, which is very dangerous.  Indeed, I find it acutely ironic that as we see increased advocacy for the depersonalization of the most vulnerable human beings so as to justify their terminations or use as natural resources, we also witness increasing arguments to personalize flora and fauna.  As the old saying goes, gag me with a spoon.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles