Zoocentrism in the weeds? Cultivating plant models for cognitive yield

Biology and Philosophy 35 (5):1-27 (2020)
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Abstract

It remains at best controversial to claim, non-figuratively, that plants are cognitive agents. At the same time, it is taken as trivially true that many animals are cognitive agents, arguably through an implicit or explicit appeal to natural science. Yet, any given definition of cognition implicates at least some further processes, such as perception, action, memory, and learning, which must be observed either behaviorally, psychologically, neuronally, or otherwise physiologically. Crucially, however, for such observations to be intelligible, they must be counted as evidence for some model. These models in turn point to homologies of physiology and behavior that facilitate the attribution of cognition to some non-human animals. But, if one is dealing with a model of animal cognition, it is tautological that only animals can provide evidence, and absurd to claim that plants can. The more substantive claim that, given a general model of cognition, only animals but not plants can provide evidence, must be evaluated on its merits. As evidence mounts that plants meet established criteria of cognition, from physiology to behavior, they continue to be denied entry into the cognitive club. We trace this exclusionary tendency back to Aristotle, and attempt to counter it by drawing on the philosophy of modelling and a range of findings from plant science. Our argument illustrates how a difference in degree between plant and animals is typically mistaken for a difference in kind.

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