Tree Notes

Addenda to my recent post about trees.

1.  There's an amusing and alarming chapter on naming rights in Michael Sandel's generally amusing and alarming book What Money Can't Buy.  I thought of it when I kept on seeing signs like the one below in redwood groves in Jedediah Smith State Park. 

2.   Here Russell Blackford segues from my recent tree post to an interesting (and sympatico) thing he wrote about respect. By the way, the petite person in the sequoia picture is my daughter.

3.  Everyone seems to be talking about plant ethics.  Gary Francione and Gary Marder debate plant ethics here.  Marder makes some pretty wild claims about plant "awareness"--
As I have pointed out, contemporary research in botany gives us ample reasons to believe that plants are aware of their environment in a nonconscious way—for instance, thanks to the roots that are capable of altering their growth pattern in moving toward resource-rich soil or away from nearby roots of other members of the same species. To ignore such evidence in favor of a stereotypical view of plants as thing-like is counterproductive, both for ethics and for our understanding of what they are.

Plants are "aware in a non-conscious way," Marder claims.  How's plant "awareness" different from plants simply being responsive?  Plants are certainly highly responsive to their environments.  The book I'm reading about trees (The Trees in My Forest, by Bernd Heinrich) makes it clear they're much, much more responsive than you would imagine.  Still, why speak of "awareness"?  "Aware in a non-conscious way" may be a concept with some application, but arguably only to things that can also be aware in a conscious way.  For example, it might be okay to say that someone seeing a red spot on the wall via blindsight is aware of the spot's color in a non-conscious way.  I don't see anything but confusion arising from talking about the non-conscious awareness of trees.

4.  Big, big, big mystery: for some reason trees can achieve all the responsiveness they need without any consciousness (or awareness).  It's only when an organism starts being able to move around from one environment to another that (evidently) mere responsiveness is not enough, and it's more adaptive to have a brain with conscious awareness.  Locomotion and consciousness go hand in hand.  That's not something you would have expected, a priori, but seems pretty likely to be true.

5.  The search for plant consciousness. Evidently it has a long history.

6.  I wrote a paper recently about whether experimentation on the great apes should be prohibited (it will appear in Current Debates in Bioethics, to be published by Wiley-Blackwell). One of my arguments is that we can value something over saving human lives, even without attributing rights to that thing.  My example was that trees along French boulevards are preserved, even though it's well known that they cause fatal traffic accidents.  On my trip through redwood country, I discovered a better example.

Along the roads in Jedediah Smith State Park there are colossally big, thousand year old redwoods protruding right into the road. There are warning reflectors affixed to them, and they probably cause some number of fatalities every decade.  It's defensible that we should keep these trees, even at that cost.  Obviously we do so because we value redwoods, not because the trees have rights.  Likewise it's possible to mount an argument for ending the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research without having to get into any perplexing talk of their having rights.  Of course chimapanzees, unlike trees, do have feelings like pleasure and pain, so we have further reasons to be concerned about how we treat them.  But the mandate to spare their lives doesn't have to rest on a rights argument.


Faust said...

Funny about all this, I was just up in Monte Rio last weekend. The redwoods are indeed impressive.

Re: Marder's comments: I don't see how they couldn't be extended to apply to say, artificial intelligence programs. Or various unconscious response processing that occurs inside animal life (such as say: our immune systems).

I think one could see how to get there with the kind of arguments that Chalmers makes about information and pansychism towards the end of "The Conscious Mind" but at that point it's not clear that the word "consciousness" still has moral weight in the traditional sense.

It's one thing to speculate about variously "awareness" and "consciousness" and also of course "sentience," but then it's all to easy to slide (because all of the preceding plausibly exist on a continuum) into moral claims that are as imprecise as the variable concept they are purportedly based on.

Eli said...

"It's only when an organism starts being able to move around from one environment to another that (evidently) mere responsiveness is not enough, and it's more adaptive to have a brain with conscious awareness. Locomotion and consciousness go hand in hand."

Except for, like, jellyfish, and microorganisms, and so on? I take your point that this is an only-if relation, but I don't see that it's an if relation as well.

Iamcuriousblue said...

The named groves in the redwood State Parks have been around for many years, and go back to the days when private benefactors were money to the Save the Redwoods League to create the parks we have now. I believe they still actively do this to this day.

Whatever your opinion of the practice, it has had one clear benefit, in that it's created a whole lot of named locales in these parks. Taxonomists have been able to use this for years as easily-identifiable type localities for species discovered in those areas, or identifiable localities for collections in general.

To the best of my knowledge, STRL has not caved into the odious practice of corporate naming, hence, thankfully no "AT&T Grove".

Jean Kazez said...

It's a strange practice--that seems worth noting even if (bottom line) you think the strangeness is worth it, because there's no other way to raise the funds needed to preserve the trees. Yes, "AT&T Grove" would be beyond the pale. One thing I did find pretty touching was memorial groves. One grove was named for a girl who died at the age of about 18. I certainly understand the parents' finding it meaningful to attach her name to trees that will stand there (hopefully) for thousands of years.

Ardent Skeptic said...

Thought you might find this study interesting, Jean.

Talking Plants

It never occurred to me that some plants can and do emit sounds to communicate. (At least this is what Monica Gagliano's research seems to indicate.)