Alice in the Wonderland of plants…

Alice-coverMilitary campaigns are sometimes intended to display ‘shock’ and ‘awe’ to overcome the adversary. Well – and rather less militaristically – Yiannis Manetas’ book, Alice in the Land of Plants: Biology of Plants and Their Importance for Planet Earth (hereafter referred to as Alice), is also intended to ‘surprise’ and ‘amaze’. And, like 21st century invasions of certain middle-eastern countries, but in its own quieter, more benign – though nevertheless subversive – way, Alice attempts to effect its own ‘regime change‘. The regime – “a system” – it is here attempting to change is the pernicious cult of zoochauvinism [or animal chauvinism, “the widespread tendency of biologists to consider it more important to study and teach about animals than about plants”; “a bias for animals and against plants”], which contributes to the condition known as ‘plant blindness’ [“the widespread lack of awareness of plants and neglect of plants both in biology education and in the general population“]. Ambitious? Certainly! Does it do its job? Well,…

The main text of Alice’s approx. 400 pages comprises a Preface, 10 Chapters, and an Epilogue. Whilst it is devoid of in-text illustrations (maybe to encourage us to imagine..?), it does have drawings of Alice at the front of each chapter which purport to summarise that chapter’s theme. [Is it just me, or does Alice look like a little like a hibiscus flower still in bud?] In the Preface Prof. Manetis confides that he considers writing this book to be part of a university professor’s duty, as part of a wider responsibility to transfer knowledge accumulated during the course of an academic career to the general public. Consequently, and as part of the mission to dispel plant blindness, Alice’s goal is to “share 30 years of plant study with readers so they can look at plants in a different – and friendly and entertaining – way” (p. viii).

Whilst I don’t intend to summarise every chapter in Alice, it is worth making mention specifically of some. For example, Chap. 1 “Introduction”, which includes such sections as “Plants are no less complex than animals: They are just different”, also makes the important point that plants’ significance is not limited to their resource use by humans, but also includes their role as ‘shapers’ and ‘moulders’ of Earth (which is probably the greatest – but largely unsung – and enduring importance of plants; pp. 2/3). Plant blindness is here considered (pp. 8-10), as are some interesting reflections on ‘popular science’ (pp. 10-12), and the practitioners thereof. Alice gets her first mention on p. 7, but without much build-up, the presumption being that all readers will already be familiar with Lewis Carroll’s 19th Century book ‘Alice’s adventures in Wonderland’ [AAIW] wherein a human – Alice – enters a very strange land which challenges many of her – i.e. our – preconceptions about everyday notions, objects, etc – and which are very much the same sorts of issues we are faced with as we try to understand the world of the plant. Chap. 2 “Basic Plant Organisation: How it Differs from that of Animals” provides important scene-setting for the tome, and hints at deeper consideration of phenomena mentioned later in the book. Other chapters are entitled “Why Trees are Almost Immortal and Other Related Issues”, “Short Evolutionary History of Plants”, “Sex in Nonmotile Organisms”, “The World through the Eyes of Plants”, “The Defence of a Stationary Organism”, “Symbioses Galore”, “Deviations from the Basic Biological Type”, and, finally, Chapter 10, probably the most contentious of all, “Are Plants Intelligent Organisms After All?” [Spoiler Alert No. 1: the answer is … yes (with qualifications…)]. Bringing it all together, the Epilogue contains a 16 pp. tribute to Charles Darwin, in which Manetas makes the point that the overlooking of Darwin’s botanical work – and its relevance to his ideas on evolution – is yet another example of plant blindness. Surely, recognition of such flagrant disrespecting of that venerable Victorian should help push the cause for APB (Abolition of Plant-Blindness) forward!

Although references are not cited within the text – “to enhance the flow of the main text” (p. xi) – this omission does detract a little from any claims to scientific robusteness and pegagogic rigour that Alice might make. However, for further enlightenment, etc p. 361 lists 18 books (which includes many ‘standard‘ plant biology texts) as additional reading, and there are also approx. 5.5 pages of ‘reviews, opinions, and research papers’ (which includes >30 post-2005-dated items). The 3 pages of two-columned Index contain some surprises. For example there is no entry for chlorophyll, but there are 7 entries each for ‘stomata’, ‘respiration’, and ‘competition’; bizarrely, ‘affinity’ gets 6 entries(!), and even ‘asteroid’ and ‘aspirin’ merit 2 entries, each. Another surprise; the pages have very wide margins – c. half the width of the text. But, these expanses provide spaces for copious ‘marginal notes’ that “highlight essential points, guide the reader through the text, stimulate thought and memory, and serve as a verdict or final judgment on the issue at hand. Together they comprise a smaller book within the larger one that may be read separately” (Preface, p. xi)(!).

