Plants Have a Social Life, Too

baisplants - from plants have social life too

The Plant Intelligence Project notices that the words “social” and “sociality” are now words being used to describe certain behaviour in plants.

One of the landmark papers in Plant Behaviour comes from Canadian biologist Susan Dudley. “When Dudley was in school in the 1980s, the very idea of plant sociality was practically taboo among scientists.”

Her groundbreaking work in Kin Recognition in an Annual Plants is referenced in this 2009 article in Wired that brings together a few papers to discuss observations that plants recognize and respond the presence of family members.

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for “social” as pertains to plants that dates back to 1764:

 c. Bot. Of plants: growing in a wild state in clumps, patches or masses with other members of the same species, typically so as to cover a large area.

1674   W. Bates Harmony Divine Attrib. viii. 152   Resemblance is the common Principle of Union in Nature: Social Plants thrive best when near together: Sensitive Creatures associate with those of their kind.
1811   J. Black tr. A. von Humboldt Polit. Ess. New Spain II. 455   With the exception of a few gigantic arundinaceous which are social plants, the gramina appear in general infinitely rarer in the torrid zone than in the temperate zone.
1855   A. Pratt Flowering Plants & Ferns Great Brit. III. 268   One of the plants which the botanist terms social because never found growing singly, but always in numbers.

The corresponding use of the word “social” as pertains to humans, according to the OED, is one that emphasizes the need to live in community:

 a. Of a human being: living or disposed to live in groups or communities; naturally inclined to be in the company of others. Also of a person’s nature: characterized by a need to live in groups or communities.

Uses of the word “social” that emphasize friendly interaction, cooperation and communication are generally reserved for humans (too many to quote here – check out the OED entry on social).

The interesting shift from a cultural studies perspective is for an interactive, cooperative and sometimes exclusive sociality to be granted to plant life.

1874   C. Hodge What is Darwinism? 39   He teaches that man’s moral nature has been evolved by slow degrees from the social instincts common to many animals.

Without the teleological assumption that all life proceeds toward the perfection of instinct into the sociality and morality of humans, “social instincts” and “moral nature” become the terrain of all life. You could then argue that survival of the fittest is the only morality, or you could interpret the same democracy of instinct and morality to mean that the idea of interspecies cooperation is “moral nature” itself.


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