No Face, but Plants Like Life Too

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Several years ago, after having to drive for too long behind a truck full of stinking, squealing pigs being delivered for slaughter, I gave up eating meat. I’d been harboring a growing distaste for the ugliness that can be industrial agriculture, but the real issue was a long-suppressed sympathy for its — or really, my — victims. Even screaming, reeking pigs, or maybe especially screaming, reeking pigs, can evoke stark pity as they tumble along in a truck to their deaths.

If you think about it, and it’s much simpler not to, it can be hard to justify other beings suffering pain, fear and death so that we can enjoy their flesh. In particular, given our many connections to animals, not least of all the fact that we are ourselves animals, it can give a person pause to realize that our most frequent contact with these kin might just be the devouring of them.

My entry into what seemed the moral high ground, though, was surprisingly unpleasant. I felt embattled not only by a bizarrely intense lust for chicken but nightmares in which I would be eating a gorgeous, rare steak — I could distinctly taste the savory drippings — from which I awoke in a panic, until I realized that I had been carnivorous only in my imagination.

Temptations and trials were everywhere. The most surprising turned out to be the realization that I couldn’t actually explain to myself or anyone else why killing an animal was any worse than killing the many plants I was now eating.

Surely, I’d thought, science can defend the obvious, that slaughterhouse carnage is wrong in a way that harvesting a field of lettuces or, say, mowing the lawn is not. But instead, it began to seem that formulating a truly rational rationale for not eating animals, at least while consuming all sorts of other organisms, was difficult, maybe even impossible.

Before you hit “send” on your hate mail, let me say this. Different people have different reasons for the choices they make about what to kill or have killed for them to eat. Perhaps there isn’t any choice more personal or less subject to rationality or the judgment of others. It’s just that as far as I was concerned, if eating a tofu dog was as much a crime against life as eating bratwurst, then pass the bratwurst, please.

So what really are the differences between animals and plants? There are plenty. The cells of plants, and not animals, for example, harbor chloroplasts, tiny green organelles that can turn the energy of light into sugar. Almost none of these differences, however, seem to matter to any of us trying to figure out what to eat.

The differences that do seem to matter are things like the fact that plants don’t have nerves or brains. They cannot, we therefore conclude, feel pain. In other words, the differences that matter are those that prove that plants do not suffer as we do. Here the lack of a face on plants becomes important, too, faces being requisite to humans as proof not only that one is dealing with an actual individual being, but that it is an individual capable of suffering.

Animals, on the other hand — and not just close evolutionary relations like chimps and gorillas, but species further afield, mammals like cows and pigs — can experience what pretty much anyone would agree is pain and suffering. If attacked, these animals will look agonized, scream, struggle and run as fast as they can. Obviously, if we don’t kill any of these animals to eat them, all that suffering is avoided.

Meanwhile, whether you pluck a leaf or slice a trunk, a plant neither grimaces nor cries out. Plants don’t seem to mind being killed, at least as far as we can see. But that may be exactly the difficulty.

Unlike a lowing, running cow, a plant’s reactions to attack are much harder for us to detect. But just like a chicken running around without its head, the body of a corn plant torn from the soil or sliced into pieces struggles to save itself, just as vigorously and just as uselessly, if much less obviously to the human ear and eye.

When a plant is wounded, its body immediately kicks into protection mode. It releases a bouquet of volatile chemicals, which in some cases have been shown to induce neighboring plants to pre-emptively step up their own chemical defenses and in other cases to lure in predators of the beasts that may be causing the damage to the plants. Inside the plant, repair systems are engaged and defenses are mounted, the molecular details of which scientists are still working out, but which involve signaling molecules coursing through the body to rally the cellular troops, even the enlisting of the genome itself, which begins churning out defense-related proteins.

Plants don’t just react to attacks, though. They stand forever at the ready. Witness the endless thorns, stinging hairs and deadly poisons with which they are armed. If all this effort doesn’t look like an organism trying to survive, then I’m not sure what would. Plants are not the inert pantries of sustenance we might wish them to be.

If a plant’s myriad efforts to keep from being eaten aren’t enough to stop you from heedlessly laying into that quinoa salad, then maybe knowing that plants can do any number of things that we typically think of as animal-like would. They move, for one thing, carrying out activities that could only be called behaving, if at a pace visible only via time-lapse photography. Not too long ago, scientists even reported evidence that plants could detect and grow differently depending on whether they were in the presence of close relatives, a level of behavioral sophistication most animals have not yet been found to show.

To make matters more confusing, animals are not always the deep wells of sensitivity that we might imagine. Sponges are animals, but like plants they lack nerves or a brain. Jellyfish, meanwhile, which can be really tasty when cut into julienne and pickled, have no brains, only a simple net of nerves, arguably a less sophisticated setup than the signaling systems coordinating the lives of many plants. How do we decide how much sensitivity and what sort matters?

For those hoping to escape these quandaries with an all-mushroom diet, forget it. In nearly every way that you might choose to compare, fungi are likely to be more similar to us than are plants, as fungi are our closer evolutionary relations.

If you think about it, though, why would we expect any organism to lie down and die for our dinner? Organisms have evolved to do everything in their power to avoid being extinguished. How long would any lineage be likely to last if its members effectively didn’t care if you killed them?

Maybe the real problem with the argument that it’s O.K. to kill plants because they don’t feel exactly as we do, though, is that it’s the same argument used to justify what we now view as unforgivable wrongs.

Slavery and genocide have been justified by the assertion that some kinds of people do not feel pain, do not feel love — are not truly human — in the same way as others. The same thinking has led to other practices less drastic but still appalling. For example, physicians once withheld anesthetics from infants during surgery because it was believed that these not-quite-yet-humans did not feel pain (smiles were gas, remember).

