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15 March 2011

Plants are people, too!

I'm a vegetarian. If you're interested in my rationale, I recommend listening to episode 43 of Reasonable Doubts; although Singer and I aren't entirely on the same page, the doubtcasters' discussion of Singer's work was what convinced me to forgo eating meat. And I'm still mad at them for it.

I'm not a preachy vegetarian. In fact, I don't even like to self-identify as a vegetarian, because there are a lot of granola kooks out there.* But I'm not shy about expressing my opinion when I feel that it's warranted.

From Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur. Public domain image courtesy of Wikipedia.

I was sort of looking forward to this article in the New York Times, because I really miss eating meat and I'd love an excuse to start it up again.

But then I read it. Even the title annoyed me:

No Face, but Plants Like Life Too

No, no they don't. As far as we've been able to determine, you need a nervous system in order to "like" something. I eat plants, and avoid eating animals, because we have no evidence that plants suffer in the way that animals do when we slaughter them.

But just like a chicken running around without its head, the body of a corn plant torn from the soil or sliced into pieces struggles to save itself, just as vigorously and just as uselessly, if much less obviously to the human ear and eye.


When a plant is wounded, its body immediately kicks into protection mode. It releases a bouquet of volatile chemicals, which in some cases have been shown to induce neighboring plants to pre-emptively step up their own chemical defenses and in other cases to lure in predators of the beasts that may be causing the damage to the plants.

I don't see how any of this is relevant. Those are evolutionary adaptations geared toward increasing the biological fitness of the plant and its relatives; when these defences aid in gene propagation, the defences are passed on. That does not mean that the plant "wants" to survive, because there is no evidence that plants "want" anything, and indeed they do not possess any of the organs that as far as we can tell are required in order to want something.

If you want to look at these "protection mode" adaptations in a fair light, the fight-or-flight response in animals is probably analogous. So ask yourself this: when you are in a job interview, or when you're talking to a pretty person of the opposite (or same) sex, or when you're being grilled by your boss about how you spent that sick day last week, do you want your heart to start racing and your palms to start sweating?

No, probably not. But it's a biological adaptation that was evidently evolutionarily useful. Even when you're running from a mugger, the fight-or-flight response isn't something that you call upon; it's an automatic response that occurs irrespective of our desires. The fact that plants are subject to evolutionary pressures (just as we are) doesn't mean that they "want" to not be eaten.

Maybe the real problem with the argument that it’s O.K. to kill plants because they don’t feel exactly as we do, though, is that it’s the same argument used to justify what we now view as unforgivable wrongs. Slavery and genocide have been justified by the assertion that some kinds of people do not feel pain, do not feel love — are not truly human — in the same way as others.

Seriously? You've elected to go the Godwin route? You're equating salad to the holocaust and slavery? I'm not offended; I just want to make it clear where we stand.

Any reasonable person can see (and could, at the time, if they cared to look) that Jews, Africans, and any other subjugated, enslaved, or otherwise downtrodden people were capable of the same feelings as anyone else. But not only is there no plausible mechanism for plants to have the same (or similar) feelings, there is substantial evidence that they couldn't have any analogous feelings.

For example, physicians once withheld anesthetics from infants during surgery because it was believed that these not-quite-yet-humans did not feel pain (smiles were gas, remember).

Okay. And as soon as you demonstrate that plants do feel pain, then I will reassess my position.

* Edit: Mike pointed out that using a term like "granola kook" to could damage my credibility here. In retrospect, I realise that it's probably not going to help.

It was an off-hand remark that I should probably clarify: for whatever reason, vegetarianism seems to correlate rather highly with many beliefs that I don't share, and although it's probably unreasonable for people to assume that I share these beliefs (that natural is better, for example) simply because I'm vegetarian, people seem to do so anyway.

Even so, that's probably not a good reason for me to avoid using the term "vegetarian"; it seems to me like that's akin to avoiding calling yourself an atheist because you're worried what people might think. And regardless of the correlation, I seem to be engaging in fairly base stereotyping.



  1. What a ridiculous article!

  2. You should really eat meat every once In a while Like Fish or Chicken, your Brain will thank you for It.

  3. From what I understand, the evidence for fish is equivocal at best, and I'm not aware of any such claims made for chicken. In any event, I doubt that the animals would enjoy such an arrangement.

  4. Um you can't spell. Even more concerning you presented a condescending counterpoint without spell checking. Which leads me to believe you posted this out of irrational emotions. Maybe you should appreciate life in general instead of turning your nose up to people.

    1. I'd be delighted to correct any spelling errors, if you'd be so kind as to point them out in specific. I am curious, however, as to why you assume that these (supposed) errors in spelling bespeak an emotional irrationality.

      While it's true that I can be somewhat cavalier at times, that doesn't prevent me from appreciating or respecting life in general.

      If you wouldn't mind actually addressing the issues discussed in this post, instead of wasting everyone's time sniping about (purported) spelling errors and my apparent attitude problem, then perhaps we could engage in useful dialogue!

  5. Life is Life, you can't rationalize your way around that. Irregardless of what your eating your consuming a living being to keep yourself alive.

    Really think about it, if it were not for plants there wouldn't be a single animal or person alive on this planet. Yet you have dedicated your life to eating them. The only things on this planet that metabolize sunlight into sugar. Not only that but you make up excuses to put one form of life over another.

    I don't rationalize one life as greater then another, or more human like. I understand that we are all just trying to live Animals, plants, humans, fish, even insects. I don't think anyone looks down on vegetarians for there choice. We just understand the circle of life a little better then you do. Lets not sugar coat it with the word "eat"

    Predators kill and eat animals, Animals Kill and eat plants, Animals kill and eat insects, Some animals are even cannibals, like pigs. Plants kill insects and eat them, Plants even kill animals with poisonous fruit/berries and they rot in the ground and are eaten. Heck the only things in this world that don't kill things to eat them are carrion eaters, and they are viewed with disgust.

    Where do you want to be in the carnage? A vegetarian? Good you can kill and eat plants and insects(100% of processed veggies and fruits have insects in them)

    One day something is gonna eat you, and it won't care what you are.

    1. "Life is Life"

      Congratulations on the tautology. You must be very proud. In all honesty, though, that's overly simplistic; there does in fact seem to be a significant grey area. Viruses and even some computer programs, for example, fit several of the proposed criteria for life, but not all. Regardless, this issue is simply a distraction. What is and what is not life isn't at issue.

      "I don't think anyone looks down on vegetarians for there choice. We just understand the circle of life a little better then you do."

      Well, the important thing is that you've come up with a way to feel superior. Congratulations on not enaging with the argument at any level!

      Life relies on death. Of course that's true! No vegetarian that I know has ever denied this. But here's the thing: so far as we're able to tell, plants (and certain other organisms without well-developed nervous systems) are incapable of suffering. I'm interested in preventing others from suffering insofar as I am able.

      But if you'd prefer to continue to attack a straw man, be my guest. In that case, I'll ask that you kindly do it elsewhere.