Learning to confront our biases when it comes to plant intelligence.
“When we think of intelligence,” the philosopher Michael Marder explains via video call from his office at the University of the Basque Country, “we don’t take into account the layers that have been overlooked, neglected, and even repressed throughout the history of Western thought.” Marder, with a shock of espresso-colored hair combed behind his glasses, has the look of a dark-eyed, hipster-thin poet. “Overlooked forms of intelligence include emotional and embodied intelligence,” he continues. “The body has wisdom of its own, which it shares to a large extent with other living things, including plants. Consider our skin’s sensitivity to light. In this respect, plants are more intelligent, because they can register and differentiate many more waves of sunlight.”
I picture the living room window at my grandmother’s house, which was a lattice of leaves, a jungle in miniature through which only threads of sunlight could enter. The lacework curtain of philodendron spread from a single plant but seemed to be the product of dozens. The philodendron was not the only plant colonizing the parlor. My grandmother also made room for arrowhead vines, coleus, African violets, spider plants, and, in a terrarium in the corner, an array of succulents bright as tropical fish. As a child, I would peer through the beads of the steamy dome, filling my lungs with fresh oxygen. But were those oxygen producers smart?