Thursday, October 9, 2008

Plant Dignity. "Dignity?" Dignity.

Along the same lines as my "On Sentimentality" post a few days ago, we have this news from Switzerland. Because I hate to have posts without pictures (yesterday's bothered me, but I'm not a good enough artist to draw imaginary plants, or most of the real plants either, for that matter, though I can handle kind of cartoonish Gasterias in a pinch), the pictures in the post aren't really related to anything. Though they are all bluish, because I can be at least that organized, I guess.


Late last April, the Ethics Committee of the Swiss government decided that not only must all scientific grant proposals include "a statement about the project’s impact on the dignity of the research subjects," a condition which had been going on for some time already, but that this condition would henceforth also apply to experimentation on plants as well as animals and humans. (Quote from here.)

Exacum affine, persian violet. We only recently figured out how to keep these alive in the greenhouse for more than a week at a time. (The answer: water. Frequently. Would that all the issues like this were so easy to fix.)

I found out about this through IO9's recent post on the 2008 Ig Nobel Prizes. The Swiss ethics group was awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize as a result of this change.

The trouble is that nobody can articulate quite what "plant dignity" would mean, practically speaking. A few brave souls have suggested that "plant dignity" might be mostly related to technologies that change the plant's relationship to the world in general, in a long-term kind of way, as for example by engineering a plant to be unable to set seed. Which sounds good for just as long as you can avoid thinking of seedless bananas and grapes, and then loses a lot of its appeal. When you eat a banana, do you really stop to think about whether you're respecting the banana, as you eat it? And even if you did think about the dignity of the banana, would it occur to you to consider seedlessness as being in any way relevant to the question?

Glechoma hederacea, ground ivy or creeping charlie. I personally love this plant, though I think I am the only person in Iowa who does.

The actual report released by the committee is not particularly helpful about what this means either. Vague, nice-sounding assertions were produced ("living organisms should be considered morally for their own sake because they are alive."), and the "inherent worth" of individual plants asserted. The panel opined that no one can claim "absolute ownership" over plants, either individually or collectively, and then concluded with a steaming pile of "we may not use them just as we please, even if the plant community is not in danger, or if our actions do not endanger the species, or if we are not acting arbitrarily." None of which is really all that useful on a practical level. Are they suggesting that the right of a corn plant (Zea mays, not Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana') to live supercedes the right of a human being to eat the seeds? If yes, then they seem to be suggesting that all of humanity should either starve to death or learn to subsist on petroleum products.1 Moral or not, this is at the very minimum going to be an unpopular position. If no, then how is one to consider the corn "morally for its own sake?"

But so okay.

Now, I'm not opposed to considerations of dignity in and of themselves. Certainly it's worth taking a little time, when designing an experiment with human subjects, to make sure that they aren't going to be embarrassed, disrespected or demeaned by it. Animals may not get embarrassed or feel disrespected, but we have pretty good reasons to believe that they feel emotions like fear, and sensations like pain.2 And we know that these are sucky feelings, so it makes sense to try to minimize them, when possible, even in creatures which aren't going to be able to say thank-you or reciprocate. So I'm fine with that, too. But what negative emotions or sensations do plants feel, that we could minimize? How would you be able to tell?3

Myosotis palustris, forget-me-not. We essentially renamed ours "forget-me" this summer. They got a little dry and didn't come back particularly well.

I mean, dignity was already a problematic concept as applied to humans. The dictionary definitions I've run across, though kinda vague, seem to revolve a general concept of respect; one is dignified when one holds oneself in a way indicating self-respect, self-control. To be undignified is to be, mostly, powerless: one has to beg the more powerful for basic necessities or to escape punishment; one is embarrassed, one is humiliated, one is degraded. Dignity is when one refuses to beg, refuses to be embarrassed, refuses to be degraded. Which of these are options for plants? If you wanted to, how would you go about humiliating a Philodendron? What embarrasses a Hoya? How do you make a Nematanthus beg? How do you know?

So the Swiss are not helping.

Some of your more knee-jerk . . . er, jerks are decrying this as yet another example of woolly-headed liberal thinking run amok. And, you know, I'm a woolly-headed liberal from way back, and involuntarily feel bad for pretty much anybody from one-legged war orphans to wealthy closeted homosexual Republicans. And I admit there's an element of that that looks like Liberalism Unchained. But I don't think that's what the actual issue here is.

Sold as Plumbago NOID, but possibly actually Ceratostigma plumbaginoides?

