Plants As Persons? The Work Of Stefano Mancuso

I do not want to suggest that Italians have some special claim on the love of plants. However, Mancuso’s love for plants is somehow Italian.

In this piece I continue my backwards trajectory through my short list to land on a topic in the middle theme, culture and agriculture. Specifically, I focus on the extraordinary findings coming out of the Laboratorio Internazionale di Neurobiologia Vegetale (LINV), otherwise known as the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, located in Firenze, especially those of its director, Stefano Mancuso.

Agriculture and culture: a symbiosis

In my earlier piece I discussed how that there was a strong relationship between the development of agriculture and the development of culture throughout the history of human civilization, due mostly to the advantages of being able to settle in one place with plenty to eat, and that this relationship may remain particularly salient in contemporary Italian culture, or that at least vestiges of this relationship remain strongly apparent, for example through culinary practices and values that retain a close connection to the land and agricultural production. This is so even as changes in global economy, climate and society militate against it. For its successful resistance to these pernicious forces, Italy is to be commended and it is for this reason, among others (art, architecture, history, natural beauty) that so many tourists from other parts of the world find it to be such a charming place to visit.

Therefore it comes as no surprise to me that one of the world’s leading plant neurobiologists, Stefano Mancuso, hails from Calabria and works in Firenze. The author of many academic articles and several books on what I like to call the social nature of plants, Mancuso has managed to combine rigorous scientific research with a knack for popular dissemination (no pun intended). His work is shockingly innovative, and therefore controversial among some plant scientists; but it is also imbued with an enthusiasm and spirit that make its revolutionary propositions not only palatable but also infectiously intriguing. Take this quote from his book, Verde Brillante: Sensibilità e intelligenza del mondo vegetale, (English title: Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence), which he wrote with scientific journalist Alessandra Viola, as an example:

Plants have all five senses possessed by humans: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, each of them in vegetal form, but no less reliable because of this. Is it therefore reasonable to think that from this point of view they are similar to us? Quite the contrary: they are extremely sensitive and, in addition to our five senses, they have at least another fifteen.

Note how he issues a startling proposition, albeit in the form of a question, that plants could be similar to humans, but that rather than mitigating the possibility of an incredulous response, he doubles down in his answer, by saying that plants are not only similar to humans but actually better. I was stupefied and delighted when I read this, especially as it came from a scientist who for decades has worked in an environment that does not easily accommodate hyperbole. In this single passage, Mancuso demonstrates his knowledge as a plant scientist and his ability to move from the laboratory to the public stage, capturing and projecting the zeitgeist of contemporary global politics, in which one must not only maintain one’s convictions in the face of real or imagined resistance, but actually push them further than even sympathetic supporters might expect or easily accept.

An Italian love of plants?

Is this a particular Italian characteristic? I do not think so, at least not as evident in the current scene, in which politicians and business leaders develop, promulgate and execute new approaches to persistent problems with unflinching enthusiasm to an uncommon degree. I think there may be something particularly Italian about Mancuso’s love of plants, however, and it is this love that is at the root of his enthusiastic promotion for his work. Again, however, as in my earlier piece on culture and agriculture, I do not want to suggest that Italians have some special claim on the love of plants, one need to think of the unique beauty of the English garden, for example, and of the work of one of Mancuso’s intellectual heroes, Charles Darwin, to see another profound cultural instantiation of the unique rapport between humans and plants. It seems evident to me, however, that Mancuso’s love for plants is somehow Italian.

One needs only to dip into another of his books, The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, to discover the uniquely Italian origins of his fascination with plants. It was at an elaborate wedding in his home region of Calabria that he first encountered hot peppers, peperoncino in Italian, and the relatively small group of inhabitants, in a region that celebrates the fiery fruit of the Capiscum family of plants, who consume the peppers with a radical level of enthusiasm. As he points out, these capiscofagi (pepper-eaters) as he calls them, are found throughout the world, but his charming tale of being a young man wrapped in the heavy formal clothing for a wedding held in torrid August heat seems strongly Italian and especially Calabrian or at least southern.

Tulips, apples, cannabis and potatoes

Contrast it to the plants that are the focus of another exponent of the social nature of plants, Michael Pollan, an American journalist who wrote the book that started the contemporary fascination with topic, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-eye View of the World: tulips, apples, cannabis and potatoes, four plants that belong more strongly the northern European and especially North American cultural matrix from which he comes and within which he works. That he followed this book with one on the most iconically American of vegetables, corn (The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast-Food World), only cements this relationship between culture and agriculture, or at least plants in any case, even further. Even scientists and science journalists have personal and cultural origins for their professional and scientific interests.

I myself can point to a story I wrote as a little boy about a green bean as an early glimmer of an interest that has most recently manifested in a chapter in an edited volume, Incorporating Nonhuman Subjectivity into World Society: The Case of Extending Personhood to Plants. The last line of my childhood story, as evidence in support of my culture-agriculture argument, is: My bean is an Italian bean.

In a future piece, I will engage the work of another plant scientist, Monica Gagliano, a researcher and professor of Evolutionary Ecology at the University of Western Australia, and author of Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants. I have not yet read Gagliano’s book, so I do not know if I will find an Italian cultural origin story to her scientific work but, given the title of her book, I will not be surprised if I do.