Are plants cognitive? A reply to Adams

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 73:64-71 (2019)
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According to F. Adams [this journal, vol. 68, 2018] cognition cannot be realized in plants or bacteria. In his view, plants and bacteria respond to the here-and-now in a hardwired, inflexible manner, and are therefore incapable of cognitive activity. This article takes issue with the pursuit of plant cognition from the perspective of an empirically informed philosophy of plant neurobiology. As we argue, empirical evidence shows, contra Adams, that plant behavior is in many ways analogous to animal behavior. This renders plants suitable to be described as cognitive agents in a non-metaphorical way. Sections two to four review the arguments offered by Adams in light of scientific evidence on plant adaptive behavior, decision-making, anticipation, as well as learning and memory. Section five introduces the ‘phyto-nervous’ system of plants. To conclude, section six resituates the quest for plant cognition into a broader approach in cognitive science, as represented by enactive and ecological schools of thought. Overall, we aim to motivate the idea that plants may be considered genuine cognitive agents. Our hope is to help propel public awareness and discussion of plant intelligence once appropriately stripped of anthropocentric preconceptions of the sort that Adams' position appears to exemplify.

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Miguel Segundo-Ortin
Utrecht University


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