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On trees feeling pain: Anthropomorphism run amok

While there are good reasons to attribute certain human characteristics to trees, it is absurd to attribute to them such characteristics as sentience and self-awareness. Such misdirection does more to harm than to help the environmental movement.

While there are good reasons to attribute certain human characteristics to trees, it is absurd to attribute to them such characteristics as sentience and self-awareness. Such misdirection does more to harm than to help the environmental movement.

Introduction

What makes the environmental problems we face a crisis is that we cannot yet see how we extricate ourselves from the mess we are in.  The ingenuity that made it possible for human beings to dominate the world, as we have indeed dominated it, continues to drive us further down a destructive road.  Not all indicators continue to grow more alarming, but some do.  For example, by some estimates global biodiversity loss is accelerating.1 And the growth of some destructive practices, such as unnecessarily elaborate and difficult to recycle packaging, continues unabated, it seems.  Our extraordinary ingenuity has not yet given rise to coherent and implementable plans that could give us confidence that the crisis is being addressed in an effective way, one that will allow human beings to flourish in the longer term.

When so much – one could say everything – is on the line, and given that we have known for decades that this is so, how can it be that, not only has little systemic progress been made, but that many aspects of our situation (loss of biodiversity and levels of greenhouse gases, for example) are ever worse?  How has it come to this?  

Many observations could be made.  Here is one:  A crucial and particularly difficult fact about human beings (and other living creatures as well) is that it is in our very DNA – both literally and figuratively – to dominate.  Notwithstanding biblical pronouncements to the contrary, natural selection does not favour the meek:  they got eaten, drastically reducing the chances that their genes would be passed on to further generations.  The winners – the conquerors – do not tend to be gentle, accommodating folk:  if they had been, they would not have prevailed in the struggle for survival.

It’s a puzzle of the utmost importance for us to solve:  How will we come to care deeply enough that we, collectively, will change and demand that lawmakers and other decision-makers develop plans and enact rules that will end our assaultive approach to the earth? One crucial early step, as so very many have long said, is changing the way we see ourselves vis a vis nature.  Instead of seeing ourselves as conquerors, we have to recognize that we are part and parcel of nature; we are ourselves animals that are entirely dependent on the food, water and air that a healthy environment provides.

What’s needed

With the right information, commitment and compassion (for ourselves, if for no other species), we could, I believe, overcome our deeply embedded drive for short-term domination and find a way to longer-term survival.  There must be many an environmental expert who could explain how these three – appropriate knowledge, commitment and compassion – are interrelated.  Let me make just a few observations to underpin my remarks on anthropomorphism – the practice of attributing human characteristics to other species. 

Deep and comprehensive knowledge of ecology is of course needed but, crucially, so are explanations of natural phenomena that can be understood by people who are not extensively trained in the sciences, including – and indeed perhaps most importantly, leaders and decision-makers.  We need explanatory knowledge, not just bare facts, that will open up the natural world and our environmental crisis to the non-specialist’s understanding and appreciation.  But life teaches, I think, that we do not get to commitment for significant change without sufficiently powerful emotions to fuel that change.  Without an emotional component – I call it compassion, for present purposes – we are unlikely to be moved to undertake serious change which, as we know, is always difficult.

It follows, I suggest, that some of the writers making the greatest contribution to environmental progress are those who take the hard science and show, for those of us for whom that work is not otherwise comprehensible, what it means for how we should think about nature and, thus, act towards it.  In recent years, some provocative and, I think, quite useful work of this kind has been done on forests and trees.  

Some recent work on trees

We have long known that trees are key to helping contain climate change – by sequestering carbon, i.e., absorbing it and thus preventing it from dissipating into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.  But over the last few decades we have started to learn just how wondrous trees are and how complicated their interconnections with members of their own and other species, both plant and animal.  Some of the popular literature in this area is the kind of work that can contribute to building an appreciation of nature and the development of a deep commitment to ensure its, and hence our, preservation. 

With the right information, commitment and compassion (for ourselves, if for no other species), we could, I believe, overcome our deeply embedded drive for short-term domination and find a way to longer-term survival.

