– Anthropophytology is the scientific study of the relationship between plants and people –Humans have always been locked together with plants in a coevolutionary relationship of total dependency. Plants do not share this total dependency although, as the surface of planet Earth becomes increasingly submerged under ‘man-made’ plants (cultigens) this dependency is being increasingly reciprocated.
Remarkably, the study of the relationship between plants and people is only studied in a piecemeal way. This is due, in large part, to the sheer complexity of the relationship although we must also recognize our collective ignorance of and indifference to plants – what has been called plant blindness.
This becomes an intellectual challenge. Now, more than ever, in the face of climate change, and a world population that is still growing, we need to understand this vital process of human-plant coevolution – the way plants have influenced our human biology (see plants make sense) and the way plants share with us their biological agency (see plant sense and life as agency).
Considering the academic time and resources that have been dedicated to biological taxonomy, to plant taxonomy as the study of the relationship between plants, perhaps it is time for a new scientific study of the relationship between plants and people.
Is this topic unscientific by virtue of its complexity, because it has never been made scientific, or through ignorance, complacency, and lack of interest?
There is a simple fact here that we easily forget. Plants can exist without us, but we cannot exist without plants.
Our indifference to plants is a cognitive bias sometimes called ‘plant blindness‘, although ‘plant awareness disparity’ has been suggested as a more politically correct expression (avoiding ableism and a disability metaphor) because it encourages the educational correction of our emphasis on action-packed animals (zoocentrism and zoochauvinism).
One way that education can increase our empathy for plants is to accentuate our close evolutionary connection. This has been described as ‘anthropomorphizing’ plant lives. But ‘anthropomorphization’ is not only an extraordinarily long word, it is also used in a derogatory way.
How to create a new science
When we explore the history of science becomes evident that there was no inevitable scientific path, no inevitable inventory of scientific subjects. As a matter of historical development, science was associated with certain knowledge. At first there were the universal and necessary truths of mathematics, followed by the universal laws or constants of physics. But, by the 20th century, universities were boasting schools of social, economic, and political science.
How far can this idea be stretched – a science of architecture, of literary criticism, of history?
We must have some stability around the notion of science if we are to make headway here.
What is science?
The notion of what we mean by ‘science’ is discussed in detail in the article on science and reason. Here it is concluded that defining the necessary and sufficient conditions for science is simply not possible. Science is a fuzzy concept with characteristics thsat share a family resemblance. Among these important characteristics are:
Concepts that are universal, necessary, and sufficient
Plants & people classification
The article describing the foundations of classification described how all classifications are constructed for a purpose. Also how scientific classifications, in particular, refine to the greatest possible degree the selection of classification elements . . . the objects (relata), properties (selection criteria) and their relations (the classification system or structure).
How might we apply the same scientific rigour to the classification of the relationship that exists between plants and people?
It was found that the success of scientific classifications, like the Periodic Table of elements and the tree of life could be attributed in large part to the fact that: firstly, they deal with natural kinds (objects of nature rather than the human mind) that are physically related; secondly, the relationship can be better discriminated under scientific investigation.
The scientific purpose or task of classification in these cases is to determine the relationship between natural kinds. The natural kinds are the relata in these classifications and it is the task of scientific research (not taxonomy) to establish similarities, differences, and the characteristics that uniquely define them.
The periodic table, following scientific investigation (now based on atomic number), provided a logically satisfactory way of discriminating between all known and possible chemical elements, while biological classification (now based largely on genetic information) has proved less conclusive though vastly more sophisticated than our common sense discrimination between organisms.
In both these cases science succeeded in its task of discrimination by finding those properties (selection criteria) that were most effective in their discrimination of relata. Following extensive scientific research we have discovered that organisms are most efficiently discriminated by means of their genetic composition while the elements of the universe are most efficiently discriminated by their atomic number (mass).
In each of the cases above the relata are of the same kind (elements compared to elements & organisms compared to other organisms). If the relata of our classification are plants and people then we need to consider the most effective factor that discriminates not the objects themselves (plants and people) but the relationship between them. On the one hand both plants and people are natural kinds, sharing a common organic origin. On the other hand, the relationship between them seems more complicated.
In the elements-organisms situation it was the discrimination that mattered, not its method. In the plants-people situation the method of relationship discrimination becomes contentious. Should it be, say, human use of plants – if so we then need to further discriminate/classify plants based on their utility. In addition we need to know, not just the different kinds of plant use, we also need to know their impacts. Plant use seems a narrow way of examining this rich and diverse relationship. Perhaps if we think of humans in terms of culture this conveys both greater appeal and breadth. This approach is reflected in the title of the most extensive and systematic account of the relationship between humans and plants, the Cultural History of Plants (2022), (noting that it is people that have a cultural history, not plants). Also noting that relationships are two-way, so we must not forget to consider reciprocal human influences on plants and how these two proceed together in time.
Adopting a historical approach, it has been concluded elsewhere on this web site that human history is best understood and interpreted through the lens of changes in social organization. Is the historical influence of plants on human social organization a way into this topic?
The emphasis on culture reminds us that we cannot confine consideration of this relationship to material influences – it must include attitudes and beliefs.
If plant impact on human life is the focus of concern then food will take centre stage.
Though ‘the relationship between plants and people’ is stated in an egalitarian way, it is mostly the human perspective on this relationship that will inevitably dominate. Since the degree and kind of plant influence on humans varies by both time and place the scope of any purpose statement must be broad.
In short, any statement of the purpose for a classification of the relationship between plants and humans will be contentious. Do we emphasize plant utility, impact, variation over time. And from the human aspect is it possible to adopt relata more discriminating than ‘culture’. Regardless, a clear statement of intent and its justification is an improvement on blind exegesis.
One major feature of science is the systematization of knowledge, the arrangement of knowledge into a form that is accessible, easily understood, using a system of categories that can be constantly refined.
The following is an attempt to organize the elements of this topic into a program appropriate for scientific research and development.
… preconditions for life
,,, historical context (time)
… geography (space)
HUMAN INFLUENCE ON PLANTS
…… man-made plants
…… distribution exploration, floristics, globalization)
PLANT INFLUENCE ON HUMANS
… social organization