Bill Harris MD
Eva Greenleaf from the Federation of Licensed Astral Kinesio-Ergonomists
dropped into my office the other day.
philodendrons are sooo smart," gushed Eva. "They know
what I'm up to every time. When they saw me coming with my pruning
shears they just made me do this," and she held up her middle
finger in what I first took to be an obscene gesture. Then
I saw the blood so while I stitched up her finger Eva filled me
in on the latest about plant consciousness.
"Plants are telepathic you know," said Eva. She batted
her eyes and mascara descended on my surgical tray like blue snow.
"And they grow faster if you sing to them."
Ta, ta, another day. I closed up and went home.
Two days later I called Eva on the phone. "Eva, your stitches
need to come out in a week. And since I can't sing, I played the
Haydn Trumpet Concerto to my geraniums."
"I'll bet they just adored it," gurgled Eva.
happened at first," I said, "but in the cadenza I squeaked
off a triple high C and a neighbor's dog ran in and bit my leg."
Eva slammed the phone down.
I spent three days in the library. None of the botany texts mentioned
either a nervous system or consciousness in plants. I called Eva
"Silly boy," said Eva. "Of course they don't talk
about it in those kinds of books, they're all written by scientists.
No imagination. No cosmic intuition..."
"...no gullibility?" I suggested.
Eva slammed the phone down again, but she sent me a book in the
mail. Meantime I checked out my geraniums and it did seem they'd
sprouted up rather fast.
I called Eva back. "About that book 'The Secret Life
of Plants'," I said with embarrassment. "I didn't have
time to read all 373 pages so I fed it to my computer, the one that
cuts out bias, redundancies, anecdotal evidence, and non sequiturs.
Now your book's only two pages long."
Eva's gasp ruptured my left eardrum. "Ooh!" she squealed,
"that dogbite made you so mean!"
"It's not the dogbite," I said. "It's the hernia.
The triple high C. But I called to tell you I was wrong, the geraniums
"Ah," said Eva."Geraniums are very baroque. They'd
"Not to mention the carbon dioxide I was blowing all over
them," I said.
Eva slammed the phone down again. I took the remaining pages of
Eva's book to my friend Joe Steeltrap, Ph.D in plant physiology
at Dismal and Depressing Institute of Technology.
"Why should plants be conscious? " laughed Joe. "They're
not going anywhere. Animals have a nervous system to sort out the
physics of inertial mass, acceleration, and relative velocity so
they can eat, mate, and survive."
"But plants move too," I said. "I've seen time lapse
photography; vines grabbing for trees, flowers turning to the light,
trees bending to meet gravity head on."
"Tropisms," explained Joe. "Plant transmitters,
auxins and abscisic acids, are released and the plant bends to the
"So what?" I said." Neurotransmitters like acetylcholine
and dopamine are part of the human nervous system. Maybe plant consciousness
is a spread out version of our own, slow motion with big synapses."
"Consciousness only has value if you can do something with
it," said Joe. "What would be the value of awareness,
fear, pain, or love in a plant? It can't run, it can't fight, it
can't pick up its roots and go meet other plants. There's no adaptive
value in plant consciousness so there's no reason for it to evolve,
so it didn't."
"That's a dodge," I said. "Plants are alive. They
breathe, grow, reproduce, and die. Why shouldn't they be conscious?"
"Because they don't have a nervous system!" shouted Joe.
"What is this, the the Humpty Dumpty school of semantics? 'Plants
are alive, so they're conscious, rocks are conscious, the whole
universe is conscious?' When you generalize a word and rob it of
specific meaning it ends up meaning nothing."
"Then what is conciousness?" I asked.
"Bad luck," he said. "It comes with the cerebral
cortex. Nature's interested in species that survive and if you're
conscious that you exist, then you're conscious that you might not,
a powerful incentive to the squash. That's where all the consciousness
and the coordination go on in the first place. Plants have no brains,
so animals eat 'em and they don't even know it, 'cause nobody's
home. They win by reproductive virtuosity. Just layin' back, soakin'
up the sun, takin' a little rain now and then. Lucky buggers."
I pointed to Eva's book. "How about Backster's experiments
with the telepathic philodendrons and the brine shrimp? Every time
he boiled a shrimp the plant in the next room spiked the polygraph."
"Get this," said Joe." I hooked up a polygraph to
a bowl of jello once and when somebody slammed the door I got a
tracing. I sent it off to a neurologist and he read it 'normal electroencephalogram'.
That's a joke, son. Anyway biologists at Cornell and Washington
State copied Backster's tests and got nothing, except what we'd
known for a hundred years, that plant cell membranes have varying
electrical potentials that relate to cell metabolism."
Eva found me a few days later playing an old PBS video tape. Marvelous
reportage about an old guy in Los Angeles who could pray over corn
seedlings and make them grow faster. To prove he was legit the TV
crew padlocked the glass box the seedlings were in, came back in
two days, and documented that all the seedlings on the side he'd
been praying over were 3" taller than the ones on the other
"My favorite show," giggled Eva, "after 'The Three
Stooges'. Imagine that divine man, communicating with plants."
"Eva," I said, "I think I have the gift. Now that
I've read your book I'll bet I can do it too."
Eva was skeptical but between us we made a duplicate of the PBS
setup, and I started praying over the corn seedlings. After awhile
Eva got bored and left. So I snaked an IV tube under the lid
and blew carbon dioxide down the tube on one side. Then I fed the
plants fertilizing solution through the tube. The plants grew randomly.
When all else fails do the experiment. I prayed like mad for 47
hours but only random growth continued. If the experiment fails
too, fudge the results. I took a wire and picked the lock, an easy
job for someone who, like the old guy, had once lived in L.A. Then
I put all the fast growers on one side and the runts on the other.
Eva popped in just after I closed the glass box.
"My dear, dear doctor," effused Eva looking at the plants
and once again pointing her middle finger at me. "You do indeed
have the gift. What more proof that plants are conscious?"
I called up Sam Turk's Hamburger Heaven. "Sam,"
I said, "This is the Doc. I'd like a side of cow for me and
a friend, we'll be eating it there."
"And what, good vegetarian buddy with the weird sense of humor,
would you like on it?" asked Sam.
"Whatever you put on it these days," I said jubilantly.
"It's 48 years since I ate a cow."
"Right!" said Sam. "Pigs can fly. Do you want one
of those too?"
"It's no scam Sam, this is a celebration," I said. "We've
just proved plants are conscious so there's no point being a vegetarian
anymore. It's just a question of eating conscious animals or conscious
Bill Harris M.D.