Meet Your Vegetables: The long, strange quest to detect plant consciousness
A carrot is strapped to an examining table. After the experimenter wires it up to an especially sensitive galvanometer, he pinches the vegetable with forceps. The machine registers “infinitesimal twitches, starts, and tremors,” according to one report. The year is 1914, the scientist is named Jagadish Chandra Bose, and a journalist in the room writes, apparently without irony: “Thus can science reveal the feelings of even so stolid a vegetable as the carrot.”
Today, that conclusion—and the entire experiment—seems absurd. Whatever is happening inside a carrot, it’s not a “feeling” in any sense we’d understand. For that, a carrot would need a brain, or at least a central nervous system, which it most certainly does not have. The scientific consensus is clear: Plants do not experience the world the way we do.
“We can’t equate human behavior to the ways in which plants function in their worlds,” writes Daniel Chamovitz, who runs a plant biology lab at Tel Aviv University and surveys the field in a new book about plant sensations, “What a Plant Knows.” (He considers that title a kind of literary shorthand, even a provocation, rather than a serious suggestion that plants can think.)
In hindsight it’s easy to look back on Bose’s experiments as novelty science, and observers’ breathless reactions as a kind of wishful thinking. But Bose himself was widely respected, a serious scientist who would soon be knighted for his achievements. And the question of the humanness of plants has a history that stretches far before him, and well after. In fact, many illustrious minds dedicated significant attention to figuring out whether plants might have thoughts and feelings—and if so, what they were. Three generations of Darwins experimented on the surprising capabilities of plants; unlikely figures from other realms dove in, too: former CIA operatives, a Presbyterian minister, even Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.