“Doesn’t the Tomato Suffer?"
The (sort of) mysterious spiritual world of plants
"What will I have left to eat?"
I admit: I've never before taken the amusing “punch line" in the headline seriously. I always assumed that the comedians waving this "argument" aren't as interested in protecting plants as they are in legitimizing the killing of animals, and mostly in shutting their opponents' mouths. Yet recently a devoted Anonymous activist told me that she had never opened "The Secret Life of Plants" of fear that she would find out that plants feel and suffer, "and then what will I have left to eat?" So I found myself reading the famous work for the sake of conscious souls threatening to go on a hunger strike.
Let us assume that plants have a consciousness, and that they hurt when being picked, cooked or eaten – theoretically this is an interesting question. Peter Singer wrote that even if this is true, it’s still better to eat plants instead of plant-eating animals. Animals eat many times more plants than would be consumed if the plants had been consumed directly. Thus eating animals indirectly causes the killing of many times over the amount of plants. "I admit that in this point the debate has turned into a farce", Singer adds (page 276).
Do Plants Feel?
Plants don't have a nervous system or equivalent structure that would function in a similar way. There are three tests to determine that a living being feels pain, fear, joy, etc: behavior; the structure of the nervous system; and the evolutionary benefits of feeling. In order to determine that another being feels, you're required to perform all three tests – and indeed, there are conclusive evidence for these qualities in most vertebrates, and with some dissension in a few large invertebrates. However, vegetal behavior which indicates pain has been identified so far only in the wild imagination of Tompkins, Bird and their friends; plants do not poses a nervous system (not even according to Tompkins-Bird), nor anything that may function in a similar way. It is difficult to understand how feeling could have evolved in organisms that cannot effectively respond to stimulation. It should be mentioned that vegetal “behavior,” such as phototaxis or growing thorns, does not indicate feeling – “behavior," in that sense, is a more immediate and active response. Either way, the lack of a nervous system and evolutionary advantage to the ability to feel ends the debate.
The Free Association Science
"The Secret Life of Plants" belongs to the pseudo-science mystery books Jenner, and is packed with descriptions of "scientific experimentations.” In most experiments, the wild interpretation of meaningless data is shocking. For instance, in Chapter 4, an engineer named George Lawrence aimed a device containing a plant to the sky, and the device emitted vibrations; Lawrence deducted that the plant received alien transmissions and passed them to the device. Tompkins and Bird most graciously explain how Lawrence managed to decipher signals, which any lesser man would have mistaken for ambient noise:
Bullocks or Lies?
In addition to the “Brr-r-r-r-Bip-Bip-Bip,” the book describes some other far-fetched experiments. For instance, a polygraph connected to plants emitted unusual signals when the plants were approached by a person who had harmed another plant. Such signals were not registered when the plants were approached by “innocent” people (pages 20-21). Either the experimenter lied, has an overactive imagination, or plants really do have an extremely secret life. So how can we know?
An Introduction to the Sociology of Science
The experiments described in the book were conducted outside the sphere of renowned academic institutions and naturally have not been published in scientific journals. As a rule, the field of science maintains extremely high standards and strict guidelines for studies. And it knows how to train researchers to work according to its principals and produce studies in accordance to these principals, and how to filter substandard or immoral researchers and studies.
And to the philosophy of science
Arthur Galston, a plant physiologist from Yale University addressed "The Secret Life of Plants" in the scientific journal “Natural History.” Galston provides some information about studies which (unsuccessfully) tried to duplicate the experiments described in the book, and on fundamental information gaps upon which Tompkins and Bird are relying. But Galston is more horrified by the researchers’ unscientific methods: They don’t see the importance of having other researchers achieving the same results when repeating the experiments in similar conditions. The researchers also do not presume that in order to prove a factual claim, the hypothesis needs to be put to a public and methodic test. In their opinion, it takes special "awareness" in order to reach the results in their experiments: "according to this explanation", Galston writes, "anyone who performs experiments can 'prove' anything that he wants simply by reaching that result once – or possibly occasionally. And what about the experiments that don't work? Mother nature is a little shy."
Against Everything We Know
The scientific jargon and out-of-context scientific ideas may somewhat cloud the judgment of the casual reader. But the book disregards basic scientific procedure and most of what is known about the physical and biological world of plants. “The Secret Life of Plants” claims that plants not only feel pain (a vegetable thrown into boiling water "screams in pain”), but are also capable of mind-reading. This raises the question, “How are plants, of all creatures, capable of reading the human mind?” The book explains:
And except provides another explanation:
It is abundantly clear that “The Secret Life of Plants” completely disregards scientific methodology and relies on studies that ignore basic research requirements. It therefore cannot be reasonably counted as evidence of plants’ feelings, and should be excluded from this argument completely. When and if scientific research presents valid evidence of plants’ ability to feel, the discussion may be reopened. Until that time, the conclusion that all accepted evidence points to is that plants do not feel pain, emotions, or the like.
Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, The Secret Life of Plants (translated to Hebrew), (Tel-Aviv: Zmora, Bitan, 1978)
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (translated to Hebrew), (Or-Am, 1988), pages 275-276
Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, The Secret Life of Plants, (Harper and Row, 1973)
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, (HarperCollins, 1975)
Arthur W. Galston, "The Unscientific Method", Natural History 83 (3), March 1974, pp.