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Are Earthly Plants Sentient Like E.T.? Maybe, Kind Of
Plants have many of the same talents we do, they're just quiet about it.
We know from Laurent Bouzereau's book Spielberg: The First Ten Years, that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (streaming now on Peacock) was a walking, breathing, talking plant. It’s no surprise then, that he and his comrades were so interested in our planet and our plant life in particular. They found kindred souls in our forests.
We can’t help but wonder what they thought when they got here and found our plants literally rooted to the spot. Did they recognize the grasses and the trees as relatives, did they experience the world in similar ways, and were they able to communicate with one another? In short, do the plants on our world possess any measurable intelligence at all comparable to the wisdom and wit of E.T.?
Do Plants Experience the World Like We Do?
In short: Yeah, dude. Kinda, sorta. We think of plants as being mostly static objects, slow to change and practically incapable of really interacting with the world in anything but a passive way. Not so. It is precisely because plants are rooted in place that they had to get clever, adapting a whole host of ways to dynamically respond to a changing environment which they cannot escape.
Plants are highly aware of their surroundings, exhibiting many of the same senses that humans and other animals have. Although, they often present in strange and interesting ways. One of the most obvious is a plant’s ability for sight. It’s clear that many plants know when the Sun is up, opening their leaves to soak up the sunlight, but some plants have even better sight than others. Sunflowers, for instance, not only notice the Sun but they follow it as it arcs across the sky. More than that, they can tell the difference between the Sun and artificial light and they modify their behavior accordingly.
Plants are also talented sniffers. They release chemicals and pheromones under a number of circumstances and those chemical signals impact the behavior of nearby plants and animals. It’s the reason that large fields, groves, or orchards will all ripen at roughly the same time. Sometimes they use smell to signal distress as with the aroma of fresh cut grass. Although that smell isn’t meant to warn other plants of danger, it’s meant to lure predatory insects. Your lawn thinks it’s being eaten by a thousand hungry bugs and it’s hoping some wasps will show up and do a little population control.
Plants Can Talk, Listen, and Remember
Sometimes those olfactory signals do warn nearby plants to shore up their defenses but there is some debate about whether that is “communication” in the strictest sense. It’s possible that individual plants are sending out signals to other parts of themselves, telling other branches to board up the windows in the midst of an attack. In that case, nearby plants might simply be taking advantage of hearing the screams from inside the house next door. Whether or not that counts as communication is up to you.
They don’t have any ears but they’re still able to hear. We think of plants as having no real control over their place in the environment. It’s true that they sprout wherever their seeds happen to fall, but they do have some control over how they spread out from that point. As they grow, plants push their roots in one direction or another and they do it at least partly by listening.
In laboratory experiments, thirsty plants grew their roots in the direction of water even when the water source wasn’t actually in their container. They will even seek out buried pipes because they can hear the rushing water inside.
Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence for the inner minds of plants is that at least some of them have memories. Venus flytraps are famous for their carnivorous behavior, snatching up creepy crawlies to feed themselves and scientists have spent years figuring out how they do it. The plants close on prey when it lands between their mouth-like leaves, but they need to be able to tell the difference between water droplets and weevils.
When a trigger hair is touched, a burst of calcium gets released inside the plant’s body and the memory of that burst sticks around for about 30 seconds. If there is another trigger during that time, then a cascade of calcium floods out and the plant’s “mouth” closes. Basically, a Venus flytrap only ever closes its leafy maw if it feels something and thinks, “Hey, I’ve felt this before.” And it can only do that if it has short term memory.
Our plants aren’t out there building spaceships, so E.T.’s got a leg up on them there – and that’s without mentioning his actual legs, the envy of plants everywhere – but the more we study, the clearer it is that plants have got something going on inside. Best to take a page from Elliott’s book and treat them kindly.
Don’t forget to water your plants and check out the science fiction classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, streaming now on Peacock.