The SemiotiX Review of Books

Semiotica botanica

Some four decades ago, German semiotician, artist, and architect Martin Krampen coined the term phytosemiotics (from the Ancient Greek word for plant). Based on the fragile evidence available at the time, he claimed that plants communicate through signs and that botany should be included in the purview of semiotic inquiry. This claim was diversely received among his semiotician colleagues. He gave papers in conferences and authored encyclopedia articles on the topic of plant semiotics. His latest take on this issue was an article in English in the first volume of the massive three-volume Handbook on the Sign Theoretic Foundations of Nature and Culture published by De Gruyter (Berlin) in 1996. Krampen’s contribution is entitled Phytosemiosis (pp. 507-522). This wide-ranging piece which attempts to cover the topic at hand from organic processes to the cultural significance of plants is framed as a hypothesis inspired by natural philosophy and the work of anti-Darwinian Jakob von Uexküll. It is tentative and inconclusive, albeit somewhat insightful as we will see in the course of what follows. The three books under review in part do justice to Krampen’s vision and expand the semiotic interface between humans and the plants with which they share this planet.

What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses.

Daniel Chamovitz. 2012. New York: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 177 pages.

What a plant knowsAdmittedly, raising the issue of cognition in plants is shockingly counter-intuitive as we associate cognition with vertebrate endowed with an advanced central nervous system. The title of the book is provocative but the author, a renowned biologist, compellingly leads the reader to reconsider the way we look at plants…and cognition. Daniel Chamovitz is the director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University. This nicely written 141 page book, plus bibliographical endnotes and index, is meant to communicate to an educated lay audience the latest advances in the scientific knowledge of plants. Looking back in evolutionary time, Chamovitz points out that plants and vertebrates have common ancestors. Their genomes overlap to some minimal but significant extent (notably with respect to the control of circadian clocks) although they diverged from our lineage many hundreds of millions of years ago and took markedly different evolutionary paths. But, like vertebrates, they process information from their environment and selectively adapt to the resources which are available for their survival and reproduction. Chamovitz takes as a guiding template the three human senses of vision, olfaction, and hearing, and adds the sense of space, the capacity to remember, and the controversial issue of awareness. In each chapter he redefines these senses and faculties in terms of plants’ physiology and behavior. He demonstrates the homology of the processes by which selective information from the environment, both physical and social (plants inhabit ecological niches), are transformed into action in plants and other organisms.

We all know that sunflowers rotate toward the sun. Calling this phenomenon a “phototropism” is naming it with Greek words which mean “rotation toward light”. This is not an explanation but a tautology. In his illuminating first chapter (9-26), Chamovitz offers scientific evidence that “plants see light in many ways and colors that we can only imagine”. Plants sense various degrees of light intensity and from which direction light comes. They discern ultraviolet and infrared which humans experience only through their effects on our skin. But, more importantly, plants behave differentially and adaptively in response to the kind of photic information they process. How this is possible and how does it proceed? Darwin addressed these questions in his last book, The Power of Movement in Plants (1881), in which he reports experiments performed with his son Francis on grass. Chamovitz describes the Darwins’ experiment which showed that the “eyes” of the blades are in cells located at their tips while the “muscles” which bends the blades toward the light source are a set of cells a few centimetres below the tip. Disabling either of these cells prevents the blades from moving toward their life source. Further progress has been made since then and Chamovitz reports in accessible terms the complex experiments which yielded new knowledge on the way plants sense their environment with specific discriminatory powers and act adaptively in function of the information they capture and process by other means than a nervous system. Many laboratories using the available array of new tools of investigation such as molecular biology and genomics are achieving stunning progress in this domain of inquiry.

