‘The Revolutionary Genius of Plants’ Review: Thinking Like a Flower

January 4, 2019
By Gerard Helferich
Wall Street Journal

It seems we have much to learn from our green companions—about everything from designing buildings to organizing society.

We humans take it for granted that plants are our inferiors. But they make earth habitable for us animals, by harnessing the energy of the sun to produce food and by releasing oxygen. That’s not the only trick they have up their leaves. In this thought-provoking, handsomely illustrated book, Italian neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso considers the fundamental differences between plants and animals and challenges our assumptions about which is the “higher” form of life. It seems we have much to learn from our green companions—about everything from designing buildings to organizing society.

The evolutionary split between animals and plants came nearly half a billion years ago, as life migrated from the oceans to the land. While animals roamed around their new environment, plants rooted themselves in one place. From these diverse strategies stems what Dr. Mancuso considers the most important distinction between the two kingdoms—not whether they move or produce their own food but how individual organisms are internally organized.

By Stefano Mancuso 
Atria, 225 pages, $30

Whether they are predator or prey, animals’ survival depends on efficient movement and quick decision-making. And so we have adopted a top-down structure, with a central brain and organs such as heart and lungs to perform other vital functions. Because we can run away from predators, animals can afford to put our cerebral, circulatory, respiratory and other essential eggs in just one or two baskets.

For stationary plants, on the other hand, individual organs would only be “points of weakness,” Dr. Mancuso writes, chinks in their defenses that would leave them vulnerable to predators. So plants hedge their bets by spreading single functions, including such vital ones as respiration and photosynthesis, throughout the whole organism—breathing and creating food with their entire body. Plants may be brainless, but thanks to this simple, decentralized structure they enjoy a “distributed intelligence” that serves them well in meeting the challenges of their environment.

Plants are exceptionally sensitive to their surroundings, constantly monitoring a host of factors, including light, gravity, moisture, oxygen, sound, the presence of other plants and the approach of predators. Recent research conducted in Dr. Mancuso’s laboratory at the University of Florence has shown that at least one plant is capable of learning and remembering: When Mimosa pudica, a tropical native also known as the sensitive plant, is exposed to gentle shaking, it responds at first by closing its leaves. But after seven or eight trials, the plant concludes the vibrations aren’t a real threat and keeps the leaves open—a lesson it can remember for more than 40 days.

Another plant has no eyes yet can see. The boquila, a woody vine native to South America, avoids predators by mimicking the shape, size and color of its neighbors’ leaves. This in itself isn’t much to brag about—except that one part of the boquila can impersonate one species while another part of the same individual mimics an entirely different species. To manage this, the vine must have some idea of what both neighbors look like. It may achieve this, Dr. Mancuso speculates, by using its exterior cells as crude lenses.

Much of plants’ intelligence is hidden below ground, in the roots, their most important organ. Made up of “innumerable tiny command centers,” roots collect crucial information and guide the entire plant like “a sort of collective brain.” In this sense, roots are reminiscent of animals that act in unison with no central direction, such as schooling fish, flocking birds and swarming insects. In fact, a similar metaphor can be extended to the whole plant. In light of its modular design and decentralized organization, “it seems difficult to define a plant as ‘an individual,’ ” Dr. Mancuso believes; like coral, a plant more nearly resembles a colony of individuals.

Due in part to their distinctive organization, plants have thrived, colonizing every continent and accounting for at least 80% of the world’s biomass. Though plants are ancient they are, Dr. Mancuso writes, “the epitome of modernity: a cooperative, shared structure without any command centers,” which is the ideal melding of durability and innovation. “When you want to design something robust, energetically sustainable, and adaptable to an environment of continuous change,” Dr. Mancuso suggests, “there is nothing better on earth to use as inspiration” than plants. In architecture, plant-inspired designs have yielded everything from Victorian London’s Crystal Palace, to Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport, to a plan for a residential skyscraper that would simulate leaves’ position on a stem in order to maximize each apartment’s exposure to natural light. In technology, plants have inspired sustainable floating farms; towers that, like cacti, can condense water out of the atmosphere; and root-like robots that may one day be used to explore the soil of Mars.

Closer to home, Dr. Mancuso points to the Internet and worker cooperatives as examples of the kind of “large, distributed organizations without control centers” that “make groups more intelligent than even the most intelligent individuals that compose them.” In the future, he believes, we will organize human society more along plants’ nonhierarchical model. “We are at the very beginning of a revolution,” he confidently writes, “that has much to teach us about the true nature of intelligence and that will involve increasingly large numbers of individuals in solving problems and achieving goals that today are impossible.” If only we can shed our animal hubris and heed the wisdom of plants.

—Mr. Helferich’s most recent book is “An Unlikely Trust: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Improbable Partnership That Remade American Business.”

Appeared in the January 5, 2019, print edition as 'Thinking Like a Flower.'