I have been trying, for something like the last eight or nine weeks, to write one or more blog posts about Cleve Backster, the man who, in 1966, hooked up a Dracaena fragrans to a polygraph machine and concluded that not only do plants all have feelings, they're also all mildly psychic. Backster was later featured in a book called The Secret Life of Plants, which a lot of us will have heard of or possibly even read, because that's the sort of thing you do when you're a plant obsessive, and I know a good chunk of my readership is composed of plant obsessives.
I wanted to write about Backster and his claims because I strongly suspected, just from the sound of them, that they were bullshit, plus they were plant-related, and about anthropomorphizing plants, which if anybody is qualified to talk about plant anthropomorphization, I think it's me. I originally wasted thousands of perfectly good pixels writing a rebuttal to an interview with Backster from 1997 (the interview is on-line and you can find it if you look; I'm not going to link to it), only to find, through the magic of Interlibrary Loan, that most of my criticisms had been addressed by Backster in a book he published in 2003 (Primary Perception, White Rose Millennium Press, Anza, CA, 2003) and I had to write the whole thing over again.
My criticisms weren't addressed in the sense that Backster provides a lot of meaningful information about his claims and the evidence for them, but they were addressed in the sense that he acknowledges in the book that a lot of what he's described turns out not to work so well in other people's labs, and he goes into more detail about what he's done and what he thinks it means. Backster also has explanations for why other people can't duplicate his results, which explanations sound a hell of a lot like stuff that you just make up off the top of your head when somebody catches you spreading bullshit, but of course I can't prove that that's what he's doing.
It also turns out that in order to present a fair account of what Backster's claims are and why I think they're bunk, a lot of time has to be spent nailing down exactly what the claims are, and I wasn't sure that I had it in me to do that, or that my readers would have enough patience to read it all. So I considered throwing the whole idea out and moving on.
The problem is, though, that Backster's claims, and the willingness of people to believe them, really bother me. Like, above and beyond my normal irritation with bad science, to the point where I started to suspect that the irritation meant something about me, people in general, or both. So I've decided to put my head down and try to charge through all this one last time, and if this doesn't work out, I give up. The stuff that bothers me, we'll try to work out in Part III.
The story of the "discovery" of primary perception1 has Backster working in his office early one morning. He was, at the time, running a school for the training of polygraph ("lie detector") operators, something he'd done for the CIA for some period previously.2 He watered a Dracaena fragrans3 and was seized by the question of whether or not he could determine when the water reached the leaves using the electrical-conductance part of the polygraph, which is ordinarily used to measure the sweatiness of a subject's palms.
This is not, on the face of it, a particularly silly thing to wonder, nor a particularly silly way to find out. I have no idea whether or not one can find this out using electrodes like Backster had, because he (understandably) seems to forget the question once the plant starts reading his mind, but it stands to reason that the conductance would change when the leaf's hydration level changed, so, you know, whatever. And obviously he had a polygraph right there to test with, because he was running a polygraph training school. So this much of the story all checks out.
What he found when he hooked up the leaf to the polygraph was that the graph sort of slowly trended downward, which I infer means slowly increasing electrical resistance (the same as decreasing electrical conductance). And here's where he starts to go off the rails a little: he notes that in a human subject, this sort of graph would indicate boredom.
So he decides to try to make the plant interested in what's going on. First, he dunks a leaf in some hot coffee. No response from the plant. And Backster is pondering, and thinking, and suddenly gets the idea to burn one of the leaves with a match, at which point the polygraph needle starts to go wild.
Backster is careful to note at this point in the text that he was nowhere near the plant at that moment (fifteen feet away, he says) and there were no other people in the building at that time (it being between 7 and 8 AM), and the only thing that changed was that he had the idea to burn the plant.
Despite the plant being, apparently, in the plant-equivalent of abject terror and panic, Backster goes ahead and fetches a match from another room. While he's doing so, the plant calms down to about halfway between it's earlier, "bored" conductance and it's more recent "freaking the hell out" conductance,4 but then he comes back in and lights the match and burnt the tip of a different leaf (i.e., not the one with the electrodes on it), which elicits the desired "oh god oh god I am being burned alive" response from the plant.
