Do trees really talk to each other?


#1

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/03/02/do-trees-really-talk-to-each-o.html


#2

Headline contains a question mark.


#3

I’m talking to a tree right now.


#4

I am Groot


#5

I remember when The Happening came out and I had to explain that there was indeed research about trees communicating and that of all the things wrong with the movie the premise wasn’t the real problem.


#6

But does it listen to you?


#7


#8

I would say that the components of the Internet aren’t deliberately talking to each other, either, but also just “broadcasting messages ambiently.”

Reading this, I am reminded of a comment by Roy Underhill in one of his Woodwright’s Shop books: It’s an eerie feeling knowing the trees are laughing at you.


#9

Similarly, when talking about immunology it is really hard to not to use military metaphors and words that imply conscience intention. But there is no intention in what is happening. It just happens. This is a limit in our own communication not a reflection of what is actually happening. I’m going to go out on a limb here (har har har) and say that this ‘communication’ in trees is just a biological process with exactly zero intention.

Man, I’m a real downer.


#10

Well there’s a pretty good chance that it would increase their reproductive viability and they’ve had a hell of a lot longer to develop it than we did, so if anything I’d be surprised if trees and plants in general didn’t possess some kind of ability to communicate. I mean, hell, some single-celled organisms have the ability to signal each other in a way that resembles communication, and trees are substantially more complex organisms.

I think it’s anthropic, and even maybe a bit naive to assume that just because plants can’t get up and walk around means that they’re any less “alive” than we are. They might be very different, but they’re no less alive, and I believe that we’re going to become more and more aware of this as time goes on. Less than 100 years ago it was the scientific opinion of a lot of people who could credibly have scientific opinions that humans were a sort of illuminated species and the only one capable of possessing true intelligence. In the intervening years we’ve come to realize that a lot of other creatures are extremely intelligent, and our success relative to theirs has a lot to do with us happening to have the right adaptations at the right time rather than us being picked by a higher power for something greater. One mustn’t forget that dinosaurs “ruled” the Earth for millions of years. Humans as they are now have existed for only a tiny fraction of that amount of time. Had humans existed at the same time, it’s unlikely that we’d be the dominant species on the planet today if for no other reason than we are not well adapted to that kind of climate, and a lot of adaptations that kept us alive (teamwork, upright movement, manual dexterity, long-distance running) probably wouldn’t have been nearly as beneficial in a world populated by innumerable giant carnivores, just like how being a giant rep-bird-tile is great when you have a warm, lush environment full of giant plants and other giant animals to eat, but all of that becomes a serious disadvantage once things start getting cold.


#11

That’s v interesting that you say that about the limits of our communication; though it’s everywhere, in works on evolution, in particular, it seems like either the writer doesn’t bother to try to avoid or point out the intentionality of the language, or else they try and end up failing. Because of this limitation.

I know that anthropomorphizing is of course rampant; it seems to not occur to some writers to try to even state the reality of an animal or tree as alternate to ours (or maybe they think they’ll lose part of their audience, by not constantly relating it to human stuff?).


#12

Absolutely.

Also humans like neat binary categories - mind, intent, individual, species. Nature doesn’t care: instinct, signalling, microbiomes and symbiosis, ring species and all the other corner cases.


#13


#14

“A tree doesn’t think it’s a tree. It is a tree”


#15

I guess it depends who “we” are.

Humans? Then yes, definitely.

Mammals? Okay.

Complex vertebrates? Nope.

(Humans aren’t the only animals that communicate with intention.)


#16


#17

This reminds me of Ugly Americans’ episode Treegasm


#18

Yeah, the other example I was thinking of was evolution. Honestly, it is really hard to avoid speaking like this. So many of the words you want to use have an implied agency baked right into them. I think you need to just acknowledge that you making it sound like there is intentionality but there really isn’t any.


#19

Obviously plants aren’t conscious in the way we experience the world, but plants do have agency and intentionality

If you want to skip to a relevant part of the video that showcases agency and awareness of surroundings skip to around 12:44 where the lecturer shows vines can somehow sense supports they can creep on, and they can also sense if another competing vine has taken over that support.


#20

220Hz is most certainly audible to humans. It may not be at an audible level, but the frequency itself is well within the range of human hearing.