Saturday, March 29, 2014

Can plants have aesthetic experiences?

I have always wondered whether aesthetic experience was sui generis.  It is well known that we humans are given to anthropocentrism.  Dualism is hard to eradicate.  We see our natural way of being, our consciousness, as unique in the universe.  We do not look kindly on the suggestion that we could share certain traits with our animal relatives, much less so with our more distant plant relatives.  I have even known philosophers strongly committed to evolutionary theory who also insisted that only humans can have aesthetic experiences.  The issue of whether animals can perceive beauty is fascinating, but even more interesting, in a way, is the question of whether plants can.  Of course this would come under the broader question of whether plants can have any experiences at all!  If they can have none then there is no plant aesthetics.  (I will use "plant aesthetics" here to refer not to the aesthetic experiences we have of plants but to the aesthetic experiences plants themselves might have.)  The most famous, and perhaps the only, advocate of plant aesthetics is Gustav Fechner.  His book Nanna:  On the Soul Life of Plants (1848) is available in German, but unfortunately I do not read German.  However I recently discovered a wonderful translation of part of it by Sebastian Olma, called "Teleological Grounds" to be found in Vital Beauty:  Reclaiming Aesthetics in the Tangle of Technology and Nature ed. Joke Bouwer, Arjen Mulder, and Lars Spuybrock (Rotterdam:  V2 Publishing, 2012): 170-191.  Vital Beauty itself is a fascinating volume. I should note that one of the reasons I find this interesting has to do with thinking about Yuriko Saito's wonderful book Everyday Aesthetics and her well-known essays in the aesthetics of nature where she places a strong emphasis on the concept of empathy.  

Fechner begins by asking whether a water lily could experience the sun shining on it and the water in which it was bathing.  He fancies that "nature had made [the flower] thus so that a creature would exist that could enjoy to the fullest all the pleasure that could be derived from bathing at once in sunlight and in water."  This does seem pretty fanciful and, as a science-minded atheist, I could hardly go along with the idea that nature is a god-like entity that designs things for this purpose.  But we could take this as a metaphor and a stimulus for a series of questions.  Could there be a pleasure analogue for the water-lilly?   There is no evidence for it, but is it impossible?  Is it entirely unlikely?   Most would say that the lack of a nervous system makes any sort of experience impossible:  but could this be a circular argument based merely on definition, privileging nervous-system based experience over every other possible kind of experience?  Fechner asks the question whether flowers do not find satisfaction in their offshoots and buddings or in "the enjoyment of dew, air and sun, each in its particular way?" (172)  That is, the plant would enjoy (reader: if this is hard on you, just consider this as a science fiction story or a fairy-tale for now!) that which is in accord with its adaptation.  An alpine plant will enjoy the "freshness and purity of the mountain air."  Moreover, when there are many different species in the same ecological area, each  "according to its different adaptations and reactions, derives different feelings and impulses from the same element."  (172)  We tend to see nature from a zoo-centric perspective, but Fechner tells a nice story of the relationship between butterfly and flower that allows us to think in a somewhat different way.  We talk a lot about the importance and intensity of interactions between species in ecological niches, but isn't it interesting that we allow, at most, some perceptual element in the moving species, and none in the plant species.  "The fact that the plant is confronted by a butterfly and the butterfly by a plant places them differently in nature and renders different sensations possible for each:  the butterfly enjoying nectar from the flowers cannot experience the same sensations as they do."  (173)  Fechner basically asks us to see things from the perspective of plants for once.  We animals (humans, mice, etc.) spend our time moving about, but plants stay at home clinging to the soil.  The animal "runs fleetingly over the soil where the plant is deeply rooted; it breaks in, as it were, only once, in the direction of a single radius, into the circle that the plant fills completely."  (176)  Of course, as my readers are well aware, there are no arguments here, or at least there is no real proof that plants can experience, much less experience such aesthetic properties as beauty and elegance.  But, one wonders, are flowers simply beautiful for bees and humans?  (or are they simply beautiful for humans, as some would argue? extreme of anthropocentrism).  I admit that some of Fechner's arguments are not too convincing as they are based on religious belief.  He asks, for example, whether "we truly believe nature to be such a wasteland [as not to have souls in plants] - nature, through which God's breath blows?"  This assumes that one can make some sense of "God's breath." (177)  He even talks about God enjoying the sensations of all his creatures.  Let's just set that aside.  If it is superstitious to think that humans have souls it is equally so to think that plants do.  But then again, if we can allow a spiritual aspect for the human (given an overall science-based view of the world) then why not plants too?   More convincingly, Fechner describes the life cycle of the plant and then remarks on "how it opens up in the morning and closes in the evening or before a rain; how it turns toward the light."  For him, it is very difficult to "dismiss such a rich life cycle with all its rising and swelling and perpetual change as vain, bleak and empty of sensation."  (178)  He also observes that we often speak of plants as having feelings:  we say of a plant suffering in a drought that it looks sad or that it is thirsty:  "and why do we not equally say of an artificial flower that it smiles at us, as much it [sic] as it might resemble a living one?  Why else if not for our intuition of a proper smiling soul in the living plant?"  (179)  

Many would argue that this is just poetry or projection.  Fechner has a nice response:  "Does [the flower] unwrap its petals from the bud in such a different way than that in which the butterfly unfolds its wings from the cocoon?  Can one truly think that nature endowed the opening eye [of an animal] and the emerging butterfly with real sensation but the opening flower merely with external signs of it, so that it is we who poetically put feeling into the flower?  As if nature were not mightier and richer and deeper than we when it comes to poetic power;  as if we could give her anything she did not already carry deeply inside herself..."  (179)  

Again, one could come to Fechner from the standpoint of a strong commitment to an ecological non-anthropocentric and Darwinian evolution- based view of the world.  Fechner stresses the many relationships between flowers and insects a "strange simultaneity of counterpart and complement."  (180)  "The flower [in the process of flowering] surpasses its previous state of development while keeping it as its very basis, whereas the butterfly sheds it [in its transformation from a caterpillar], or, more accurately, dissolves it in its new state of development.  The soul of the plant builds its body as a ladder whose top is the flower, while the lower stages remain intact; the butterfly carries along the lower stages, thus rendering high what previously was low....Only taken together do butterfly and plant complete the cycle of life."  

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

My good friend Alfred Jan has commented on this post, and this is my reply.   

Hi Alfred:

Thanks for the comment.  I do not want to assume that Venus Flytraps have gustatory values or make gustatory choices but do want to consider the possibility.  So now to the question of verification.  Trying to stay within the realm of philosophy away from pure fantasy, we want to base the claim on good reasons.  Probably we won't in our lifetimes ever be able to prove that plants do have this ability, but also we are not able to prove they do not.  However, there are some interesting developments in the direction of supporting the idea that they do.  I would particularly recommend Michael Pollan's article in the December issue of the New Yorker.  here  If there are analogues to intelligent behavior (and even to consciousness) in plants then plant aesthetics is also possible.  There was also a recent episode of Nature which supports the idea of plant communication and even, dare we say it, plant "caring."  See it here


1 comment:

Alfred Jan said...

Tom: Can we, by extension, assume that Venus Flytraps and other carnivorous plants can make gustatory values as to which insects taste better than others? If so, how do we verify that? I believe you are straying from philosophy to fantasy fiction.