The Secret Life of Plants, and the Revival of Animism — part 1

“The idea that plants have feelings and emotions goes back thousands of years. Evidence of this belief can be found in Hindu scriptures. In more recent years Darwin noticed the astonishing similarity between the radical — the root tip — of a plant and the brain of primitive animals. The radical seems to sense or feel its surroundings in order to make decisions necessary for the plant’s survival”¹.

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This article is the latest in a series discussing the writings of Peter Tompkins who, in collaboration with Christopher Bird, wrote The Secret Life of Plants² in 1973. (For a guide to the earlier articles, click here.) The purpose of the series is to seek to revive the ancient worldview of animism, and make it science. At the same time, it is another episode in the saga of the ongoing battle for truth in science, which to me means constantly struggling against the misguided philosophy of materialism. In the next few articles, I’m going to discuss some scientists whose work suggested that there is something very strange going on in the life of plants, at least from the perspective of conventional, materialist science.

The first of these is Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858–1937)³. It’s worth pausing for a moment to ask yourself whether you have ever heard of him. I’m guessing that not many of you will have. I hope that I’m not exaggerating but, given that in his field he might be considered the equivalent of a Newton or an Einstein, one of the questions I shall be addressing here is why that might be. He should be a household name.

I’ll begin by describing the reputation he gained during his lifetime, why he was, and why he should still be, taken seriously. He was a formidable figure, graduating in physics, botany and chemistry at the University of Cambridge, and then appointed Professor of Physics at the Presidency College, Calcutta. His career as an experimental scientist followed, which I’ll describe below. In 1917 he was given a knighthood, and in 1920 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, in recognition of his scientific work. “The acclaim which came in the British Isles was repeated in Vienna where it was the consensus of eminent German and Austrian scientists that ‘Calcutta was far ahead of us in these new lines of investigation’ ”. In 1926 he was nominated a member of the League of Nations Committee on Intercultural Cooperation, other eminent members of which included Albert Einstein.

It seems that his reputation was held back to some extent by racism, white European scientists being unwilling to contemplate that an Indian could be so far ahead of them. He was, however, revered in the USSR, even after his death:

  • He was heralded “as introducing a new epoch in the development of world science by Kliment Arkadievich Timiryazev…”
  • “The USSR’s plant men were so impressed by the achievements of this Indian scientist that they were going to mount a research campaign based directly upon his long-ignored conclusions”.
  • At a meeting of the Academy of Sciences in the USSR, “three leading academicians summed up for the huge crowd assembled the fantastic breakthroughs which the Indian had made not only in plant physiology but in physics and in the vital and until then unheard of links between them”.
  • In 1964 “the Soviet Union honoured this neglected scientist by publishing in two handsomely illustrated volumes his selected works”

BOSE’S SCIENTIFIC CAREER

His first significant achievement was that he demonstrated wireless transmission in 1895, before Lodge and Marconi. He then investigated metal fatigue, and “discovered that certain metals could recuperate, if given a rest. Graphs of fatigue and recovery, he pointed out, showed striking similarities between metal and animal tissues; in both ‘fatigue could be removed by gentle massage or by exposure to a bath of warm water’ ”. This sounds disconcerting to the rational mind, hard to believe, and poses the question, are metals really inanimate? However, “Bose was actually able to demonstrate that his ‘treatment’ worked”.

He then turned his attention to plants, and showed “that plants react to ‘irritation’ or to ‘blows’ in much the same way as animals”. How could this be, given that plants “were held to have no nervous system, (and) were universally reckoned as unresponsive”? The evidence, however, suggested otherwise:

  • He found that plants did actually have a nervous system. “He felt that some plants seem to be midway between higher and lower animals in the evolution of their ‘nervous system’ ”. Furthermore they had an array of emotional responses: “Love, hate, joy, fear, pleasure, pain, excitability, stupor, and countless other appropriate responses to stimuli are as universal in plants as in animals”.
  • “Experimenting first with horse-chestnut leaves and then with carrots and turnips, Bose found that they responded to various ‘blows’ in much the same way as had his metals and muscles, and that plants were clearly sensitive down to their roots”.
  • He consistently pointed to a real continuity between various plant and animal tissues, and “was able to show the similarity in behaviour between skins of lizard, tortoises and frogs and those of grapes, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables”. “Even more heretically, he held that the isolated vegetal nerve is indistinguishable from an animal nerve”.
  • He found that “trees have a circulatory system… similar to blood pressure in animals, and a tube which duplicates a heart. ‘The more deeply we perceive’, said Bose, ‘the more striking becomes the evidence that a uniform plan links every form in manifold nature’ ”.
  • He discovered that plants could be as successfully anaesthetised as animals. He gave a plant chloroform, which stopped all growth. As soon as the plant was revived with an antidote, or when the narcotic vapour was blown away by fresh air, it once again began to move, just as an animal would. “Using chloroform to tranquillize a large pine tree, Bose was able to uproot it and transplant it without the usually fatal shock of such operations”.
  • “Like human beings, plants became intoxicated when given shots of whisky or gin, swayed like any bar-room drunkard, passed out, and eventually revived, with definite signs of a hangover”.
  • He found that too much carbon dioxide “could suffocate them, but that they could then be revived, just like animals, with oxygen”.
  • A cabbage leaf went through “violent paroxysms as it was scalded to death”. Experimenting with heat and cold, “one day he found that when all motion stopped in his plant, it suddenly shuddered in a way reminiscent of the death spasm in animals. At death the plant threw off a huge electrical force”.
  • “In his work with the sensitive plant Mimosa pudica, Bose showed that plants could be even more sensitive than men”.

