The Idea That Trees Talk to Cooperate Is Misleading

Mon, 19 Jul 2021 07:00:00 GMT
Scientific American - Science

It’s a romantic notion, but pretending they’re like humans could actually harm the cause of...

Trees that communicate, care for one another and foster cooperative communities have captured the popular imagination, most notably in Suzanne Simard's much-praised book Finding the Mother Tree, soon to be a movie, and in other works like James Cameron's Avatar, Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees and Richard Powers' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory.

Simard and others showed that carbon compounds made by one tree can end up in neighboring trees via the underground network of mycorrhizae, fungi that live on plant roots and exchange water and nutrients they gather from the soil for sugars plants make.

Reciprocity among trees is possible, but many interactions are likely asymmetric, such as between mature trees and tiny seedlings.

The explanation most favored by popularizers, that trees send out resources to strengthen the community, is least likely.

Amid this struggle, trees can sometimes facilitate each other's growth.

After the last glaciation, different tree species migrated north at different rates and by different routes.

Trees currently live in combinations that may have no analog in the past or future.

Trees are not people and forests are not human families or even republics.

In interviews, Simard has said that she purposely uses anthropomorphism and culturally weighted words like "Mother"-even though the trees in question are male as well as female-so that people can relate to trees better, because "If we can relate to it, then we're going to care about it more."

Do trees need to have human values and emotions for us to let them live? The science supporting conservation is compelling enough.

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