This all reads to me more like a power play by a really bored bureaucracy, to me. As best as I can tell, the only effect of this ruling is going to be to force researchers who never had to worry about such things before to make up shit they don't mean about how much they respect plants. Since this is more or less a meaningless thing to say, it amounts to little more than an unnecessary hoop in an already overly complex funding bureaucracy, and gives the bureaucrats maybe another excuse to decline to fund projects they don't like but can't come up with good reasons to reject. It won't lead to greater respect for plants, or greater dignity accorded to plants, until society reaches some kind of agreement about what this means on a physical, observable level.

Unless readers would like to suggest some criteria? Please. Tell me how to [dis-]respect plants in a way that would be provable to grant committees.


Photo credits: My own.

1 Some people, of course, have something of a head start on the subsistence-from-petroleum business. You know somebody is eating all those gummi bears and Twinkies.
2 The main reason to believe this is because we know that we do, and animals act the same way we act when hurt or frightened -- they make noise (often), try to get away from whatever causes the pain, avoid it thereafter, etc. Our closest relatives may well feel some of the more complex, social emotions we feel, too: shame, schadenfreude, suspicion, whatever.
3 (A good place to check might be As best as I can tell, it is the blog of a houseplant, though the plant in question is never identified. Judging by the attitude, I think there's a good chance the plant is/was an Agave. Sadly, it hasn't been updated since June 8, 2008, so it may be that all we get are five short posts. Which would be, pardon my language, fucking tragic. It's not dead -- a new post went up last Sunday. It's very possibly the best thing I've seen on the internet in months, brief though it is. I want more.)

BONUS ORPHANED FOOTNOTE from an earlier draft that I thought was too cool to delete but too tangential to be able to work into the main text:

4 Interesting but true: some of our machinery strikes us as easier to empathize with than plants and animals are. Sherry Turkle reports that she finds, in her research, that children who are thoroughly versed in the difference between things which are alive and things which are not, are reluctant to classify toys like the Furby or Tickle Me Elmo as being firmly in either category. They instead spontaneously create a new category, "kinda-alive," for life-like inanimate objects. Which actually strikes me as being perfectly sensible. It's not just kids: adults also do this when confronted with objects that are programmed to imitate living organisms; see this post at Boing Boing, or the comments thread at this Metafilter post about a video someone took of setting a Tickle Me Elmo on fire. The commenters call it "disturbing" and "really sad," and one of the early commenters says s/he feels "there should be a law against this, but I'm not sure why." Which would seem to indicate some latent feelings about robot dignity, which to me still makes more sense than plant dignity. Discuss among yourselves.


Melissa Gay Art said...

I guess what they're trying to say is, with great flower comes great responsibility.

Lance said...

So spanking them when they wet the table is bad?

Benjamin Vogt said...

I read about this a few months back, and am using it in by book manuscript. Hey, take what you can get--bored government, liberal nut jobs, whatever, at least higher ups are talking about something like this. Have you heard about the scientists in Lenigrad in WWII who protected a large stockpile of seeds for grain crops? Can't remember the name of the

Benjamin Vogt said...

institute, but the scientists platned crops during the german seige out in streets and lots, never eating anything, but starving to death. Can you imagine such nobility in our current government, thinking about the greater good, about national pride and survival?

Anonymous said...

If you click on Ploops'blogs, it shows a picture of a plant that I believe is an umbrella plant. Very funny, I want more as well.

Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking!
Plant dignity - I wonder if soon people will need permission to tickle a TickleMe Plant and watch it move. I love this plant and how the leaves fold and branches droop when tickled. If you love plant, this is a must have plant to grow. I found my supplies at

Anonymous said...

I love creeping charlie, but am not in Iowa. Is that respectful?


Anonymous said...

When 'people' stick those ghastly little craft 'eyes' onto a furry cactus - that's disrespect. Wilful cutesifying something that has inherent dignity.

And glueing Tillandsias onto tacky fridge magnets.

And tossing one's fruit'n'veg onto the counter at the supermarket with even less care than the shopper shows to the container of detergent. Probably because the detegent can splash back. Ha!

Lance said...

Oh I agree about gluing things on cactus and Tillandsias being used in ways they would find shameful if they could speak.

Perhaps we could make tiny protest signs and put them in all the offending plants at the big box stores - the plants could take themselves out on strike.

mr_subjunctive said...

Well, yeah, the googly eyes and magnets business (and fake cactus flowers!) thing is disrespectful. Not likely to be involved in Swiss scientific grant proposals, but disrespectful nonetheless. (Though without the eyes, they're much harder to trust. You gotta be able to look them in the face.)

Unknown said...

This is not on the topic of the posting, but-- Would that be satisfactory? ;)

mr_subjunctive said...

Nadya W-G:

I don't understand what you're asking. (The link went to a Google 404 not found message.)

mr_subjunctive said...

Nadya W-G:

Never mind; I found it. Commenting at your blog.