Topic: Sentience in Trees (1/1) Date: Tuesday, February 09, 1999 06:22 AM


(Part I)

sentience n. [See {Sentient}] The quality or state of being sentient; esp., the quality or state of having sensation. sentience n. 1: state of elementary or undifferentiated consciousness; "the crash intruded on his awareness" [syn: {awareness}] 2: the faculty through which the external world is apprehended [syn: {sense}, {sensation}, {sentiency}, {sensory faculty}] 3: the readiness to perceive sensations; elementary or undifferentiated consciousness: "gave sentience to slugs and newts" [ant: {insentience}] sentient a. [L. sentiens, -entis, p. pr. of sentire to discern or perceive by the senses. See {Sense}.] Having a faculty, or faculties, of sensation and perception. Specif. (Physiol.), especially sensitive; as, the sentient extremities of nerves, which terminate in the various organs or tissues. Capable of having feeling, having the power of sense perception.

A Personal Context I have all sorts of positions about trees as everyone well knows--and throughout my mutterings I've also noticed that trees haven't paid attention to a single one. Ordinarily, that would be humbling, but I've observed that trees don't pay attention to anyone else either. For example, any scholarly tomes laid face down at the foot of trees have apparently never been read by them. Indeed, not a leaf of a book has ever been known to have been turned as reported in Illiteracy in Trees or Pulp Avoidance ? (Journal of Arb. 1983)

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In contrast to the billions of dollars spent by the general public on self-help books, these texts have been provided free of charge to trees for research purposes. They contain perfectly good advice written by experts about trees, but these reports and books have been invariably ignored by trees--except perhaps as fertilizer in subsequent years. Trees simply do what they do and seem quite unimpressed by our many boasted advances in arboriculture. For some people, trees not reading is proof that trees are not sentient. Obviously, that group argues, trees that pass up an opportunity to improve themselves just have no common sense. Nonsense, say others, trees have been rendered immobile by evolution and simply do not have the genetic physiological tools necessary for reading. ( The Absence of Rods and Cones in Pines J. of Tree Physiol. 1995 ) A small third group, which I have been loping along with for a while, states issues of sentience have little to do with science or with proofs of any possession of a capacity of feeling. Those issues, I believe, are mostly our own territorial insistences, not much more than centuries-long attempts to cover our noble, intellectual butts. So, given that caveat of my positions, I will mumble on, confident in the knowledge that a large part of my preferred audience, one-trunked or two-legged, won't listen anyway and, at best, this may only be a soliloquy with graphics. Raised as a Catholic kid, I was taught that the order of the universe of sentient beings was God, the angels--and us. As the us in that ranking, we could think, philosophize, possess morality, judgment, accountability, etc. and all of this gave us our humanity. Everything else beneath was relegated to some giant dust heap of creatures that was ours to dominate as we saw fit--perhaps as a reward--or as the proper due for our humanity much like a feudal lord viewing his peasants. Under that celestial colonial charter, we have harvested our planet and its creatures to a point of significant depletion and thus interfered with our own orb's ability for self-sustaining balance. (It's interesting to note that our hubris also presently drives us to get off this planet, go to Mars, and take up extraterrestrial harvesting there as well. I guess the doofus in our humanity never learns.) Now, being on the bottom rung just beneath the angels is a rather uncomfortable position, forever cast out of Eden as it were, and we have been preoccupied with making sure we maintain the fragments of our exclusivity. Certainly, we didn't want to dilute our very special humanity by sharing any definitive attributes with other creatures.

