Because human beings don’t have chlorophyll and a few other physio-chemical adaptations, for us to survive, we need to eat either other forms of life or the products of other forms of life. We’ve bred forms of both plant and animal life to provide food for us, and we’ve become better and better at it.
But there’s an underlying assumption behind our agricultural achievements, and that assumption is that human beings are not only superior to other forms of life on earth, but that we are fundamentally different in the way we interact with our environment.
One of the early beliefs was that human beings were the only tool-users on the planet. Now, after a raft of studies over the past fifty years or so, we know that there are quite a few other species that make and use tools. While those tools are incredibly crude compared to our tools, they are tools, and for a species to make and use a tool requires a certain amount of thinking and forethought beyond blind instinct or environmentally programmed responses. We’ve also discovered that animal tool use is, at least in a number of cases, “cultural,” in that some groups of a species use tools and others don’t, or make different tools.
Then came the questions dealing with whether animals could actually think, especially in dealing with “theory of mind” matters, that is, is the ability to attribute beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc., to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. Experiments with mirrors and images have shown that certain species do indeed have that ability. Crows, ravens, elephants, and certain primates behave in ways that show they are very much aware of possible differences and mental motivation and states of others of their species and sometimes, even of other species.
But what we’ve learned doesn’t stop there. For a long time, most biologists dismissed the idea that plants did anything but grow and reproduce in some fashion. In the last few decades, however, they’ve discovered that plants aren’t nearly as simple as once had been thought. Experiments have shown that plants of the same species communicate with each other, and can warn other plants about insect attacks and other changes in the environment. They can also muster defenses against certain attacks. Unhappily, at times these defenses can be fatal if the attackers also adapt, as in the case of the spruce and pine bark beetles, who are attracted to both the warning signals and pitch secreted by the trees in an effort to repel beetles.
At the same time, more and more experiments and evidence show that plants do learn and adapt to changes in their environment. An evolutionary ecologist at the University of Western Australia, Monica Gagliano, actually trained plants to grow in specific directions based on which way a fan blew.
What’s the bottom line of all this? That while human beings are currently the best tool-users and thinkers on the planet, we’re not the only ones, and that we’re not fundamentally different from the rest of life, just better at taking advantage of all other life-forms – except maybe bacteria and viruses, but that’s another blog.