Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Plants Plantify Humans to Understand Us Better

I bought flowers at the farmer's market on Saturday. Two sunflowers and something else. I can't remember what its name is. But it was pretty.

I thought my room would look really nice with flowers. And it did.

Until they died.

I don't really think I expected them to last that long, but it made me kind of sad. I feel like I failed them. I feel like I bought them, and I bought the responsibility that came along with owning living things. I know, they're plants. They don't have "feelings." But aren't feelings relative? Isn't the mind just a construct of us thinking we're better than everything else because of our higher intelligence? Maybe plants don't have feelings the same way we do, but that doesn't mean they don't have them at all.

Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy had an interesting thought to share about perspective:

However, as soon as you want to send a space probe to another planet, geocentrism becomes cumbersome. In that case, it’s far easier to use the Sun as the center of the Universe and measure the rotating and revolving Earth as just another planet. The math works out better, and in fact it makes more common sense.

However, this frame of reference, called heliocentrism, still is not the best frame for everything. Astronomers who study other galaxies use a galactic coordinate system based on our Milky Way galaxy, and the Sun is just another star inside it. Call it galactocentrism, if you want, and it’s just as useful as geo- or heliocentrism in its limited way. And none of those systems work if I want to know turn-by-turn directions while driving; in that case I use a carcentric system (specifically a Volvocentric one).

You use coordinate systems depending on what you need.

So really, there is no one true center to anything. I suppose you could say the Universe is polycentric, or more realistically acentric. You picks your frame of reference and you takes your chances."

It got me thinking about life and how it is so self-centered. If you think about the primal goal of survival, it's a waste of time to think about anyone else, unless ultimately in the end you also benefit. We can't escape that train of thought as it's our nature, but being aware of it can at least help us correct ourselves and remember that there are infinitely more frames of reference out there.

So I try to think about things from the flowers' perspective, and as far as they're concerned, I bought them and let them die a slow and potentially painful death.

And yes, I'm aware that as I tried to relate to the flower, I personified it, which may just be that much more insulting.

Life is funny that way. We have to personify things in order to relate to them, and it gives us this strange idea that in order for something to be alive it has to be exactly like us. It's apparently only wrong to hurt plants assuming they experience life in the same way we do. But the definition of life is tricky: too stringent and you leave out key creatures that are very definitively alive; too loose and all of a sudden it's murder to crush rocks.

Makes me wonder how we hope to find life outside of earth. For all we know, we're excluding living things right here on our own planet, and we hope to find living things outside of our own atmosphere? Who's to say there aren't any living things that adapted to an atmosphere of purely carbon dioxide? Water is essential for life as WE know it, but that doesn't measn it's essential for life. And if we do find something that fits outside the scope of our current definition, what then?

I want to be aware of these different perspectives, but my mind is so limited in how it thinks.

Maybe plants plantify things. They imagine humans as plants to better understand us.

And there I go personifying them again.


  1. It's refreshing to hear that someone else sort of empathizes with - shall I call it "non-humanity?" That treating a flower as more than simply it's physical state of flower-ness is maybe even a natural inclination towards, as you say, personifying the world around us? Even in environmental engineering, a lot of the effort, it seems, to be to make sure that humanity does not suffer the ill affects of pollution and whatnot, with the rest of non-humanity holding secondary status. Don't get me wrong, public health is always a good thing, but sometimes it just seems that we're lording over a world which we think we have the exclusive privilege to do whatever we want, no matter what. And so I think to myself, isn't the world we live in worth something more than just being the world in which we exist?

    PS: Bamboo plants last forever. I've got a few stalks in my room and they're ridiculously easy to take care of.

    PPS: I love reading your blog. :)

  2. I LOVE discovering new people that read my blog. Especially after I've taken down the link from facebook. It's like finding a present behind the tree all the way in the back that you'd forgotten to open on Christmas day.

    I think balancing the importance of life around us with our own importance is tricky. I understand what you're saying in that public health is really important, and it makes sense to me that it's the number one priority. But I really do think that because of our very limited capabilities and scope of reality, I know why we consider plants as "lesser life." They don't have emotions, they don't talk, they can't even move an appreciable amount, and that's how we understand life. I am truly incapable of understanding what it is like to be a plant, so I have zero knowledge of how much it hurts or affects plants when we pollute the earth. It's much easier to empathize with humans because that's just how our brains work.

    I think what's even more interesting is how frequently we talk about how awesome our brains and biology are (and don't get me wrong, they're massively impressive) but we overlook how limited they are too. I love this one monologue by one on Battlestar Galactica when he talks about how much he wishes he were a robot and not trapped in human form because he can't do things like see beyond a limited range of the electromagnetic spectrum. I mean, we really are limited in so many ways that we don't think of.

    I don't know that I think it's important we emphasize plant life as much as human life, but I think it would be cool if we could at least appreciate that just because life differs from our own, doesn't make it any less valuable or important. Maybe it's still not important to us, but in the big picture, life is life. I mean, if there is a God, I seriously doubt he thinks we're more important than any of his other creations. He probably sees the whole planet as a microcosm of biological activity, and we just happen to be the dominating species. From our perspective, we're obviously the most important. From his perspective? Probably not so much. Doesn't make either viewpoint right or wrong, but I think it's important to acknowledge the difference.

  3. I think I disagree with you, Chelsea. Why is life more important than non-life? I certainly think that *MY* life is more important than most non-living things (and most living things. 'cause let's be honest, I'm preeeety damn awesome), but I don't know that I'd consider a flower more important than a rock. After all: why should a flower be more important than a computer? The flower is probably more complex, but my computer is sure more useful...

    As per usual, I'm not making my point well. Why is life special? What is the unique trait about things which are alive that makes them inherently more worthy of our attention than unliving things? Perhaps this is another extension of our selfcentrism: because we're alive, we see other things that are alive as being like us, and therefore special.

  4. Potentially you're right, this is just an extension of self-centrism, but I think because life has an end to it, it is special. A computer will literally continue its existence on forever, but the plant has a beginning and an end. That's the key, in my opinion.

  5. Again, I disagree. If I discover the secret to immortality, do I cease to be special because I might get to see the end of the universe? Doesn't that mean that lots of other things - stars, for instance - are just as special as living things?