‘Humans Can’t Even Photosynthesize!’: The Natural World is Smarter Than We Think

The inanimate world is smarter than we think, says U.S. botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, Ph.D., in a recent edition of the On Being podcast. Before we get too impressed with the dominance of human structures over natural systems, she notes, let’s not forget that humans can’t even photosynthesize!

Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and author of Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass, who now teaches at State University of New York, looks back to her community’s history of removal to residential schools and extinction of language to explain why the woods and fields became the doorway to her understanding of the world.

Science is No Place for Beauty?

From her early, profound connection with nature, Kimmerer found her way to the academic world of botany, where she quickly encountered an understanding of science that many scientists might dispute. As a young undergrad, she mentioned to an instructor that she was curious about why asters and goldenrod seemed to intermingle so often, and why they looked so beautiful together when they did. If that was her interest, the prof told her, she’d be better off studying art, since science had no place for beauty.

It was just as well for the study of botany that Kimmerer pursued the topic, against the professor’s advice. It turned out that the two plants attracted more pollinators by combining their vivid colours than either of them could on its own.

“Science as a way of knowing sets aside our emotions and human reactions,” she said. But in the end, Kimmerer realized that asking why the world is beautiful can be a pathway to deeper scientific truths.

Different Ways of Knowing the World

Over time, Kimmerer came to see the differences and potential overlaps between scientific and traditional understanding, and became committed to bringing together the different ways of knowing, seeing, and studying the world. She recalled it as “absolutely a watershed moment” when she met Indigenous Elders whose oral tradition wove mythic and scientific knowledge together “into this beautiful cultural, natural history.” And she simultaneously learned the more formal, conventional path of naming and categorizing plants.

In the science of botany, once a plant acquires a scientific designation, “this name becomes almost an end to enquiry. We say we know it now. We’re able to systematize it,” she said. “But that, of course, is only looking at the morphology of the organism…it ignores all of its relationships. It’s a mechanical, kind of wooden representation of what a plant really is, and we reduce them tremendously if we just think of them as physical elements of the ecosystem.”

That attitude is both reflected and reinforced in a grammar that refers to non-human beings, from sugar maples to salamanders, as “it”. In the Potawatomi language, by contrast, inanimate pronouns only apply to things that beings have created, like a table.

A more worldly, wise way of knowing can become a doorway to gratitude, wonder, and reciprocity, Kimmerer notes. As a scientist and Native American, Kimmerer explains our relationship with nature through the combined lens of science and Indigenous tradition. This allows her to explain how plants and animals are our oldest teachers.

Increasingly, science itself is reinforcing a broader view of nature. “I can’t think of a single scientific study in the last few decades that has demonstrated that plants or animals are dumber than we think. It’s always the opposite,” Kimmerer says. Plants have “extraordinary capacities which are so unlike our own, but we dismiss them: if they don’t do it like animals do it, then they must not be doing anything.” But as science deepens and broadens its frame, “we’re at the edge of a wonderful evolution in really understanding the sentience of other beings.”


Diane Beckett
Interim Executive Director
Sierra Club Canada Foundation 

One Earth • One Chance

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