What is the first thing you notice in this picture?
I attended a conference at the end of March and in the keynote address the speaker asked the same question of the audience.
I’m guessing you probably said lion, and that was also the majority response of attendees at the conference. With an occasional more intellectual camouflage dropped in.
The speaker went on to diagnose us all with plant blindness.
You’re plant blind and I’m plant blind. It’s a real thing, first termed by botanists in 1998.
Unravelling the diagnosis
Personally, I thought this picture had a pretty background. That’s what the plants formed for me, a background. And I couldn’t tell you the name of the species of grasses that make up the foliage. In my mind they all merged together to form blocks of colour. And this is a common way that humans perceive plants.
So it’s not that we are completely blind to plants, more that our perspectives are skewed towards viewing the animals as the focal point of a scene. It is what we perceive as most interesting. Studies even show that given a set of images, picturing either plants or animals, people generally have better recall of the animal subjects.
Identifying with plants
The theory is that our eyes respond to movement and therefore things that move have the ability to grab our attention. This is useful from an evolutionary standpoint, as movement can represent potential danger. But our attraction to movement also stems from an interest in things similar to ourselves, something we can identify with, that lives, moves and breathes like we do. There’s a bit more of a disconnect with plants.
However, for some people these differences are the reason for fascination, for instance, the botanists. But they aren’t the only ones; many aboriginal tribes haven’t lost touch with plants’ importance. This means we can’t just blame evolution for plant blindness; there is also a cultural element.
The prognosis of our plant blindness
The problem with being plant blind is that we lose sight of how important plants are to our way of life. We are so connected and dependent on them!
At the bottom of the food chain, plants use the sun to photosynthesize- producing oxygen and food for growth. The oxygen and plant food is critical for our all of our exciting moving around.
In fact it’s kind of odd that we don’t notice plants considering their presence, and incredible diversity, is vital for our survival. Let’s remind ourselves, apart from food and oxygen, plants are also used to make medicine, materials and even fuel.
“I wanna be like you! I wanna talk like you, walk like toooo”
Take a look at this alternative Disney cartoon about Trees and Plants (I admit to thinking this would be boring just from the description :-/)
This short film imposes human characteristics on the trees, plants and animals- this is a technique called anthropomorphism. It is often used to promote empathy for plants and animals- did you feel sad about the fire in the film, and then happy when it was put out?
However, anthropomorphism is a controversial technique as it can be a little misleading. For example, in this film trees get married, birds stimulate rainfall, and they are all singing!
My plant sight
As it stands botany is in crisis, with the last botany degree in the UK awarded in Bristol in 2013. The remaining botanists like to rage against biology books that are disproportionately obsessed with animals, calling this zoochauvinism.
I’m not saying I’m going to get all hippy and plant obsessed, but maybe I should know what an asparagus plant looks like as it grows?
For myself, I can’t wait to have a garden, so maybe I should start learning now- what flowers are great for bees? The great pollinators of so many crucial plant species, I want to make sure I provide for them. And considering how many cool plants there are out there, maybe I should start writing about them on here, I wouldn’t want to be accused of being a zoochauvinist.