But there was a problem. The evolving sciences that we revered, the sciences that searched out truth with a single-minded purity, were a natural enemy of our concept of humanity's

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egotistical distinctiveness. Clearly, if left alone, science would corrode and undercut our exclusivity, so a new scientific perspective was coagulated somewhere in the time of Descartes that insisted that animals or any such lower creatures simply had no parallels to rational man. Them is them, and we stayed us in those new intellectual truths. Under the banners of evolving contemporary science, philosophy and religion, mankind stayed safely insulated from admitting that animals shared any of our special attributes. For example, animals couldn't think. We could, and not only that, we could think ahead. Animals couldn't use tools; we could. And animals didn't have the power of speech and communication which was considered an extra special distinction between them and us. Even in Darwin's days, it was very clear that animals couldn't talk while we could. See, that was solid proof we were special. However, today's "objective" scientists keep piling up more and more factoids that imply an uncomfortable similarity of actions and consequences in both groups of creatures--them and us. It is now very obvious that animals can talk, but you wouldn't know it to listen to our sputtering because, if animals could talk, we simply weren't special. So we erected these tortuous definitions of just what speech is--and then argued that "apparent speech" between lowly creatures just don't meet those tests. I don't know if dolphins diagram sentences or if monkeys practice multiplication tables while picking nits off each other. From what I learned about endless pages of long division in grammar school, nitpicking would be an eminently preferable activity. Indeed, look at our Congress today; monkeys with red power ties picking legal nits with no issues of practical long division or other social responsibilities anywhere in sight. Hmmmmm. Dolphins can tell the shape of objects in closed boxes and have a particular gentle affinity for human children who are ill. Monkeys and birds use tools; oops, another invasion of our domain. And gorillas have worked out bigger interactive vocabularies than a lot of our 5th graders. Every time we turned around, some damned scientist was busy uncovering those things and intrusively chewing on the ankles of our innate supremacy. The ancient answer to this irritating potential of science for the continuing erosion of human nobility was to simply forbid it from being questioned. As Inquisitions fell out of style, the pedantics of the 1700's, ever protective of their perks anyway, named a new sin, then set out to purge it and punish the offenders wherever possible. That new infamy was anthropomorphism; and the new criminals were--well, seemingly anyone who strayed anywhere near equating animals with humans and thus falling into an ugly many-lettered heresy.

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an·thro·po·mor·phism Pronunciation: -"fi-z&m Function: noun Date: 1753 : an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics (Webster, 1913) anthropomorphism n. to ascribe to the creature under scrutiny emotions, goals, consciousness, intelligence, desires, or any other characteristics viewed as exclusively human. (NYT, 94) anthropomorphic adj. characterized as non-objective by traditional dictum, with a presumption that an animal has intentions, or is aware of what it is doing, or that it feels pain. (NYT, 94)

Anthropomorphism As a personal comment, I dearly love this English language. I have always enjoyed reading it--and I've also learned to write somewhat inside it. In that regard, I consider myself rather protective of our collective literate legacy. The man who invented the term anthropomorphism should have been instantly arrested for abuse of the language and given a long prison term with a hefty fine. This word is longer than it has any right to be and is so ponderously swollen that the New York Times actually misspelled it in their August 9, 1994 headline on the subject. (Once having been stuck in dictionaries, and given our intellectual tendencies to get further gassed-up and bloated, I'm sorry to say that we have now distended that grotesque literary item into--gack, I can hardly write them: anti-anthropomorphism and neoanthropomorphism!) In many philosophical or religious contexts, anthropomorphism usually means ascribing human qualities to a God or gods--such as saying there is a compassionate God or a vengeful God. It appears still a product of our eternal pride that gods would be anything like us, but I'll leave those debates to the philosophers and clerics. In the scientific fields, the justifications for avoiding anthropomorphism include, "the truly objective biologist will refrain from projecting personal feelings onto an animal, and instead confine the research to a rigorous collection of observations and a dispassionate statistical analysis of the data." Now I agree, that sounds quite properly rational and scientific, but it seems to me that there still is a larger uglier creature hiding behind our curtain of hubris. Jane Goodall was surprised and angry when her very first paper on chimpanzees was returned with all the references to chimps as he and she struck out and replaced with the word it. That felt the same to me a few years ago, where I attended a seminar at Cornell and

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I asked an innocent question, "Our present urban practice is to mulch trees including elms killed by DED and then spread that mulch around uninfected elms. Isn't that like the French giving blankets infested with smallpox to the Indians?" The lecturer turned on me in an odd fury for my anthropomorphism (?), he never did actually consider my question, and angrily went back to his topic that severed tree roots were like soda straws, so we should limit our watering to the edges of the root ball where the water could go right up into the transplanted tree! Considering that and a few other things he it said afterward, I wasn't sure I even wanted an answer to my question from him it. (Maybe he it thought I was saying trees were French, and yes, that would be clearly anthropomorphic since trees are more obviously Polish.) Later, I looked up that word I was accused of--and damn if I didn't find a new windmill to joust with in my spare time.
Reverse Anthropomorphism: John Cleese is accused of imitating the behavior of a stick insect.