And some of it is deeply problematic.  Some of that which is being propagated in this literature is so extraordinarily anthropomorphized as to be deeply misleading.  Trees, for example, are said by some to be suffering (or in pain), not in the sense that we have always spoken of – as in “the farmer’s crops are suffering from the drought” – but in the sense of the-feeling-of-distress kind of suffering such as that which human parents feel when their children are in danger. 

It is perhaps understandable that some people who care deeply about the environmental crisis might feel they need to entice us down this path.  If you are sick to death of what seems to you the rampant indifference of so many to the crisis, the temptation may well be strong to go too far.  In hoping to reach the apparently callous, you might well reach for images that put human families and interconnected trees on the same level.  For some people these urges may become more than mere temptations, for they may have started to believe there are such equivalences.  

But resist those temptations we must, for false parallels will not get us to where we need to go.  When seen for the untruths they are, such pseudo-equivalences may well undermine support for change on the environmental front.  And acceptance of false parallels could actually reduce compassion for those who really do suffer, i.e., human beings and any other sentient animal species, by misdirecting concern and remedial activities to entities that cannot possibly be in actual distress.

The Hidden Life of Trees

The subtitle of The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben,(((Vancouver:  Greystone Books, 2016.)  The book was originally published in German in 2015 by Ludwig Verlag of Munich.)) is “What they feel, how they communicate.”  We cannot say that we were not warned!

But before the criticism of this book for its anthropomorphism, first, the appreciation.  This book presents information about trees and forests that can change the way a person understands them and therefore how she/he/they appreciates them.  Notwithstanding my objections to the – in my view, preposterous – anthropomorphism encountered throughout it, the book did that for me.  I see forests differently and I feel differently about them.  I understand that, in at least some forests, trees are interdependent in ways I could not have imagined previously.  I understand that much, much more is going on in a forest and among the trees of it than most of us in the general public had any inkling of.  I am more appreciative of trees and better understand the need for intact forests and not just a lot of trees (which we do need.)  And this was the author’s intent.  In “The Introduction to the English Edition,” he writes:

I encourage you to look around where you live.  …  This book is a lens to help you take a closer look at what you might have taken for granted.  Slow down, breathe deep, and look around.  What can you hear?  What do you see?

…  Trees are important, but when trees unite to create a fully functioning forest, you really can say that the whole is greater than its parts.  (pp. x-xi)

Wohlleben was a practicing forester for many years, not a researcher, but he draws heavily on work such as that done by Canadian academic Suzanne Simard who has 

gained international recognition for her research into forest communication networks. Her findings say trees in a forest are interconnected and communicate with each other through underground fungal networks — colloquially dubbed as the “wood wide web.”

Simard’s work … describes how trees are connected to each other through fungi on their roots called mycorrhizae. Through mycorrhizal networks, Simard says, trees are able to exchange resources, sharing nutrients with younger saplings and releasing chemicals to warn each other of distress.((https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/simard-citation-review-1.6758773  The words “warn each other of distress” could be read as suggesting there was mental activity going on in and among these trees.  But they can also be understood in a way that avoids that implication, i.e., that electrical or chemical signals are elicited by certain states which stimulate certain responses in other trees.))

It is this kind of discovery that provides the foundation for the conclusion of Wohlleben and others that a forest is more than a mass of trees, that the forest is more than the sum of its individual tree parts. 

So far, so good.  But Wohlleben goes from what seems increasingly to be accepted as fact, that trees in at least some if not all forests, respond physically (chemically, electrically) to each other and exchange resources for what may well be their mutual benefit to assertions, for example, that they feel pain:

When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.  (p. xiv)

Why the size of the killing machine should make any difference eludes me but, putting that aside for the moment, the above is illustrative of how far some take the interactivity of trees, i.e., way too far.

How do we know that trees do not feel pain?  Because in order to feel morally relevant pain – that is, pain which causes suffering – trees would have to have a point of view, an interior mental life.  Let’s explore this a bit further.  If you think trees suffer pain then you must also believe that they are aware of that pain – suffering without awareness makes no sense at all – and would choose to have that pain cease.  But that requires that they be so aware, that is, self-aware, and that is so improbable as to not be worth our consideration.

