Just when you thought things could not get any weirder: Last Sunday, The New York Times — of course! — ran a piece in its Sunday opinion section by a university professor — of course! — claiming that it is unethical to eat certain plants.
According to Michael Marder, recent discoveries show that peas communicate with each other through their root systems and soil. Of course, being plants, pea “communication” doesn’t involve the least level of sentience, not to mention rationality. It is a purely chemical response to environmental stimuli.
But should pea chemical communication elevate the moral value of peas? Yes, according to Marder (my emphasis):
When it comes to a plant, it turns out to be not only a what but also a who — an agent in its milieu, with its own intrinsic value or version of the good. Inquiring into justifications for consuming vegetal beings thus reconceived, we reach one of the final frontiers of dietary ethics.
Good grief. Plants aren’t “beings” and “who” equates to personhood. But plants don’t have any “version of the good — or for that matter, the bad: They are plants!
Marder then claims that plant sophistication means we should not eat them unless they live for several growing seasons:
The “renewable” aspects of perennial plants may be accepted by humans as a gift of vegetal being and integrated into their diets. But it would be harder to justify the cultivation of peas and other annual plants, the entire being of which humans devote to externally imposed ends.
I hate to repeat myself, but good grief! People are starving in the world and Marder worries about the ethics of eating peas and carrots! Worse, the piece runs with all due respect in the Sunday opinion section of the nation’s Paper of Record! (Yes, I’m yelling.)
If Marder’s piece was just a bizarre outlier, his column might be dismissed with a chuckle and an eye roll. Alas, the plants-are-persons-too meme has been gaining traction in recent years. For example, back in 2009, Natalie Angier, a science columnist for The Times (yes, again) marveled like Marder about the sophistication of plant biology, and then jumped her own shark by claiming that plants are the most ethical life forms on the planet!
But before we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot. This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way.
Surely as a science writer, Angier must know that plants don’t “aspire” to anything. For example, they may appear to “reach out” to the sun, but it is all chemical. But that doesn’t stop Angier from larding on the anthropomorphism:
Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.
Please. It’s merely natural selection in action, not a cry for help. And get this ending:
It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive. Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. Don’t expect them to boast: they’re too busy fighting to survive.
No, plants are not ethical. That requires thought and free will. Besides, Venus fly traps digest insects alive.