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New Science: Are Plants Racist?

In 2006, New Scientist told us that altruism is linked to genes. An individual will act altruistically on behalf of those related to him or her. The more closely related you are to someone, the more likely you are to sacrifice for them. You will share your food with parents, children, and siblings but not so much with cousins. Those even further away will not only not get anything from you, but you also will easily regard them as an enemy when the going gets tough. Racism is an ancient imperative hard-coded in our genetic makeup.

It appears that not only is blood thicker than water, but according to the March 26th New Scientist, so is plant sap. What I mean is, not only do humans and other animals act altruistically on behalf of relatives, so do plants.

According to the article, the mycorrhizal mat that exists in the soil around plants and consists of fungus, bacteria, dirt, roots and more, facilitates communication between plants. By communication I mean chemical communication. The forest floor and meadow bed are alive with floral talk-talk. Plants use this communication vehicle to determine whom to share resources with. An individual will give up nutrients to neighbors it is related to, but not to plants of a different species. They also help relatives with defense. If one of a group is attacked by a browser, its siblings will all emit defense chemicals. If a plant of unrelated species is attacked, the individuals nearby don’t bother.

Are these plants sentient? Certainly not, but they do seem as racist as humans.

Wouldn’t this racism in plants result in vast swatches of a single species out in the wild? I’m imagining a valley full of Hatfield ferns while over in the next hollar are the McCoy smartweeds. Current thinking says ecosystems with the greatest variety are the healthiest: nature not only abhors a vacuum, it also abhors a monoculture, so what of these racist communities? Of course if you asked a specific species what a healthy meadow has, it would say lots of its own kind. What an ecologist wants and what a species wants are not the same thing.

Maybe life is a struggle not between good and evil, but between like and unlike. Maybe that’s the definition of good and evil: like me and not like me.

It’s almost a superfluous definition in these overpopulated times. In today’s modern world, borders are becoming less and less important. We are redefining our differences. Changing how we decide who is “like” us and who is “not like” us. In this over connected world, our genes are no longer helpful in determining like and not like. Divisions between people are based more on the abstract. Belief systems for instance. Or education, and not only the formal kind; what we learn outside of school is considered education also. Wealth, of course divides people, as it always has.

As we become increasingly more in touch with people not only far away and perhaps different genetically, will we no longer need close family ties? Is everyone now potentially related to us? Related meaning exposed to the same ideas at the same time and in the same way, and therefore more like us.

I don’t know if this knowledge of the social network of plants is helpful. If plants exhibit racism, does that mean fear of Others is so basic that we can’t overcome it? Dare we hope that in these overpopulated, over connected times our new-found love of the intellectually like-minded will finally win over the primitive imperative?

We can come up all kinds of sustainable energy plans to insure maintenance of current lifestyle, but at some point, we’re going to have to address our overpopulation, our primal need to pass on our genes at any cost, the most selfish racism of all. And not helping each other is a bad idea, regardless what the plants think.

Sue Lange

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