Alien Intelligence and Plant Intelligence

 As NPR reports, planets are being discovered that might support life.  These new and exciting celestial spheres are more-or-less suitable for the emergence of life: the temperature, gravity, and elemental make-up of such planets can create selection pressures that range the gamut from mild to pretty-much-inhospitable.  One such discovery is especially noteworthy: Kepler 22-B (named after the telescope) is in the ‘goldilocks’ zone.  In this zone, the size of the planet and its proximity to its star create the right sort of conditions to support flowing water.

The BBC (picked up by Slate) go on to make the link between the discovery of such planets and astral systems, and SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.  With the discovery of more and more of these potentially-hospitable earth-twins, SETI gains a more plausible target to turn its arrays.  With the discovery of more and more of such planets, it is more likely (though I am hesitant to use this term here) that we may discover intelligent life.  Another variable in the Drake Equation starts its climb up in the cardinal numbers.

But wait! What is intelligent life?  The ability to broadcast galactic radio-waves?  Drake, at least, keeps that a separate variable, a tier that only a select group of intelligent critters will ever reach.  But that really seems to operationalize our search for intelligent life.  What if, being impatient, we send a probe (‘Make it so Number One’, etc.) to Kepler 22-B and discover strange, barely congealed bioluminescent areas – would we be right in attributing it with intelligence?  Might our current conceptions of it be too broad? – too exclusive?

Alva Nöe, my usual blogulocutor, seems to think that our current understanding of intelligence is limited.  Drawing on Enactivism (championed by, among others, Evan Thompson and the late Francisco Varela), Nöe argues that we have overlooked plants for too long!  On an Enactive understanding, life and mind and constitutively linked – the organizational structures of life are ‘intelligent’ – and plants are surely alive.  Thus, they are in some way intelligent!  Sure, plants won’t be constructing radio-arrays anytime soon, but they display some kind of intelligent life.  After all they adapt, and adapt to, their ecological niche, they can orient themselves towards nutrients, etc.

There are reasons both to agree and disagree with the organization cum intelligence view.  It certainly gives a deep unity between all living things, and may create a gradational scale of intelligence that, yes, would probably be more useful for our Kepler probe.  But it is less likely to proffer any meaningful observations about what makes human intelligence so unique and powerful – why we have constructed radio-arrays, and are actively looking for other array-assemblers.  Such arguments are very poor at explaining how our level of intelligence could arise: how one could jump from sunflowers to super-sunflowers to humans.

When it comes to searching for intelligent life, I have to agree with SETI: wait and hear.  While it might be unfair to many planets with hypothetical plant-proto-intelligence, if we hear radio waves, we have a pretty good reason to think we’re listening to the emanations of an intelligent creature.


Scientific Models – Stephen M. Downes

3 thoughts on “Alien Intelligence and Plant Intelligence”

  1. Anthony Trewavas from the University of Edinburgh once observed that while humans are clearly more intelligent than other animals, it is unlikely that intelligence as a biological property originated only in Homo sapiens. So if we take an evolutionary approach, plants must also have rudimentary intelligence. The problem with SETI is that its not searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, its looking for extraterrestrial technology. Anyone looking for the Borg?

  2. Thank you very much Dr. Chamovitz for your comment.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps too subtly, I was trying to make the point you emphasize – we’re not looking for intelligence, but radio-waves and other such indicators of intelligence. But that’s only because it is very difficult to define intelligence, and may be difficult to recognize in alien species.

    I think you’re also being too humble in not bringing attention to your work: if anyone is more interesting in plant intelligence (or cool videos of plants at work!) you should invesitgate Dr. Chamovitz’s site, and in particular, the website of his upcoming book, ‘What a Plant Knows’ (

    1. Thanks for the plug!

      The funny thing about SETI is, is that is an alien race had their own SETI program, they would have missed us completely, since our own radio waves have only traveled 60 light years or so away. Guess that means were not too intelligent is we’vesunk how many millions into SETI…


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