Intelligence in nature

A collection of videos and other ressources on research within intelligence in nature. This is a living blogpost – while I am building my thesis on sentient robotic plants at ITP NYU, I will post videos and research responses and loose thoughts here. Most of my research and experiments currently lives on a non-public blog at NYU and I will be migrating it here slowly in the next couple of months.

Books:

  • The Hidden life of trees (link) by Peter Wohlleben
  • Gingko – the tree that time forgot (link) by Peter Crane


On fungal networks

… which allow trees to pass information and nutrients to each other in the soil making up what has been called the internet of the forrest.

Just came out in march 2020. You can rent it here https://vimeo.com/ondemand/fantasticfungi

On research made in the field by foresters

Trees talk, know family ties and care for their young? Is this too fantastic to be true? German forester Peter Wohlleben (‘The Hidden Life of Trees’) and scientist Suzanne Simard (The University of British Columbia, Canada) have been observing and investigating the communication between trees over decades. And their findings are most astounding. ‘Intelligent Trees’ features the main observations that are covered in Peter Wohlleben’s book such as the stump that has been kept alive by it’s neighboring trees, the old tree-couple that looks after each other, the Mother Trees that suckle their offspring, etc… Special about this film is, however, that it goes beyond observations and claims, but match them with the latest underlying Forest Science Research.
Suzanne Simard presents her research involving carbon-14 carbon dioxid gas and carbon-13 carbon dioxid and geiger counter which showed that birch and fur do share nutrients (carbon) back and forth through their roots. They absorb the C02 and turn it to sugar and share it. But also Nitrogen, Phosphorus, water, defense signal, chemicals and hormones. Her research also found that there are important old growth “hub trees” in the forrest, which are connected to more trees than the others in a fungi network, and are thus responsible for most of the communication. When these get cut down, the forrest suffers, because the trees get less connected. These trees nurture the smaller seedlings increasing their survival by 4x times.

A few thoughts.

  • In these COVID days humans discover how important connections between species are. How they can be taken for granted in everyday life. How important communication is. We stay sane by engaging in online conversations. What would we do without this hub? What do the trees do without their hub? When a tree goes silent the forest suffers.
Not available in US, but you can rent it on Amazon. Produced by PBS.

On the Anthropocene worldview

Jeremy Narby in his talk spends some time on word definitions as they frame our thinking. He discusses the word intelligence as an exclusively human centered word. In the west we have spent centuries defining “intelligence” exclusively on human terms. He describes how the word nature is described in dictionaries (I’d love to know which one) as “a phenomenon of the physical world including plants, animals and the landscape as opposed to humans and human creations”. He says non-western cultures do not have a word for “everything that is not human”. And mentions that indigenous people like the Amazonians speak of plants and animals as brothers, sisters, brothers in law etc. (this is called Animists/Animism in western culture). That adopting such a view on the world changes your mindset to think of them as subjects (where before they were mere objects – though dogs are sometimes beginning to be spoken of as subjects – in the case of divorce, “who gets the dog?” is replaced by “what is in the best interest of the dog?”). He ends his talk with a point on “Living responsible in the biosphere”. Responsible – to live in respons to – with interest in – other species. To view them as having tensions, making decisions, having a point of view. And to spend more time thinking through our kinship to them, how we can relate to them. Like we would another human. Finally that the idea of “the Anthropocene” might miss the mark, and instead fold in on itself with a focus on humankind as center.

Some thoughts.

  • I have been thinking a lot about the definition of the word nature. It is what started me thinking in this path, because I had noticed how humans define “nature” as something outside themselves. Without thinking much of it. But I thought this is a big problem. Humankind is a part of nature, not outside or above it.
  • The “intelligence is defined on human terms” is central to the idea of the Anthropocene I think. I also think it is what draws my feelings of anger out the most in terms of this subject. I feel like everything is defined and pushed onto the planet “on the human terms”. Something like COVID makes me happy because it precisely reminds us that even in the age of the Anthropocene, it is actually not on human terms, but on natures. The central point of my thesis is to create an installation that does not exist on human terms or that questions the idea of “on human terms”.
  • In the book “Hypernatural Landscapes in the Anthropocene” there is an excellent text by Irene J. Klaver talking about the dutch landscape, which is all manmade, where artificiality becomes the natural. The very word “landscape” implies a viewer, a scape, somehow a sculpting I think. A lot of policy today is around planned landscapes. You might talk of the unnatural natural, the planned natural and the wild natural. Citydwellers almost never see the wild natural, and even when I’ve gone out of the city here in the states, its always to go to a “state park” and the nature just feels “planned”.
  • To his final point on living in response to other species. I think this hits the core of my thesis. I want the people who co-inhabits the space with my installation, to live in response to it, and change their behavior to adapt to it, rather than asking it to exist on their human terms.

On experiments in plant responsiveness

Expanded from this list made by the co-founder of ecospace.net:

https://samim.io/p/2018-05-20-climate-change-and-intelligence-in-nature-a-collecti/