In a world where there is so very much undeniable suffering – war, illness, hunger and malnutrition, to mention only a few obvious evils – to try to move us with the alleged emotional plight of trees is at its very best misleading.  We should care about and act on the health of our trees and forests but that is because the fate of beings who can suffer hinges on their well-being.

In a Foreward to The Hidden Life of Trees, Tim Flannery, who was named Australian of the Year in 2007 for his environmental work, writes:  “But the most astonishing thing about trees is how social they are.  The trees in a forest care for each other …”  (p. viii)  But there is no need to go down this anthropomorphic road.  In no ethically important sense do trees care for one another.  The trees that have survived over time are those that have attributes better adapted to the circumstances in which they are found which, by definition, are those favoured by natural selection.  If one of those attributes has involved pooling resources in some circumstances, so be it. 

People who say, for example, that trees feel pain, cannot be serious about what they are saying.  Otherwise, common activities such as tapping – sticking nails into the trunks of – maple trees for their sap would be routinely denounced as cruelty.  And they are not.  Why?  Because trees do not feel pain – they react to stimuli.  Period. 

And if I am wrong and trees do feel pain, then it would be incumbent on us to much more radically change our behaviour towards trees than merely to attack them with smaller weapons!  (See above)

 One encounters anthropomorphism throughout the book.  For example, in a chapter entitled “Love” Wohlleben writes that “Trees in a forest prefer to bloom at the same time so that the genes of many individual trees can be well mixed.”  (Emphasis added)  No, they do not prefer anything.  Again, “to prefer” would mean they had a point of view from which they could ascertain their preferences.  They do not.  In the same chapter, he writes “And that’s why the trees agree in advance.  If they don’t bloom every year, then the herbivores cannot count on them.”  It’s ludicrous:  trees do not agree on anything.  The trees that did not bloom every year did better than those that did (in the particular circumstances); thus, their genes were carried forward.

And, finally, consider this example:

You might say that we, too, experience the physical act of love as more than just the secretions of neurotransmitters that activate our bodies’ secrets, though what mating feels like for trees is something that will remain in the realm of speculation for a long time to come.”  (p. 23)

Seriously?  No.  Trees do not mate;  they reproduce, as do all living things.

Finding the Mother Tree

As already noted, Wohlleben relies on the research findings of scientists such as Suzanne Simard.  But Simard herself does not go nearly as far as Wohlleben in attributing human-like characteristics to trees.  Instead, her memoir Finding the Mother Tree(((Toronto:  Penguin Canada, 2022.))) strikes a balance between relating, on the one hand, factual material on emerging tree science and, on the other, what trees and forests can mean at an emotional level (to us.)  She conveys her wonderment at the complexity of the forest and how comforting and even inspiring she finds the forest, without falling into the abyss of absurdity.  Simard is tempted in some of the same directions as Wohlleben, for example, she uses the term “mother tree” often to denote the matriarchs of the forest which have successfully reproduced, generating many other trees.  She does not go on to suggest they weep and wail when their offspring do not prosper.  She understands that to go that route is to attribute human capacities and characteristics that trees simply do not have.

Conclusion

In the animal world, the line between those that have an interior life, a point of view and thus the capacity to suffer and those that do not is entirely unclear and may in any event be not a hard line but a fuzzy continuum.  Are those elephants circling the spot where one of their herd died actually mourning their dead, or are they not?  The matter is disputed.  And may always be.

But here is what matters.  Environmentally, we must get a handle on our destructive impulses and learn to live in harmony with, not in domination over, nature.  (Ah, words so easily written!)   

Ethically what matters, as it always has and always will, is that sentient beings are spared unnecessary suffering.  And applying the precautionary principle, where we do not know for sure whether a being is sentient – is capable of suffering – we err on the side of treating it as if it is.  Trees simply do not fall into that category and it is counter-productive to suggest that they do. 

We need to save our forests but for our sakes, not theirs, since they cannot feel or suffer.

  1. See, for example, https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/planet-earth/forests-and-deserts/species-extinction-rate []