Hormonal Sentience

the intelligent plant

Hormonal [hawr-moh-nlsentience [sen-shuhns], first described by nanotechnology researcher Robert A. Freitas Jr., describes the information processing rate in plants, which are mostly based on hormones instead of neurons like in all major animals (except sponges). Plants can to some degree communicate with each other and there are even examples of one-way-communication with animals.

Acacia trees produce tannin to defend themselves when they are grazed upon by animals. The airborne scent of the tannin is picked up by other acacia trees, which then start to produce it themselves to ward off nearby grazers. When attacked by caterpillars, some plants can release chemical signals to attract parasitic wasps that attack the caterpillars.

A similar phenomenon can be found not only between plants and animals, but also between fungi and animals. Ant–fungus mutualism is a symbiosis seen in certain ant and fungal species, in which ants actively cultivate fungus much like humans farm crops as a food source. There exists some sort of communication between a fungus garden and the ants tending to it. If the garden is fed with plants that are poisonous for the fungus, it signals this to the ants, which stop including the material.

Freitas developed the concept of a sentience quotient (SQ) to calculate the processing capability of a neural system. It defines sentience as the relationship between the information processing rate (in bits per second) of each individual processing unit (a neuron in humans), the weight/size of a single unit, and the total number of processing units (expressed as mass). According to Freitas’ equation, humans have an SQ of +13, and all other animals with a nervous system (or all ‘neuronal sentience’) from insects to mammals, cluster within several points of the human value.

In theory even an organism with a hormonal system instead of a nervous system could be intelligent in some degree, but it would be an extremely slow brain, to say the least. And yet, at least higher plants are able to produce electrical signals, even if they do not use them in the same way animals do. Plants generally take hours to respond to stimuli though, so vegetative SQs cluster around −2. Carnivorous plants, however, have an SQ of +1. The Venus flytrap, during a 1- to 20-second sensitivity interval, counts two stimuli before snapping shut on its insect prey, a processing peak of 1 bit/s.

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