In order to make such observations, he had developed sophisticated monitoring devices to measure the growth and behaviour of plants down to their minutest detail, including the crescograph, which was capable of magnifying the life processes of plants ten million times (according to Whitman; Tompkins/Bird say one hundred million times, which seems less likely, and which I therefore assume is a mistake).

WHAT WAS THE RESPONSE?

Here are two quotes from those who believed in him (there were obviously many others, as can be judged from the honours awarded to him):

  • At the meeting of the Academy of Sciences in the USSR mentioned above, one speaker said: “The green world of plants, seeming to us so immobile and insensitive, came miraculously to life and appeared no less, and often even more, sensitive than animals and man”.
  • The philosopher Henri Bergson said, after hearing Bose lecture at the Sorbonne: “The dumb plants had by Bose’s marvellous inventions been rendered the most eloquent witnesses of their hitherto unexpressed life-story. Nature has at last been forced to yield her most jealously guarded secrets”.

These are two responses from the orthodox scientific viewpoint of the time:

  • The journal Nature said of his first book Plant Response as a Means of Physiological Investigation: “The whole book abounds in interesting matter skillfully woven together and would be recommended as of great value if it did not continually arouse our incredulity”.
  • Of his second book Comparative Electro-Physiology the reviewer in Nature said: “The student of plant physiology, who has some acquaintance with the main classical ideas of his subject, will feel at first extreme bewilderment as he peruses this book. It proceeds so smoothly and logically, and yet it does not start from any place in the existing ‘corpus’ of knowledge, and never attaches itself with any firm adherence. This effect of detachment is heightened by the complete absence of precise reference to the work of other investigators”.

This is not, of course, how the scientific process is normally conducted — no peer-review, no other investigators. As Tompkins and Bird point out, that was because there weren’t any, and that the reviewer “had no way of knowing he was dealing with a genius half a century ahead of his time”. (Following on from my thought above, it’s worth noting that both Newton and Einstein, especially the former, worked in complete isolation, and felt no need to collaborate with others in order to develop their revolutionary ideas.) Given that nothing much has changed since their book, we may now say that he was actually 100 years ahead of his time. Unfortunately, this is how progress in science is often obstructed; firm experimental evidence is ignored for no good reason in favour of retaining an out-of-date worldview.

IMPLICATIONS OF HIS WORK

These are clear from the above, but just to summarise, Bose had demonstrated:

  • that even metals seemed in some sense to be ‘alive’.
  • that plants exhibited the same reactions and emotions as animals and humans, and could therefore be considered alive.

This is close to the ancient worldview of animism, and the modern spiritual belief that the whole universe is a living organism:

  • “All his life Bose had emphasized to a scientific community steeped in a mechanistic and materialistic outlook, the idea that all of nature pulsed with life and that each of the interrelated entities in the natural kingdom might reveal untold secrets could man but learn how to communicate with them”.
  • In retirement, he said: “In my investigations on the action of forces on matter, I was amazed to find boundary lines vanishing and to discover points of contact emerging between the Living and the non-Living. Is there any possible relation between our own life and that of the plant world? … This means that we should abandon all our preconceptions most of which are afterwards found to be absolutely groundless and contrary to facts. The final appeal must be made to the plant itself and no evidence should be accepted unless it bears the plant’s own signature”.

THE SPIRITUAL DIMENSION

The scientist Bose unashamedly related his findings about plants and the world in general to the ‘mystical’ ideas of Hinduism. For example, at an address to the Royal Institution in 1901, having described his extensive experiments and results, he ended by saying: “I have shown you this evening autographic records of the history of stress and strain in the living and non-living. How similar are the writings! So similar indeed that you cannot tell one apart from the other. Among such phenomena, how can we draw a line of demarcation and say, here the physical ends, and there the physiological begins? Such absolute barriers do not exist. …

“(I perceived) one phase of a pervading unity that bears within it all things — the mote that quivers in ripples of light, the teeming life upon our earth, and the radiant suns that shine above us — it was then that I understood for the first time a little of that message proclaimed by my ancestors on the banks of the Ganges thirty centuries ago: ‘They who see but one, in the changing manifoldness of this universe, unto them belongs Eternal Truth — unto none else, unto none else!’ ”.

