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Accepting a Different Type of Intelligence

We are asleep to the mannerisms of the natural world

It is a challenge for me to think like a plant. If only plants could reflect and express themselves as we do, we would have a fascinating conversation.

After watching a video from the World Science Festival on “Intelligence Without Brains”, I am glad to know that all my smattering of plant knowledge is up to date.

Science still out to discover things beyond our lore of intelligence. Our way to perceive the world is through one road only. We see something and analyse them based on our concept of a living organism. Our understanding of nature is translated into human language, which may differ from what plants and other animals can do. I find it interesting when many scientists ponder over a question that may intrigue us: Are plants still intelligent without brains?

Humans, thanks to Plants

We are amazing creatures with large brains. This encephalic mass situated inside our skull contains several neurons, which by electricity they communicate through synapses. Without these connections, our body is meaningless. We depend heavily on our brains for our survival. It is a human concept of intelligence in how we, as individuals, adapt to our environment.

But we are not the only sentient beings out there.

Plants, on the other hand, do not have this enormous mass situated somewhere in the crown. They have roots - an integrated system much more complex than any human could endeavour.

Charles Darwin defied the common concept about plants as problem solvers with a different way to sense the world. People did not believe him straight away. They thought he was crazy.

In his book The Power of Movement in Plants, he mentions root tips that chase nutrients and suitable locations to allocate new root hairs. This root tip is a brain-like structure that can better benefit the system above, trunk and leaves, through the rhizosphere biome. This fantastic concept was heavily criticised at the time but accepted and verified scientifically nowadays.

Scientists are even talking about sound waves and how plants listen to and interact through noises. You might be thinking of those people back in the 60s who believed plants enjoy a particular type of music. Well, it is not entirely wrong, but you may not let pseudoscience lead the way. If you imagine plants as being like humans, appreciating the world as we do, you are utterly far away from reality.

Nevertheless, plants tend to be stimulated by sound waves, which can be transmitted by others nearby as a form of communication. Intelligence is an expression still not used widely by plant scientists. The problem solver is a more common description and highly used by the majority of scientists. In evolutionary terms, plants only survived in the last millions of years due to problem-solving.

They faced a myriad of climate changes, soil disturbance and herbivore attacks. They populated the whole world from north to south and east to west. They developed unique physiological characteristics and growth habits that we still struggle to understand today. Hence, I still believe that plants’ body language may be the defining margin between communication and interaction through human knowledge about their behaviours.

Some of them can survive without soil, such as Philodendron and some orchids. Others can start their lives in the crown and slowly bring their roots to the ground, such as strangling figs (Ficus aurea and Ficus watkinsiana). Some others are dependent on birds to deposit their seeds on a limb, allowing them to tap into the vascular system to acquire food, such as mistletoes.

If, for instance, we consider other living beings apart from plants, fungi are probably the ultimate extensive brain system.

Schizophyllum commune (Split Gill) / Credit: T. Miranda 2020

Stepping On a Huge Brain-like System Below

Through hyphae fork-like filaments, the fungus’ body called mycelium can generate as much information as synapses do in a human brain. Their growth can extend for miles, and most importantly, their interaction with roots is one of the most crucial symbioses of the natural world.

I only say that because I do not think we would be here in the first place without it. Plant capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and store it in its roots benefits the fungi and other microbes, offering essential nutrients for the plants to survive. It is a one-to-one relationship. Both determine the rules of the ball game. And without plants, oxygen for us to breathe would not be available.

My appreciation for the natural world is limitless. Everywhere I go, I see plants and animals interacting with one another. After a heavy rain, I watch mushrooms popping up on the ground. Birds fly in flocks in harmonisation, glaring my eyes every time I look at them. Ants work tirelessly through an organised society that people still find hard to believe they are the world’s best colonisers (after fungi?). And bees ought to be one of the most intelligent insects through their political and social system integrated into the hive.

These acquaintances tend to emerge when I put myself aside using observation. I realise I do not need to exist for these living organisms to survive as they are. I am not an intricate piece of nature’s puzzle. That is why I love to use this humbleness to develop awareness.

There is indeed much more than you think out there. I wish this chase of the unknown can be recognised by many of us in the future. Only then this world may stop revolving around us for once.