Yet even as we shake our heads over the past, we continue to fight about where to draw the line around our tribe of those deemed truly human. We argue over whether those who love others of the same gender deserve full human rights. We ask the same about fetal humans.

The dinner menu pushes us further still. Do other species of animal deserve our consideration? Do plants? Fungi? Microbes?

Maybe this seems all nonsense to you. Perhaps you’re having trouble equating a radish to a lamb to a person whose politics you hate to your beloved firstborn. It’s not surprising. It is reliably difficult for us to accept new members into our tribe, the more so the less like us they seem. It can be infinitely inconvenient to take the part of every individual we come across, to share with it that most precious of commodities: compassion.

What should we have for dinner tonight? Who knows?

Human beings survive by eating other living things. I really want not only to eat, but to survive. Yet a nakedly logical way to judge the value of one kind of organism over another — the rightness of a plant’s death versus an animal’s — seems, to me, out of reach.

My efforts to forgo meat didn’t last more than a couple of years. Still, I wonder what our great-grandchildren will think of us. Will we have trouble explaining to them why we killed animals or perhaps even plants for food? And if so, what on Earth will we be eating?


5 Comments on “No Face, but Plants Like Life Too”

  1. Susie

    Great article. I feel the same way for the past 10 years. I would be vegetarian if I had to kill the owner of the meat.
    I think the solution will be nanotechnology. Once we are able to build plant and meat-like molecules from the atomic level artificially, we don’t have to kill any plants or animals for food.

  2. Zsolt Zsofka

    Life is a big game. Thus far the dominating episodes were to rise to the top of the food chain. Only from here we can start thinking about alternative food source as we develop compassion to our living environment. However I wonder if lower level of life forms will follow? What would happen if a Dolphin stops chasing after the herrings? Let’s say for some miracles they manage to communicate with us and we find “humane” ways to feed our friends. Then let’s take the lions. Go down the list of your favorite animals living in nature and apply this scenario thinking and won’t take long to see the consequences of braking the harmony and balance of nature’s design.
    IMHO, I rather continue playing my game in and with nature and not pretend to be able to build a better one. For those who think they can, SIM CITY or games like that are awaiting 😉 Having said that I agree that manufactured meet is totally overboard solution and we could do better. As everything else, it is part of the process we call progress. We went from not having enough food to feed the rapid growing population 60-100 years ago, to the point where we have more food than we can consume. (In developed part of the world at least). Now we shall find ways to grow our own food and not let it affected by the hidden agendas of Big Business serving up the who knows how many different ways altered food supply.
    In short: Your article has a good point, and my vote is: I stay with our nature being as close to perfection as I can imagine and not pretend that I the future I switch over to some new Human designed food source just to express my compassion. After all the very best meet there is the Japanese Kobe meat I heard coming from animals that are raised with individual attention and compassion, then harvested with the best human ways possible. Have you tasted such meat? I’d love to but for now I stay with my green smoothies 😉

  3. John Ringland

    It certainly is a difficult issue!

    One solution that some have found is to become a fruitarian and only eat fruits that have fallen from the plant. This is only taking food that is freely offered by the plant as an inducement to help distribute its seeds – hence one should also distribute the seeds to complete the deal and be entirely guilt free.

    I too have dwelt on this issue in the past – I’ll share some thoughts on how I resolved it for myself.

    I was a strict vegan and also felt bad about eating and exploiting plants. I even felt guilty about my immune system killing bacteria and viruses, and the countless deaths and casualties that occur every time I take a step or inhale a breath of air or interact with the environment in any way. If one takes ALL life forms into account one realises that it is impossible to live without destroying lives.

    Eventually my own solution was to realise that all things are “fuel for the sacred fire”, the universe is constantly devouring itself, this is just energy flowing from one form to another. It was my ego that was attached to my body’s form and projecting that attachment onto all forms, hence it got tangled in knots of guilt and innocence, right and wrong.

    I eventually realised that IMHO the only truly rational stance is complete detachment and guiltless participation in the flow of life. I am not separate from the process of life, I am an integral part of it. Eating each other and treading on each other is an integral part of the process. Nature doesn’t care if it offends our sensibilities, it’s not precious about life, it destroys life forms just as much as it creates them.

    However, I’m still vegetarian but that is for irrational reasons – rationality isn’t everything – my heart tells me to not eat animals and I feel better this way.

  4. Jen

    I also have been thinking about this issue for a few years. To me life is life, whether animal, plant, fungus, bacteria, etc., and killing is killing. As human animals, we need to kill some living things in order to be well nourished; as John said, “all things are fuel for the sacred fire”.

    My solution is to respect the life that gives up it’s own life to feed me, and support farmers who treat their crops and animals in a respectful and humane manner. (Has anyone seen Whole Foods new “Animal Welfare Rating System” for their meats?) Family farms that follow organic and sustainable methods are the next best thing to raising crops or animals yourself. About 75% of my meals are vegan and as unprocessed as possible, with the remainder containing some meat, dairy, or eggs, because I think that is the healthiest way to eat and is healthiest for the Ultimate Provider, the planet. And as I am eating and enjoying the delicious food I am so fortunate to have, I make sure to thank the life that is giving me life, whether it be animal or vegetable.

  5. Larry nygren

    This article and following comments are all well stated and interesting. They are all approached from a dualistic, materialistic perspective. If the essence of TRUE reality consists of “monism”— ONENESS— which literally means that there is only one—(ONE!!!) then all dualistic thinking is flawed, as in “incorrect”. What we eat is really, totally insignificant. We literally are speculating, endlessly, about cannibalism— consuming ourself!

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