Okay - stick with me on this, and you shall be rewarded ... I hope.
Not too long ago, I posted a poignant piece on a lobster fisherman who found himself the target of a group calling themselves the Lobster Liberation Front. The LLF took it upon themselves to vandalize his boat, lobster equipment, and house, and to issue threats that in effect said "we're just starting ...".
My heart goes out to Mr. Lander, a single parent and the LLF's target. But in considering his situation, something occurred to me: many Animal Rights Activists oppose biomedical science on the (incorrect) grounds that animals are so different from humans that the results cannot be extrapolated to humans. In their words:
"The best way to learn about the human anatomy and about saving human lives, is by studying humans, not animals. Imagine your surgeon saying, with scalpel in hand, don't worry, I've done this procedure on a goat." --Dr Jerry Vlasak [yes, that Jerry Vlasak, and I can't resist - notice Dr. Vlasak confines his remark to human anatomy - what does that tell you? . . . ed]
Actor Alec Baldwin and rock icon Grace Slick are among the many that oppose the use of animals for experimentation. Says Grace Slick, "Vivisection is bad for both humans and animals. Using animals to extrapolate information for humans is stupid science." [And who would question the scientific credentials of either? ... ed]
Having pronounced it impossible to extrapolate from animals to humans, the Animal Rights people flip their logic and extrapolate from humans to lobsters, claiming that lobsters can feel pain and discomfort "because they sense actions that will cause them harm". Why, one may plausibly ask, is it impossible to extrapolate from rats to humans, but possible to extrapolate from humans to lobsters?
First, a little context ... we humans "feel" pain in our cerebral cortex. Take away the cortex, and you don't feel pain. Lobsters don't have a cerebral cortex at all. In fact, their central nervous system is primitive, and consists not of a "brain" as we think of it, but as more or less discrete collections of nerve cells called ganglia. In other words, they don't have the anatomical/physiological equipment to feel much of anything, though they have a wonderful senses of smell and taste.
Still, lobsters do react to noxious stimuli. Does that prove they feel pain?
No - it merely means that they react to a stimulus, and it's possible to react even to a noxious stimulus without feeling pain. For example, humans with a severed spinal cord retain deep-tendon and withdrawl reflexes in the limbs beneath the injury, and the withdrawal reflex initially becomes hyperactive because it is not inhibited by the (separated) brain. (The withdrawal reflex is a classic "pain avoidance" reflex - its fundamental motor component is located in the spinal cord, but the detection of pain happens in the cerebral cortex - no signals to cortex, no pain.)
But more to the point, if one is going to argue that "response to noxious stimuli" is the equivalent to pain, and conclude that such a response should confer "rights," then what is the argument against granting plants "rights?"
If you think I'm loopy, read this for starters:
. . . Bertrand Russell didn't go far enough when he remarked that animal rights mean votes for oysters. By the same criterion, they mean votes for parsnips.
Animal rights supporters argue that, if an organism re- acts negatively to any exterior influence, and seeks to avoid further contact, then it is in pain. "Fish feel pain," it was announced in May. Scientists at the Roslin Institute and the University of Edinburgh had placed electrodes in the brains of trout and made recordings as they poked the fishes' heads. They discovered that the trout brains fired reactive neurones. When acid or bee venom was applied to their lips, the trout rubbed them on the gravel in their tank.
On the same basis, it can be argued that plants also feel pain. They, too, recoil from detrimental sensations. Research by Alan Bown of Brock University in Canada showed that, ten seconds after an insect crawls on to a leaf, the plant secretes a paralysing agent (called gamma aminobutyric acid) that attacks the intruder's nervous system. Bown explained that plants distinguish between harmless contact from raindrops and the action of caterpillar feet. Not only that, but having been attacked by insects, plants repair their wounds by releasing the chemical superoxide, which helps to prevent infection.
This is not new: botanists have known for a long time that plants have defensive mechanisms. But in June 2002, researchers in Bonn found that plants emit ethylene gas when under attack. The scientists also attached microphones to the vegetation and observed that whereas the plants normally emitted a bubbling sound, under attack from insects, they gave off piercing screeches. Scientists at the Baylor University Medical Centre in Dallas have measured the chemical response of plants to being pulled up, peeled, cooked and eaten. The results, said Professor Barry Lindzer, showed that "plants initiate a massive hormone and chemical barrage internally when they suffer any kind of injury". He continued: "This response is akin to the nerve response and endorphin release when an animal is injured. We cannot ignore the similarities." Scientists from Michigan State University say that plants have a rudimentary nerve structure that allows them to feel pain. "The nervous system is undeveloped, but it is there." . . .
It's well known that plants have very sophisticated ways of responding to their environment: many flowers close their petals when out of the sun and open them when bathed in sun; sunflowers follow the sun as it passes overhead; the carnivorous venus flytrap responds to insects within its "jaws" by closing on them and then digesting them.
In fact, there is a voluminous literature attesting to the ability of plants to respond to all sorts of stimuli, noxious and innocuous (check this out). More intriguingly, plants can communicate that they've been injured to members of the same and different species, sometimes over great distances, and those plants then react defensively to successfully protect themselves. (See also this - it gives new meaning to the cliché "celebrating diversity".)
Plant communication is a serious enough subject that it is the focus of college courses. And if you think that's remarkable, consider that the First Symposium on Plant Neurobiology is scheduled to take place in Florence, Italy in May, 2005.
So - given that plants can react to "pain," and can communicate that they've been injured to other plants, which then mount effective defensive responses to the message, what is the argument against plants having "rights?"
After all, if lobsters are worthy of rights because they react to negative stimuli, so are plants!
And to deny plants "rights" would be to engage in speciesism!
UPDATE — 5/3/2008: Well, it's come to pass. Wesley J. Smith has just authored an article entitled: The Silent Scream of Asparagus in which he tells us: "At the request of the Swiss government, an ethics panel has weighed in on the "dignity" of plants and opined that the arbitrary killing of flora is morally wrong. This is no hoax. The concept of what could be called "plant rights" is being seriously debated."
This doesn't separate the holier-than-thou vegans from us meat eaters by very much, does it?