As a literary device AAIW has been used before in science writing, to capture that sense of awe and wonderment as unusual concepts and perception-challenging notions and ideas are dealt with. For example, AAIW is alluded to in Lamkanfi et al.‘s 2002 paper ‘Alice in caspase land. A phylogenetic analysis of caspases from worm to man’, and much more directly referenced in Ariah and Roberta Ben-naim’s 2011 book Alice’s Adventures in Water-land. Alice therefore seems an appropriate title for Manetas’ tome because it does aim to challenge – and change – (y)our perceptions about plants, and the entrenched view that perpetuates the myth that plants are boring and not that important; certainly not as important as animals. Plants are all around us, plant biology is therefore commonplace, yet at the same time it is incredible and fantastical, because much of it is beyond our own direct zoocentric understanding and experience of the world. Like Alice we are all exploring a marvellous land. But unlike Alice – Spoiler Alert No. 2 – we don’t wake up at the end of the journey to discover that it was all a dream. Fantastical though it is, this botanical Wonderland is very real and all around us; it is our waking world, and if we only opened our eyes to la vie en rose (en petunia, en thale cress, en potato, etc), we’d probably be much better off.

Generally, I found Alice to be well-written, thoughtful and thought-provoking, and very easy to read – largely because of its style (which reminded me a little of King’s ‘Reaching for the sun’). But, and despite Manetas’ intention that Alice is a book for the general public (p. xi), Alice is not necessarily one for the novice since it does include a lot of ‘textbook terms and concepts’, e.g. allelopathy, thermogenic respiration, horizontal gene transfer, PMSOs (polysubstrate monooxygenases (p. 253), which may be off-putting. However, all terms are explained and put in context. Still, Alice does contain some references that might not translate too well to a global audience (e.g. referring to Prof. Edmund Schulman’s realisation of how old bristle-cone pines can be upon counting their annual rings, “he must have felt the same as Professor Andronikos upon opening King Philip’s tomb”, p. 52 [presumably this is the Mediterranean countries’ equivalent of Howard Carter and the opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb – which may be more familiar to a UK/USA audience…]. But Alice is a book that is worth persevering with – you will learn a lot about plant biology, and especially about the interconnectedness of plant and planet (in which regard the section on ‘plants as environmental engineers’ – pp. 63-73 – and pp. 74-85’s ‘chemical history of the atmosphere’ are particularly interesting; both of which topics are not bad going for a chapter entitled “Why trees are almost immortal…”!).

Does Alice have competitors? Yes, sort of… Almost any standard botany/plant biology textbook – e.g. Mauseth’s ‘Botany’ or Evert and Eichhorn’s ‘Biology of plants’ – must be considered competitors for some of the factual content in Alice; but Alice doesn’t pretend to be a textbook, so such comparisons are probably misleading. Perhaps its major competitors are those texts that are also trying to deliver the ‘plants really are interesting and worth looking at…’ agenda, such as Beerling’s ‘Emerald Planet’, Hall’s ‘Plants as persons’, Koller’s ‘The restless plant’, and Chamovitz’s ‘What a plant knows’. But, each of those is different and none is a complete substitute for another. Alice is therefore pleasingly different and a great addition to the blossoming phytocentric literature.

To return to our rather tortured regime-change analogy, the Earth’s ancien régime is a plant-dominated one – plants after all were around long before us humans appeared on the scene, currently our world and ‘world-view’ is far too zoocentric/zoo-oriented. Arguably, we need to return to the former state of affairs. Not literally, but certainly in terms of giving plants the recognition and respect that they rightfully deserve, for all that we are now (and hope to become…). But, and important though it is, this tome’s goal will only be achieved if its message reaches those who are yet to be persuaded of the value and importance of plants; the fact that a botanist is here praising it is not enough! How we reach out to the ‘botanophobes’ is the real challenge. Nevertheless, Alice will help to remind the converted of the justness of our cause; we just have to keep spreading the word and convert the non-believers, and win over those hearts and minds. Vivat Alice! Vivat flora!