I thought I'd share this little intellectual nugget with the readership: A behavioral neuroscientist at Duke, said in the New York Times article, "to assume an animal is aware, violates a prime directive in science that one should always seek the simplest explanation for any observation, and the simplest assumption is that most behavior does not require awareness, or emotions, or strategic planning to occur." Sorry, but I view this pronouncement as a somewhat self-serving and incorrect extension of Occam's Razor--which, if you look at that original idea, was actually a gentle homily stating, "The simplest answer is usually sufficient." Occam's Razor has been a resiliently helpful bit of advice given to us in the mid-1300's by William of Occam that says we should look to simplicity as a guide in evaluating, understanding and determining truth, but the quoted scientist carries on his inherited banner that his interpretive simplicity about animals is actually a law; indeed a prime directive. I don't blame him personally for this starched-collar opinion, the argument has been continually used by people in science who prefer to keep their shoes glued in place. (See Galileo's Trial) Somewhere in the middle of his logic however, I noticed that we humans must have ceased to be animals, thus escaping the expansive simplicity of not having awareness, or emotions, or strategic planning ourselves. Now, isn't that convenient?

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If I assume that us are sentient and the rest of the animals are not, am I simply going back at the god, angels, and us order of the universe? Or might there be a creeping edge of sentience that extends way back into the Neanderthals or some other Sapiens precursors? Is sentience for us, a snippet of DNA in some chimpanzee skulking in a tree where a single gene is about to evolve into male pattern baldness? Above that fragment, OK, them's us. Below that moment of advance, yuck, them's it's. Occam's Razor is a continuation of the Aristotelian principle that entities must not be multiplied beyond what is necessary, and the Razor tries to shave away misrepresentations and overstatements with its cutting edge of simplicity. But more honestly, Occam's Razor has also allowed many players to justify their own biases, prejudices and perspectives under an easy personal label of generic simplicity. Our behaviorist clams that "the simplest assumption is that most behavior does not require awareness, or emotions, or strategic planning to occur." Once he has decided this statement itself is the simplest, the perspective must be true and can be applied to all living creatures. Just because he generates the "simplest" truism, Nature must therefore fall in line---us excepted of course. This ploy has become so overused and was so distorted a tool over the centuries, that old Al Einstein himself felt a need to step in and make a comment. Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." If that gentle correction by the grand old man presents any reader with a problem, I submit a recent graphic by a very well known commentator on many truths as we know them today:

So, in trying to look at the subject of sentience, the first barrier to be overcome is prying sentience out of the ought-to-be -dead clutches of anthropomorphism. I agree that avoiding anthropomorphism can have a protective function in keeping our personal fluff out of some scientific observations or conclusions. But I am not likely ever to be persuaded that our own perspectives, personal or otherwise, are somehow inherently poisonous to the process of finding scientific accuracy or truth.
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It is foolish, perhaps even stupid, to say that we can ever observe and conclude issues without our individual of experience and knowledge--in addition to the variations and complexities of the issue itself. Yes, we should try to minimize unnecessary and distracting interferences, but it may be just a fantasy that we can ever eliminate them--especially with tools like the sadly mummifying Occam's Razor. Now that I think about it, Dilbert was particularly profound in his last panel. Humanity and its sciences are both "on top of the pile" and a "vote for ourselves." Expanding the embrace of sentience to other creatures chews away at the nobility of humanity's self-elected office. Isn't that a shame. It's so awfully difficult to keep pretending we belong in the company of gods and angels when we're continually exposed by some scientist as having a fine dusting of animal dander.

Bob Wulkowicz

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