Do Plants Feel Pain? | Darkology #17


Pain. It’s an unpleasant sensation that we humans
experience from time to time. It’s a reaction that warns us that something
is unsafe or that we are being harmed. And it’s this important neural signal that
tells us that our bodies need extra care. Our unpleasant experience with pain has led
some of us to develop a care and concern for others who may be going through pain, including
other beings in the world. In an effort to show compassion or benevolence
to other creatures, we’ve developed organizations that focus on the humane treatment of animals,
who can also experience pain. It has led many of us to lead greener, more
vegan lifestyles. From the products we buy to the foods we eat. But what about plants? Can plants feel pain? If a venus flytrap is capable of movement
in the same way a flesh and blood organic being is, who’s to say that it doesn’t
experience a range of other similarities? Let’s take for example the smell of freshly
cut grass. For many of us, this is a rather pleasant
scent. But what if it’s really the plant’s way
of screaming for help? What if it’s the plant’s way of crying
in agony? If that were the case, would “pleasant”
be the right word here? Scientists have found that the smell we associate
with freshly cut grass is actually a chemical distress call being emitted by the plants-
a signal of molecular communications that have several uses linked to survival. From poisoning an enemy, to alerting plants
nearby of potential danger, to enlisting the aid of insects nearby, such as bees who help
pollinate the plant and ensure the continuity of its species. It is clear that this is a response to being
damaged. German scientists have developed a way to
pick up sounds that are unrecognized by the naked human ear. Using a laser-driven microphone, scientists
at the Institute for Applied Physics at the University of Bonn have found that flowers
whimper when a leaf is cut and cucumbers squeal when they get sick. A growing body of research suggests that at
the very least, plants instinctively respond to being harmed. The plant itself doesn’t actually make a
sound. When a leaf or stem is cut off, the plant
“cries out” by releasing the gas, ethylene over its entire surface. When specially calibrated lasers are pointed
at the ethylene molecules, they begin to vibrate, emitting a sound. The more pressure, the more ethylene released,
the louder the sound. If plants are capable of perceiving a sense
of their own environment, and adjusting their morphology, physiology, and phenotype accordingly,
then doesn’t that tell us that at least on some level, plants can feel? All living organisms strive to maintain a
balance of homeostasis, or in other words, will instinctively do what it can to survive. But does a tree growing more girthy and less
tall in a windier environment to avoid being blown out of the ground necessarily mean that
it will suffer a sensation of pain if its leaves are cut? Some researchers and botanists argue that
pain is a sensation that is strictly linked with the brain. Without a brain, pain can’t possibly be
registered. But despite this lack of a perceivable brain
or even conscious awareness, plants still seem to exhibit some form of intelligence. According to Daniel Chamovitz, a biologist
and the author of What a Plant Knows, at the very least, plants can feel. When leaves are under attack by insects, they
emit electric signals from leaf to leaf, sending out the message that it must protect itself. This occurs very similar to how information
moves along a nervous system, however plants do this without a proper neural system like
the kind we humans have. What does this mean? It means that neural systems are simply one
way to process information- more specifically our way- but they aren’t the only way. Another thing to consider is that damage doesn’t
necessarily equate to pain. We humans feel pain because we have pain receptors
called nociceptors. They’re programmed to respond to pain- not
to touch. Some people can have genetic malfunctions
where they feel pressure but never feel pain because they don’t have pain receptors. We don’t have enough evidence to suggest
that plants feel pain. Chamovitz suggests that plants are not cognizant. They don’t have a consciousness like we
do. They aren’t self-aware like we are. When we cut a leaf, we assume that the plant
is suffering. But that might just be our own anthropomorphism-
our need to give similar human characteristics to nonhuman things, kicking in. We have a tendency to assume that other entities
in the world around us have experiences similar to our own, though that can lead us to a lot
of false assumptions. Even though plants do feel, they don’t have
a personality or the cognizant capacity to recognize damage as suffering. Plants don’t have pain receptors. They have pressure receptors that allow them
to know when they’re being touched or moved- a specific nerve cell called a mechanoreceptor. So you can definitely kill a plant, but it
doesn’t care. Chamovitz sums it up as: they can feel themselves
being eaten, they just don’t have the capacity to give a shit. If they did, we might see a reality like in
M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening”. So it seems we’re at a stand still. While it’s clear that plants respond to
certain stimuli, we haven’t yet been able to address whether or not plants actually
experience pain. We know that they don’t have a brain or
nervous system like our own, though evidence points to a complex connection of mechanisms
that could at the very least lead to a pseudo-emotion that we could one day classify as pain similar
to the kind we experience. How we would be able to identify that remains
a mystery. And then there’s the idea that plants are
not cognizant beings with thoughts and emotions. But then again, they do feel. And even if we did realize that plants did
indeed experience pain, what would that mean for our diet? Would vegetarians and vegans just eat nothing
to avoid causing pain to others and die of starvation? Would we evolve to a diet of oxygen, water,
and sunlight? Or would we adapt as we always do? What do you think?

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