Science Questions

Does Vegetable matter have any intelligence?

Sat, 20th Oct 2012

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Simon, Norwich asked:

Does Vegetable matter have any intelligence?


Ginny -   That's an interesting question.  So, I guess it depends on how you define intelligence.  In the way of problem solving, and flexibility of thinking, I would say probably not really, but there are things that plants can do that seem intelligent.  So, there are types of creeper that manage to grab hold of other plants and climb up them, and you use them for support.  That seems quite clever and I've seen time lapse videos of those where you can see the creepers sort of spiralling around and reaching for something to hold on to.

There's also the fact that when you plant a seed, the roots always know to grow downwards and the shoots know to grow upwards, and thatís because of are some chemicals in the plant that tell it which way gravity is, and that allows it to know which way up to grow.  So you donít have to worry about which way up you're planting your seeds.  So, there are things plants can do that do seem quite clever and quite intelligent so, yes!

Chris -   Do you have any intelligent vegetables in your garden to tell us about, Simon?

Simon -   Well, I was thinking of the Venus flytrap.

Ginny -   Of course! Well Venus flytraps are very clever.  Theyíve got hairs on the inside of the trap part.  What's particularly clever about them is that they donít get triggered if just one hair is touched and thatís to save energy because itís quite energetically expensive for them to close.  And if they did it every time a leaf fell on them or a drop of rain or something, that will be a waste.  So they only trigger if two of the hairs are brushed in quick succession because thatís quite a good indication that there's something moving on the inside and itís a good idea to close and trap it.

Chris -   So I guess it is a sort of intelligence because they're summating or mixing together two different signals from two different hairs to work out when to do that behaviour.  So I guess thatís a reasonable example, Simon.

Simon -   Okay, thatís cool.

Chris -   You know, of course, why they do that?

Simon -   Because itís very poor nutrition in the ground.

Chris -   Yes.  These plants are set to acquire their nutrition from the air.  Meaning, that their lunch delivers itself part and parcel straight on to their leaves, and as you say, these sorts of plants grow in areas where the soil is extremely poor, often bogs and marshes where they canít compete very easily for nutrients from the water in the soil.  So as a result, they actually trap things from the air which are rich in nitrogen and phosphorus i.e. living matter and they ingest it into themselves and make it part of themselves.  Great question.


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If  you think of intelligence and problem solving as a second-by-second approach, then perhaps a tree wouldn't rank very high up on the intelligence scale.

However, what if you look at time scales of thousands or millions of years?  In a sense, then evolution then becomes a form of adaptation and problem solving, and plants can come up with the most unique adaptations.

Another carnivorous plant native to Oregon and California is the Darlingtonia.  Perhaps not very smart, but it does seem to outsmart the average house fly.

CliffordK, Wed, 24th Oct 2012

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