Are intelligent plants out of this world?

intelligent plants

First, two ‘spoiler alerts’ *. One, this book views plants in a much more enlightened way than those of a die-hard zoosupremacist persuasion will find unpalatable, and therefore very hard – probably impossible – to accept. Second, this is a work of fiction, which those of a more phytotolerant frame of mind will be disappointed by (and may even find unpalatable and very hard to accept…). Curious? Maybe even phytocurious? Then Semiosis is worth a look.

Semiosis by Sue Burke is an everyday tale of Earthlings who’ve left Earth to start a new community on another world. This new world is christened Pax, after the Greek word for peace, because the colonists wish this world to be peaceful and quite different from the old Earth they’ve left behind; the immigrants consider themselves to be true pacifists. Yet, with examples of murder, rape, jealousy, betrayal, etc., this book has more than its fair share of humanity that should be familiar to all. I.e. it contains all the emotions and actions one might expect of Earthlings on Earth. So, even those who’ve escaped the mother planet still carry with them a legacy of the ‘bad old ways’ of humanity. But, at least these Pacifists are trying, and Semiosis has an important message about how to make a fairer society. However, the main story is not about the humans, but the plants of this new world; or, rather, the relationship of people and plants on Pax. The fairer society central to Semiosis is one that doesn’t just revolve around humans…

Pax is in the constellation Gemini and has a well-evolved ecology** which the new colonists have to contend with and understand in order to survive. Interestingly, the first chapter is written by Octavo Pastor, the colonist’s botanist, who has the task not only of searching for edible plants, but also describing and classifying the planet’s vegetation. Although Pax’s plants look Earth-like, they are other-worldy; for example there are plants that float around in the air, ‘land corals’ a three-fold symbiosis of alga, stony-skeletoned animals and encased lizards, and trees with bark of cellulose acetate that peels with razor-sharp edges. Furthermore, plants of Pax have unknown cells, seeds with 3, 5 or 8 cotyledons, and RNA in place of DNA. So, there is lots to intrigue for those of us only familiar with the botany of Earth (and that’s without mention of allelopathy and plant alkaloid chemistry which are considered elsewhere in the book).

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And, from our understandably geocentric point of view, we are used to plants as being rather passive organisms. However, early on in Semiosis we are made aware that vine like plants of Pax have actually killed two of the colonists. Thereafter, the scene is set for the remainder of the book which ponders the question of the intelligence of plants – in particular the ‘vengeful vines’ and the bafflingly brainy bamboo. However, it’s not too long before there’s not that much to ponder, plants are incredibly intelligent on Pax. And the bamboo that is central to the story is soon discovered to be more intelligent than the Earthlings. But, rather than seeking to destroy the colonists, it engineers ways to work with them. Not because it is necessarily altruistic, but because there are things that the humans can do for the plant’s benefit. Essentially, Sue Burke has turned on its head the more usual way we think about plants, that humans are in charge, and plant life is sub-servient to our whims and wishes.

In this regard Semiosis has more than a passing resemblance to Michael Pollan’s book The botany of desire. That fascinating book posits the notion that plants taste nice, look pretty, or are otherwise beneficial to humans so much so that we’ve taken them thousands of miles away from their centres of origin and translocated them across the planet. Thus, sessile, rooted-to-one-spot plants have exerted a sort of ‘mind control’ over humans, which has resulted in some favoured plants – e.g. apples, potatoes, and tulips – being given the ability to travel the globe and extend their range far more quickly and efficiently beyond that which their sedentary nature would otherwise permit. In that way the plants – well, some plants at least – are well and truly in charge. And that notion will be uncomfortable for many, not least because the plants of Pax – and maybe even of real but yet-to-be-discovered-and-visited planets… – are more Earth-like than different, after all.

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But, and as page 4 of Semiosis importantly reminds us, this is a work of fiction. Well, fiction maybe, but, as we continue to dissect the biology and ecology of plants on Earth, we are getting a better glimpse at the remarkable behaviour of our terrestrial vegetation (from such books as Chamovitz’s What a Plant Knows, Trewavas’ Plant Behaviour & Intelligence, Karban’s Plant Sensing and Communication, and Mancuso and Viola‘s Brilliant Green: The surprising history of plant intelligence). So, who’s to say that extra-terrestrial plants might not do even better in the plant intelligence stakes? Perhaps it’s not little green men from outer space that we should be concerned about, but little green plants..?


Final words…

Semiosis wasn’t at first the ‘page-turner’ I was hoping for. But, as a botanist reading a book where clever plants took centre stage, I persevered. And, that perseverance was rewarded; overall it was a satisfying read, especially as it main message for me was that people and plants can get along, to the mutual advantage of all. That is to say, when people and plants are kind(-er) to each other, both parties benefit. Now, that’s a good take-home message, both on any future Pax and here and now on Earth.


* There are other spoilers in this review – sorry about that. To avoid them – mostly – you could just skip to the last paragraph of this item.


** For more insights into Pax and its plants, etc. you’ll be pleased to know that the book has its own dedicated web site, and the first chapter of Semiosis can be read on-line.


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