During his lifetime this did not always seem to have been a problem. This lecture was warmly received, notably by Sir Robert Austen, “one of the world’s authorities on metals, (who) praised Bose for his faultless arguments, saying: ‘I have all my life studied the properties of metals and am happy to think that they have life’ ”. Bose’s “views went unchallenged, despite the metaphysical note at the end”. It was obviously considered inappropriate at that time to include such a statement when publishing a scientific address, but Sir William Crookes “urged that the last quotation should not be omitted”.

On another occasion the Times, sounding strangely more like the Hindu Times, wrote: “While we in England were still steeped in the rude empiricism of barbaric life, the subtle Easterner had swept the universe into a synthesis and had seen the one in all its changing manifestations”.

Tompkins and Bird say in relation to this association with Hinduism: “Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose managed to accomplish the essential requirement of the twentieth century: an amalgamation of the wisdom of the ancient East with the precise scientific techniques and language of the modern West”.

THE LATER REACTION

After his death, however, the groundless preconceptions contrary to facts started to kick back in, and there was a backlash from the ‘scientific’ community. They were still asking, “how could a plant, with no nervous system of the animal kind, react to irritation or blows in the same way as an animal?”, even though Bose had demonstrated that plants do have a nervous system, or its equivalent. Bose’s explanation had not been physical, but psychological, which materialists found unacceptable, and he had drawn comparisons with the ‘mystical’ Hindu concept of a pervading unity. “This was anathema to conventional botanists, physiologists and psychologists alike. They could not very well overturn Bose’s findings. Instead, “his work was treated as if it never existed”.

FURTHER QUESTION

I don’t know whether Bose himself went so far as to consider this, but it is a reasonable question: if plants respond to the environment, react in the same way as animals and humans; if they show reactions and have the same emotions as animals and humans, do they have some sense of self-awareness like animals and humans?

Can plants communicate with each other? Recent research suggests that they can. Do they know that they are doing this? Research in Russia, following on from Bose’s work, showed that plants do have an ‘awareness’ of being cut!

CONCLUSIONS

  • Bose had “carried scientific research into areas unexplored before, and used impeccably scientific methods to back his findings”.
  • His results “were so well demonstrated and presented that, at the time, they convinced his fellow-scientists. Yet they were so disconcerting that they were not followed up, and are today rarely mentioned in academic journals”.
  • He “found out more about plants than anyone before and perhaps since, but remains almost unmentioned in classical histories of subjects in which he specialized”.
  • “Nearly a half century after his death, the Encyclopedia Britannica could only say of his work in the field of plant physiology that it was so much in advance of his time that it could not be precisely evaluated”.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this was because those who followed were afraid of the implications if they were to evaluate it; the whole philosophy of (atheistic) materialism might be completely overturned.

Are children now taught in biology lessons that plants are much more like humans than we might usually suppose, that they have emotions, react to pain, and suffer when they die? If so, I’m not aware of it. (I know that the avoidance of animal suffering is not the only motivation for vegetarians and vegans. It is for some, however, and they seem blissfully unaware of these findings. What would they eat if they knew?) Fortunately others are now covering similar ground, and the torch which Bose lit, but which was sadly extinguished, is now being reignited by figures like the ecologist Peter Wohlleben and the scientist Monica Gagliano.

Please don’t believe anyone if they tell you that science is always a search for, or is gradually finding, the truth about the universe. The highly influential enthusiast for ‘scientific’ progress Steven Pinker says: “The findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures…are factually mistaken”⁴. Really? I don’t think so. If he chooses to live in a fantasy world, that’s up to him. It is closer to the truth that modern science is only slowly catching up with the wisdom of the ancients. But this is how science and the search for truth often operates. It is the preconceptions and psychological reactions of ‘scientists’ that determine what is allowed. And when they are afraid of what they might find, the work of a genius like Jagadis Chandra Bose is thrown upon the rubbish heap.

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Bose: “This vast abode of nature is built in many wings, each with its own portal. The physicist, the chemist and the biologist come in by different doors, each one his own department of knowledge, and each comes to think that this is his special domain unconnected with that of any other. Hence has arisen our present division of phenomena into the worlds of inorganic, vegetal and sentient. This philosophical attitude of mind may be denied. We must remember that all inquiries have as their goal the attainment of knowledge in its entirety”.

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, Christianity, psychology, science, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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Footnotes:

1. John Whitman, The Psychic Power of Plants, Star Books, 1975, p41

2. USA 1973, in Great Britain Allen Lane, 1974. My copy Penguin 1975.

3. My sources are:

  • as footnote 2, p77–96
  • as footnote 1, p41–45
  • Brian Inglis, The Hidden Power, Jonathan Cape, 1986, p13–14.

Everything in quotation marks comes from one of these.

4. “Science is Not Your Enemy”, The New Republic, August 19th 2013, p33

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