Perusing Chamovitz’s book will introduce semioticians to a more robust knowledge of biosemiosis than Martin Krampen, in spite of his insights, could possibly do three decades ago. This book is indeed grounded in empirical evidence rather than philosophical intuitions and anecdotes. Some fantastic claims concerning the broadcasting of messages from tree to tree or the assumed preferences of plants for some kinds of music are laid to rest following conclusive experiments which Chamovitz describes with such precision that anybody could duplicate them. There are, however, some intriguing speculations which appropriately are discussed in the final pages of the book. Without dreams science could not progress. It is somewhat comforting to see that semiotics played its part in this epistemological dynamics.

Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot.

Peter Crane. 2013. New Haven: Yale University Press, 384 pages.

GinkoThis well-informed and passionate book proceeds at a leisurely pace, mixing personal anecdotes and science. The author is indeed a botanist who is Dean and Professor at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, and former director of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, UK. Perusing this book after reading Chamovitz doubles the pleasure and the profit as the knowledge one gains through What a Plant Knows casts a revealing light on the atypical “behavior” of the ginkgo trees which Crane details in his work, most notably its sex life as it is a rare example of a tree which has distinct male and female individuals. A living fossil which has not significantly evolved since the time of the dinosaurs, the ginkgo tree witnessed many biological extinctions and the emergence of our primate lineage. It was present in the Arctic when the earth was warming up, then receded in the tropic during the Ice Age. Then, it almost disappeared and would have undoubtedly become a mere fossil if it had not been saved by human semiotics. Crane indeed makes the case that it is the fascination of humans for this tree which ensured its return from the brink of extinction with a vengeance. Its nutritional and medicinal value was certainly a factor but the semiotic status it acquires in many cultures undoubtedly provided a decisive edge. This work should be perused by those who believe that semiotics can make a difference in the fight for the preservation of natural diversity. Construing plants, or any other threatened species as powerful symbols supported by myths and rituals can indeed create the needed motivation and shake the pervasive indifference which is responsible for countless irreversible losses.

Rousseau’s Elysium. Ermenonville Revisited.

Gerard J. van den Broek. 2012. Leiden: Sidestone Press, 103 pages.

RousseauThis exquisitely produced monograph by anthropologist-semiotician Gerard van den Broek provides a historical dimension to the fascination, even obsession of humans for plants. The focus is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher of nature, who devoted a large part of his life to botany, prompted by the newly published Systema Naturae [the system of nature] published in 1758 by Charles Linnaeus. Van den Broek explores the passionate relationship of Rousseau to plants and landscapes. The readers will find in this book many echoes of the rapport which later developed between Peter Crane and others with the Ginkgo trees although the latter appears to have escaped Rousseau’s interest which was focused on his own environment. Most enlightening in this book is the way in which the author shows how the philosophy of nature becomes embodied in the poetic and rhetoric of landscapes. This theme is played in the historical mode, so to speak, as van den Broek enriches his essay with biographical and political information. The abundant iconographic documentation, including original photographs by the author, makes this book a treat for both the eyes and the mind.

The Culture of Flowers.

Jack Goody. 1993. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 462 pages.

The culture of flowersThis flashback to an excellent book published two decades ago is in order in view of the context formed by the three recent works which have been summarily reviewed above. Goody’s ethnography of flowers does not seem to have had a noticeable impact on semioticians. The reproduction of plants depends on seduction for pollination and dispersion. Flowering and fruiting are semiotic tools fine-tuned by natural selection, in fact a kind of pleasurable lie with a hidden agenda. But flowers are also salient patterns “good to mean” cultural contents through their diverse morphologies and chromatic richness. Jack Goody’s book is a trove of endless symbolic uses of flowers and a treat for semioticians. This work is grounded in first-hand research in Africa, but relies mostly on extensive meta-analyses of the ethnographic literature. Although its main focus is on Europe (p.73-320), substantial chapters deal with Africa and Asia. Semiotic issues constantly pop up as the reader proceeds through the pages and their illustrations. How natural objects are construed as cognitively interesting categories, and endowed with meanings which contribute to defining a culture, is a recurring theme of this book.

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