The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben was published in 2016. It is a best seller because of its warm and fuzzy description of the life of trees and other plants. Wohlleben accomplishes this by giving trees consciousness with the use of anthropomorphism; trees are able to have a simple culture and are aware of other trees as brothers and sisters in the forest.
Everyone enjoys a bit of anthropomorphism once in a while. Having a bit of light conversation with the teapot can be entertaining or sharing fondness with that old pair of sneakers. But the truth is that the most significant difference between the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom is consciousness. Animals have it, plants don’t.
What provoked consciousness to evolve? This still today is a totally unanswered question. What small, ancient creature was the first to recognize an external circumstance that had yet to affect the chemistry or condition of the creature itself? Which creature was the first to use the word ‘what’ albeit not in verbal form?
Human consciousness has evolved into a more substantive capability. Not only is ‘what’ used but why, how, where, when, who, did, will and many other launch words that are used to engage consciousness. Without consciousness, there can be no reasoning; no language, words or definitions. One would not be aware that there are different colors or that cats are soft or knives are sharp; ‘will it be sunny today’ doesn’t exist. Without consciousness judgment doesn’t exist – just ask the trees, anthropologically, of course.
Plants had a long time to slowly develop survival methods that don’t need consciousness. Plants have been around for 1.6 billion years, enough time to put in place complex chemical and environmental processes that can function without consciousness. Animals have only been around 640 million years so consciousness was a shortcut. The downside is that animals, especially humans, have to think about stuff to survive whereas plants don’t.
The verdict is still out for consciousness. Evolution never stops so anything may be possible in the long run. The fact is that consciousness is volatile. It is affected by many different physical, empirical and existential relationships. In other words, unlike the perpetual chemical dependency found in plants, consciousness is subject to genetic modification, a generational phenomenon. Generations last only about twenty to thirty years so what can change in the next 2,500 years could be significant.
Mariner is suspicious about the drift toward machine dependency to replace thinking by humans. What’s that common phrase . . . use it or lose it. On the other hand, it may be easier to be like a tree.