Sunday, 31 May 2015

Flowers Are Amazingly Smart

Flowers are smart.

Joel Kontinen

Few would deny the beauty of flowers, which to some extent depends on the intricate mathematics used in their design.

But when it comes to plant intelligence, we might be a bit too reluctant to admit that they’re not stupid.

Actually, flowers are a lot smarter than we used to think. That is the take-home message from a recent review of two books in New Scientist: Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola (Island Press) and Plant Sensing and Communication by Richard Karban (University of Chicago Press).

We knew that flowers liked to turn towards the sun. But there’s much more:

Clearly, we will never play chess with a rose, nor ask the orchid on our windowsill for advice. But that is the point: humans are guilty of serious parochialism, of defining intelligence in terms of a nervous system and muscle-based speed that enables things to be done fast, say all three authors.

Plants and animals face similar challenges: to find resources and mates, and avoid predators, pathogens and abiotic stresses. In response, says Karban, ‘plants communicate, signaling within [themselves], eavesdropping on neighboring individuals, and exchanging information with other organisms’. They have adaptive responses that, if they happened at speeds humans understand, would reveal them to be ‘brilliant at solving problems related to their existence.’

Communication, signals and information are anything but Darwinian terms. They all suggest teleology. In other words, the existence of plants is no accident but there is a purpose behind them.

They defy naturalistic explanations.


Barnett, Adrian. 2015. Intelligent life: Why don't we consider plants to be smart? New Scientist 3023 (30 May).