Plant Cognition and my thing about Newtonian Metaphors

I’ve said that the political spectrum is a Newtonian metaphor—Newton literally wrote the book on spectrums, The Opticks—for a Darwinian process: human voting behavior. 

What does it mean to be under the influence of an old paradigm? Great example from this really cool piece I read (thanks to a Facebook link) about plant cognition:

The evidence is mounting that plants share some of the treasured learning capacities of animals. Why has it taken so long to figure this out? We can start to understand the causes by running a little experiment. Take a look at this image. What does it depict?

 Figure 1: ‘Leaping Laelaps’ (1897) by Charles Robert Knight. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Figure 1: ‘Leaping Laelaps’ (1897) by Charles Robert Knight. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Most people will respond either by naming the general class of animals present (‘dinosaurs’) and what they are doing (‘fighting’, ‘jumping’), or if they are dinosaur fans, by identifying the specific animals (‘genus Dryptosaurus’). Rarely will the mosses, grasses, shrubs and trees in the picture get a mention – at most they might be referred to as the background or setting to the main event, which comprises the animals present ‘in a field’.

In 1999, the biology educators James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler called this phenomenon plant blindness – a tendency to overlook plant capacities, behaviour and the unique and active environmental roles that they play. We treat them as part of the background, not as active agents in an ecosystem.

Some reasons for plant blindness are historical – philosophical hangovers from long-dismantled paradigms that continue to infect our thinking about the natural world. Many researchers still write under the influence of Aristotle’s influential notion of thescala naturae, a ladder of life, with plants at the bottom of the hierarchy of capacity and value, and Man at the peak. Aristotle emphasised the fundamental conceptual divide between immobile, insensitive plant life, and the active, sensory realm of animals. For him, the divide between animals and humankind was just as stark; he didn’t think animalsthought, in any meaningful way. After the reintroduction of such ideas into Western European education in the early 1200s and throughout the Renaissance, Aristotelean thinking has remained remarkably persistent.

Under the Aristotelian paradigm—the ladder of life with us on top—it is difficult to see the complexity of plants. This is the same type of thing where I complain about people using Newtonian metaphors for Darwinian processes.