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Can Plants be Altruistic?

can_plants_be_altruistic_imageCorn Plants Show Consciousness

What's not to love about plants? They provide food, shelter, aromas, medicines, textiles, oxygen…beauty. They're vital to human life, lending their lives so selflessly to perpetuating our, lately questionable, existence.

Some humans respect the plant: the benevolent gardener, for example, or the grateful farmer, the foodie, even the florist. But many of us take plants for granted—stepping on them as if they were as inert as the concrete they so frequently and miraculously poke themselves out of. Many people view their inability to be mobile as an evolutionary weakness, a nuisance even. Perhaps, though, we just don't understand plants as well as we think we do.

According to a recent study published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and conducted by the University of Colorado at Boulder, suggests corn plants may be altruistic. The researchers compared the growth and behaviors of "sibling" corn plants (where a fertilized seed contains an embryo and endosperm). They studied natural siblings (same mother and father corn plants) and those with genetically different parents and found that when they had different parents, the endosperm was less generous with food than when the parents were the same.

Professor Pamela Diggle of the University of Colorado said previous research shows that plants can "preferentially withhold nutrients from inferior offspring when resources are limited," reports "Our study is the first to specifically test the idea of cooperation among siblings in plants." So, it seems, corn may be altruistic, but it's also a family plant, first and foremost.

Besides humans, many animals show altruistic tendencies towards their own kind and across the species barrier, like dogs caring for kittens or the famous Hans Christian Anderson tale of the Ugly Duckling, where a duck cares for a newly hatched swan.

But thinking of plants as having tendencies towards altruism is pretty difficult to imagine. Could it signify a plant consciousness we're unaware of? It's interesting that the study was conducted on corn—a plant that's ubiquitous in our Western diet. In his best-selling book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan explored the history of corn and how it came to be such a dominant crop in our diet. Dozens of ingredients are derived from corn, which can be found in an incredibly high number of processed foods. Could it be the consciousness of the plant that helped propel it into such status? And if so, is it offering us some sort of gesture of goodwill and health? What does this say as well about the prolific practice of genetic modification, of which the corn plant is a prime target? Could these manipulations be "bringing corn to life?"

As evolution of the human being continues, it's logical that all beings on earth are also evolving and changing. Where consciousness may not have existed before, may now possibly be coming to life, even in plants. What we can ascertain from this development is the truth that there's much more than meets the eye in most circumstances.

Learn more about Jill Ettinger

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