Plant sentience – “It is happening…again”

Those of you who were Twin Peaks fans will recognize the title quote. And while my topic is not quite as scary as being stalked by Bob, the fact that plant sentience continues to rear its irritating head in legitimate scientific venues makes me want to curl up in a ball and whimper. Here’s what made me cringe: “Sound Garden: Can Plants Actually Talk and Hear?”

I posted on this topic a few years ago, and I’d invite you to read it and the accompanying comments. I’m still not a fan of anthropomorphizing plants, and I still think word choices matter, especially when you are trying to educate people about science.

It’s disappointing that some scientists are deliberately using anthropomorphic language when discussing plant physiology. The cynical side of me says it’s a great way to get press coverage.

April 2013 041 We’re watching you…

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Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and a Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - Books:

4 thoughts on “Plant sentience – “It is happening…again””

  1. Hi Linda,
    I understand your frustration with the article in question but I’d like to say that sort of language strikes a chord. It is useful language when explaining things to children, for example.
    It may not be scientific language but it is understandable to the layperson/child.
    I did some extra studies recently (in education) and found the particular specialisation I was looking at used technical terms that were also used in education in another context whose meanings were quite different in intention.

    So, for me, trying to translate and explain to children the wonders of nature in terms such as ‘know’ ‘see’ are merely metaphorical ways of explaining things. Teachers have to use that literary way of saying things all the time.

    I write anthropomorphic stories about Australian animals. In that way, I can teach children, indirectly, about flora and fauna. I have Mum-a-roo rousing on her son, Pan, the potaroo, for running away …

    I understand the need to be pedantic about certain terms with particular audiences but the use of more metaphorical terms can be a useful instructive way of getting the message across to interested, but uninformed, audiences.

    I really enjoy your post. I am fairly new to it. I don’t have scientific bone in my body but have a love of nature, particularly anything botanical. And, I like to share these gems with the younger generation to instil in them a wonder and awe of nature in all its glory. And, sometimes, that requires anthropomorphism.

    1. Hi Caroline –

      I agree that teaching children might require a different vocabulary set, but I disagree that this “requires” anthropomorphism. My husband and I didn’t need to use anthropomorphisms to teach either of our two children about nature. On our Facebook page one of our readers addressed this very well, and I’m quoting Raymond’s comment below:

      “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a lazy way to educate. Sure, use metaphors, but quite frankly, I think it’s doing a disservice to the wondrous nature of plants to assign to them human characteristics.

      “Yes, it’s difficult to convey complex plant actions and reactions, and science is still learning more and more about them, but difficult does not mean impossible (as the GPs demonstrate daily), and ultimately, I find it condescending for scientists to not use precise language when communicating with a lay audience.”

  2. re previous post: I should add that I also write informative articles eg about long-nosed and short-nosed potatoos, etc. and it was published at the same time as the story. Because it was an informative article then I needed to use correct scientific terminology.
    As, you’d know, different genres require different language styles.
    It must be frustrating for you to have a mix of styles in an article/book that seems to mix it all up especially when writing is becoming more fluid in form these days.

  3. I like this comment from Dr. Ian Baldwin in an article about plant communication. I think the article does a pretty good job of educating, and still avoiding anthropomorphizing:

    >>To learn what else they’re capable of, we have to stop anthropomorphizing plants, said Baldwin, who is now at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and try instead to think like them, to phytomorphize ourselves.<<

    Using that as the metaphor when communicating to children or a lay audience, you can start off with, or have in mind while putting the message together, "imagine you're a plant, with no legs, or means to move – no mouth, no vocal chords, no nervous system, or brain, for that matter, what mechanisms can you think of that could protect you from being eaten?"

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