He later showed a colleague (who would eventually become his business partner) the trick, but wouldn't let the colleague hurt the plant, he says. The plant also reacted to the mental threats from the colleague.
Subsequent experimentation refines and elaborates this effect. Backster learns that the plants can tell the difference between a human intending to do something and merely pretending to intend, thereby making houseplants smarter than virtually all dogs, and an awful lot of children.5 He finds that plants are "territorial," in the sense that they don't notice or feel everything that happens everywhere, but only stuff in the space they have decided belongs to them, and only among the humans and animals they have decided are relevant to their interests. So for example, a plant at one end of a thirty-foot hallway might respond to a person at the opposite end, thirty feet away, but wouldn't necessarily respond to a person on the other side of the wall, only two feet away, if the plant only considers the hallway to be its territory.
Plants, Backster finds, also attune themselves to the emotions of the people around them, particularly the individual who cares for them. If you water a plant every day,6 says Backster, however routine it may be to you, the plant knows that you're you and will preferentially feel emotions relating to you. So, for example, if you go a couple blocks away and get hammered in a bar and get yourself into a bar fight, the plant, two blocks away, will also register strong emotions relating to you being thrown across a pool table or what have you. Readers who are thinking, at this point, hey, wait a minute! You just said they don't notice anything outside of their particular territory! are correct: Backster says both things, in rapid succession, on pages 30-33 of his book. I have no idea whether he realizes that the two claims are in conflict, but he doesn't appear to notice it within the book. Now please, don't get ahead of me again.
Backster further claims that plants are also sensitive to non-human and partly-human life forms, including but not limited to bacteria in sink drain sludge, human cells being shed during urination, eggs, brine shrimp,7 human sperm cells, etc., and that these same kinds of conductance responses can be measured from eggs,8 yogurt, human cells in petri dishes, and so forth. That is, primary perception is not only something observed in plants: basically anything you hook up to an electrode which is alive, and some things that aren't alive or never were alive, will show some kind of a response like this (Though in the book, as I recall, Backster doesn't try to make claims for inanimate objects so much. He does mention it in the 1997 interview I talked about earlier). Further testing reveals that in extremely traumatic situations (a lettuce leaf in a plane where everyone is eating salad, for example), plants/eggs/yogurt/etc. will do the equivalent of "fainting," and their graph will go completely flat. Etc.
Backster comes up with an experiment he is obviously very proud of,9 wherein a plant is put in a small room with a beaker of continuously boiling water, and another beaker containing brine shrimp, and a randomizing device (try as I might, I couldn't figure out how this was supposed to work, but I'm not terribly interested either, and it doesn't matter: I'm happy to accept that it works the way Backster tells me it works), such that the plant is being read by the electrodes, and at some random moment, the beaker containing the brine shrimp is tipped into the beaker of boiling water and they (the brine shrimp) all die. On what we are told is a statistically significant number of occasions, the plants reacted when and only when the shrimp died, and this experiment was the basis of Backster's only published paper to date, in the Winter 1968 International Journal of Parapsychology, called "Evidence of a Primary Perception in Plant Life." I would really like to have read this paper, because I'm curious about how he set up the experiment and the specific results he reports, but I couldn't locate it.10
What happens subsequently, alas, is that as news of Backster's experiments spread, and scientists attempt to duplicate his results, they find that they cannot. Backster comes up with a flurry of explanations for this:
One, the researchers who were attempting to repeat his results were doing things like washing the plant's leaves with distilled water before the experiment, thereby getting the plant attuned to them personally, which is of course a big no-no, because . . . apparently plants like people better than brine shrimp. Or something. Maybe they'd like the shrimp better if the shrimp were washing their leaves. I don't know. In any case, the plants react to what the people are thinking and feeling during the experiment, instead of to the shrimp, even though the shrimp are right there next to them and plants are supposed to be territorial and all. Backster claims he had to have someone else buy the plants and store them elsewhere in the building until immediately before the experiments, so as not to get the plants attuned to anybody. You also can't watch the experiment while it's in progress, because your conscious awareness of what's happening with the experiment interferes with the experiment in some vaguely-defined but apparently important way.
