Monday, September 14, 2020

Do Plants, Insects, Reptiles, and Fish Think?

An article in Science magazine by Elizabeth Pennisi entitled: "Once considered outlandish, the idea that plants help their relatives is taking root" states that for people and many other animals, family matters. "Look at how an ant will ruthlessly attack competing ants but rescue an injured nest mate. Family feelings may stir in plants as well. Plants lack the nervous system that enable animals to recognize kin, so how can they know their relatives?

The notion that plants really do care for their peers in a quiet plant-y way is taking root. Some species constrain how far their roots spread, others change how many flowers they produce, and a few tilt or shift their leaves to minimize shading of neighboring plants, favoring related individuals. Plants not only sense light or dark, but also with whom they are interacting with.  One practical application is a Chinese study that reported that rice planted with kin grows better and improves crop yields".

Another researcher found fir trees feed kin and warn them about insect attacks. Researchers proved that plants distinguish their roots from others, and then found they could also pick out and favor kin. With strangers the plants greatly expanded their root system to maximize using resources, but with relatives, they held competitive urges in check to leave more room for kin to get nutrients and water.

Injured sagebrush was found to release volatile chemicals that stimulate neighbor bushes to make chemicals that are toxic to their shared enemies. Ecologist Richard Karban says "We are learning that plants are capable of so much more sophisticated behavior than we had thought, it's really cool stuff!" Forestry researcher Suzanne Simard found Birch and fir trees communicating underground in the language of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, and other chemicals and hormones.

An article in Greater Good Magazine by Alex Dixon and Jeremy Smith shows how cooperation is very often a stronger influence than competition.  In the article Danny Grunbaum, an oceanographer and pioneer in revealing the ways that ocean life cooperates in order to survive stated: "Violence in evolution is greatly overestimated. We see animals fighting with each other in lots of nature documentaries, but we are really only seeing a small sliver of time. Much more of the time they're cooperating with each other and respecting boundaries. Cooperation doesn't mean the absence of conflict. It means rules for negotiating conflicts in a way that resolves them."

The article further states there is a tremendous amount of cooperation in nature. In fact cooperation is part of our nature, and right down to the cellular level. The reason being that it is one of the most important and beneficial behaviors on earth. From biological building blocks, cooperation goes to every level of the animal kingdom.

For instance, ants have evolved a three lane two-way traffic system. Two lanes going out and one returning in the middle so they don't have to cross oncoming traffic. They can move faster and thus forage much better this way. These ants inspire robotic scientists in their designs, including extra-terrestrial probes, cleaning floors, and moving products in a warehouse.

Birds help each other by calling when predators are near. This makes them a more vulnerable target so other birds come and mob the predator. Those birds who try and cheat the system are eventually ignored. Bats must feed every two days to survive but hunger is rare because they share - but only if the favor is returned. By sharing only one in four bats die each year (rather than four out of five).

Research suggests that even for humans our first instinct is to cooperate, not compete. In the 21st century, our need to cooperate is more critical than ever. That is because our society is becoming so much more integrated communication is happening much more quickly all over the world.

An article in Nature magazine by Alison Abbott entitled "Animal Behavior: Inside the Cunning, Caring and Greedy Minds of Fish", she reveals that fish cooperate, cheat and punish.  In the article she describes how Redouan Bshary has challenged ideas about brain evolution:

Fish cooperate by smaller fish cleaning larger ones. Sometimes the small fish will take a bite of their hosts mucus skin and the hosts will chase the cleaner to teach him a lesson. But if reprimanded for bad behavior they will massage the backs of their host with their fins to regain favor. Cleaner fish would also have better behavior if they are being watched by other potential hosts. He also found the cleaner fish would work much more fairly in mated pairs as the male will chase the female if she slacks off.

He also found grouper fish will entice eels from their lairs to swim together. The eel will flush fish out of the reef so they both can catch more fish. He tried a test for primates that presents food on differently colored plates, one of which was permanent and the other temporary. The challenge was to eat the food on the temporary plate before it disappeared. A big surprise came when he switched which plate was temporary and the fish actually learned more quickly than the primates which one was best.

Following this revelation, primate scientist Frans de Waal of Emory University was compelled to say, "Primate chauvinism has declined somewhat as we now have to recognize that many species have smart intelligence". 

What is the lesson here? That yes, plants, insects, fish, perhaps all life cooperate with each other. So instead of "Survival of the fittest" we can also see life as "Survival of the kindest".  Charles Darwin came to this conclusion later in life as he watched his children grow up and saw cooperation become apparent in nature. This is good news for all of us, a good reason to believe love does conquer all.

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