Two, the same plant can't be used in identical experiments over and over. They get used to having brine shrimp executed nearby,11 and so are only good for maybe three experiments apiece. Which apparently he didn't tell the scientists12 about until after they did the experiments and failed to duplicate his results.
Three, life is just fundamentally non-reproduceable, and "Mother Nature . . . doesn't jump through a hoop ten times in a row merely because someone wants her to." Backster claims that the best way to get results is to not try, to just go on about your business doing whatever you do, noting when you're reacting strongly to things or when interesting things are happening, and then you can check these against the log from the plant later and see what things the plant considered important. You also can't conduct these experiments when animal experiments are going on elsewhere in the building, or there's noise, or people visiting the lab, or someone talking on the phone, because then you don't know whether the plant is responding to the thing you're trying to make it respond to, or if it's reacting to your secretary having a fight with her husband by telephone in the next room.
So these are, more or less, the claims being made. On Wednesday, I will try to take them apart, in Part II.
1 This is Backster's term for it. He's basically acknowledging the obvious, that plants don't have noses, tongues, eyes or ears with which to sense their environments, and proposing that they know the things that he thinks they know through some other, more fundamental means. It's information being processed by the plant, so perception, and it's being processed at a fundamental, base level, without the use of sense organs like our own, ergo primary. This also has the added benefit of making it sound more important, which I bet is not accidental.
2 Pages 11-20 of his book are spent establishing his credentials, which are neither negligible nor particularly impressive: he went to prep school, he went to college, he volunteered for the military following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and sort of wandered into polygraph operation as an offshoot of his interest in hypnosis. He wound up in the CIA, trying to figure out ways of making interrogation subjects talk, or at least figure out when they're lying, via hypnosis, "truth serum," and eventually polygraphs, which were just beginning to be investigated as an interrogation tool. Backster's introduction is amusing to me, in a way I can't quite pin down: it's like he paints himself as this total badass who is incredibly smart and does everything incredibly well, and yet his self-presentation is clumsy enough that I came away with the impression that he thinks he's Batman or James Bond or somebody. I kept thinking, dude, you study plant feelings: I mean, at best, you're a minor supervillain.
3 Also a Ficus elastica, which I feel bad for, both because it's often left out of the story and because it is probably dead now. I figure someone should give it the dignity of a mention. The original Dracaena was still alive as of 2002-03, but nobody ever says what became of the Ficus. Backster never claims to have hooked up the Ficus to the electrodes, which I think is kind of weird, since it was right there in the same office and everything, and why wouldn't you.
4 The reader should note that I'm paraphrasing like mad, here, and Backster, being both a gentleman and of a different generation (born 1924, and still alive as of this writing, as far as I can tell), doesn't actually use words like "freaking the hell out," probably because such words are associated with those damned hippies or something. He's very square, for someone who's into all this weird parapsychological shit.
5 My own observation, not Backster's.
6 Don't do this. Why would you do this?
7 (= "Sea Monkeys")
8 Curiously, it doesn't even appear to matter whether the eggs are fertilized or not: a cell is a cell is a cell, apparently.
9 Not unfairly: it's a fairly clever idea for an experiment, though it may or may not measure what he thinks it's measuring.
10 It's difficult to locate forty-one-year-old parapsychology journals, just in general, and then a staggering amount of scientific publication is not on-line, or is on-line but in a form inaccessible to anybody who doesn't have thousands of dollars to throw at subscriptions to The Journal of Amphibian Digestive Systems or whatever. I understand -- journal editors have to eat too -- but it also puts up obstacles to research. If you want to know what's going on in science these days, you have to have a lot of money for subscriptions, access to a university library, or the ability to settle for secondhand journalist interpretations of the research, which are frequently oversimplified or misunderstood to the point of being wrong. Very frustrating.
11 (Who wouldn't? Most of us would barely notice living brine shrimp, much less dead ones.)
12 I refuse to say "other scientists," since that would imply that Backster was an actual scientist. We'll get to why I don't consider him an actual scientist eventually.