Do Trees Speak Like Us?

In the last five years, there has been an upsurge in debate about the use of jargon in academic literature. In 2010, a PhD candidate at VU University Amsterdam published a popular article on the Internet, “Sorry, I Don’t Speak Anthropologist.” In the article, Daan Beekers argues that anthropologists should provide “invaluable insights” on “burning issues.” “Why, then,” he asks, “do these insights so often seem to fail to get the attention they deserve?” He locates the problem in the failure to translate anthropological and methodological jargon into a language shared by specialists and general readers alike.

Much of the work in Eduardo Kohn’s dynamic, prescient book How Forests Think (2013) inquires into what we mean by certain common words such as thinking, thought, and selfhood. In his introduction, Kohn notes that what we share with “other living selves – whether bacterial, floral, fungal, or animal – is the fact that how we represent the world around us is in some way or another constitutive of our being.” Kohn’s confident but provocative sentence (many people would not associate “selves” with fungi) is central to his argument that “all life is semiotic and all semiosis is alive.” Over the subsequent six chapters, Kohn makes his case through highly specialized methods and terms that sometimes elucidate and sometimes bewilder.

Kohn’s method is to apply his ethnographic work with the Runa people of Avila, Ecuador, who subsist in the Amazonian forests, to broader questions of species definition. His work is part of a movement across disciplines that seeks to reexamine stale categories and histories of human and nonhuman. Stefan Helmreich of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reviewed the movement in the Journal of Cultural Anthropology (2010), describing Kohn and others like Donna Haraway as “multispecies ethnographers” who present insights into places where the “lines separating nature from culture have broken down.”

But even the notion of “multi- species ethnographers” is too limited. In reality, the work of Kohn and others forms part of a debate about the nature of humans and the implications of human and nonhuman categories in an age of environmental collapse. In How Forests Think, Kohn writes,

Given the challenges posed

by learning to live with the

proliferating array of other kinds

of life-forms that increasingly

surround us – be they pets,

weeds, pests, commensals,

new pathogens, “wild” animals,

or technoscientific “mutants” – devel

oping a precise way to analyse how

the human is both distinct from and

continuous with that which lies

beyond it is both crucial and timely.

The term Anthropocene, coined by chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer, identifies the era in which humans and human activity have played an unprecedented role in driving climate change and species extinctions and endangerments. Kohn’s endeavor to redefine terms (thought, selfhood) that have traditionally separated humans (Homo sapiens, the rational, thinking animal) from the rest of nature attempts to redress anxiety about the Anthropocene. Kohn makes this plain when he acknowledges that his work is motivated by the desire to (paraphrasing anthropologist Marilyn Strathern) “create the conditions for new thoughts”; he intends that these “new thoughts” might ease the complexities that beset human relationships with the rest of nature.

Yet despite the broad significance of his project, Kohn writes exclusively from inside the discipline of anthropology. He engages with imaginative, though nonetheless serious, word play to break down assumptions inherent in common words and to question the nature of all living forms by turning to semiotics. But a close reading is difficult without knowledge of the forefathers of semiotics like C. S. Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure. Kohn updates the foundational discourse and engages with the newer field of biosemiotics. The core mission of semiotics is to make sense of the human world through the language that shapes it. Biosemiotics is the metaphoric extension of the idea of signs in language and cultural meaning in order to argue that the essence of living systems is representational. All living things are “selves” engaged in representation; in this way, all living things can be said to “think.”

Through biosemiotics, Kohn and his contemporaries attempt to burst open the old terms of thought and meaning, which define human life, to give greater significance to the behaviors and lives of other life-forms. It is a valuable endeavor. However, once the dust has settled, what remains? True enlightenment or just semantic play? In other words, what does it really mean if we say a forest thinks?


A recent book by biologist Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), exemplifies the freedoms, both real and illusory, offered by linguistic trickery. Through a vast array of scientific anecdotes and studies, Chamovitz exposes the complex ways in which plants survive and reproduce. Plants have no eyes and no brains, yet they have a kind of “sight”; they are endowed with chemical signals that respond to both the type and direction of light. They have no noses, yet when their leaves are under attack, they release chemicals that are absorbed by nearby leaves and trigger defense mechanisms. Plants do not feel or suffer, yet they “know” when they are touched, remember it, and recoil. Like Kohn, Chamovitz is engaged in a cautious kind of continuity that can serve both to break down old beliefs and to broaden the meaning of terms like sight, smell, and memory.

In his conclusion, Chamovitz asks: should plants be considered intelligent? He is skeptical. He argues that the question is wrong, making his point through a linguistic shift. “The question,” he claims, “should be, ‘Are plants aware?’ and, in fact, they are.” Aware, which originally meant “to be actively cautious,” seems to offer continuity between humans and other life-forms, just as thought and selfhood can. Yet this silences the term’s recent connotations – the sense of being mindful, of being aware. The dilemma remains in all that isn’t meant by the original definition of the word aware – what we, as a species, are to do with the capacities that are not shared with other life-forms.

Kohn is regarded as a seminal researcher in multispecies ethno-graphy. His influential paper, “How Dogs Dream” (American Ethnologist, 2007), looked at the shifting subjectivities between humans, canines, and other life-forms, as seen through the Runa people. Dreams are understood as integral to hunting skills shared between human and dog and suggest a kind of ensoulment, reflecting the fluidity of selves in the forest. While dogs form a kind of quasi-human mediator between humans and animals in the forest, they remain subservient to humans in essential ways. So this extraordinary study does not sustain the claim of a revolutionary continuity between animals and humans.

Even the briefest contemplation of human nature and the rest of nature broaches acute moral dilemmas. A simple example might be the rights of people to derive social and economic benefit from the exploitation of an endangered resource like a forest. Granting the right to exploit depends on the reasoning that privileges human needs over the consequences of deforestation for climate change and species extinction. Close examination of such dilemmas often exposes unanswered questions about the authority on which we base our reasoning.

What emerges from a complete extension of thought and meaning into the natural world is the loss of authority for much that we take for granted. Are we justified in giving greater value to aspects of human “thought”? Theories for and ideas about continuities can be enormously valuable in such cases. They do give us “new thoughts” and form part of the moral landscape whereby we can question the authority with which we “use” resources like forests.

Professor Michael Carrithers of Durham University has pioneered recent work on the role of rhetoric in altering human behavior. He points to how the value human societies have assigned to their own members has shifted remarkably; language used in specific contexts has conditioned thinking on the rights of women, the poor, or the vulnerable. From this perspective, one could argue in Kohn’s defense that the potentially considerable effects of new rhetoric on the relationship of humans to the living world should not be dismissed.

But I remain cautious. Metaphorically extending language and meaning – or, more accurately, divorcing meaning from language in order to enable continuity between life-forms – is a noble, playful, but potentially misleading endeavor. Despite a shift in awareness of the Anthropocene and a range of political, commercial, and charitable methods to induce change, the rate at which humans are exploiting natural resources and the rate of species endangerment and extinction continue to rise.

In the final count, nature speaks neither anthropologist nor semiotics, and it is only a return to contemplating what is valuable in strictly human terms that we might begin to form a truly radical approach to the environmental problems we have created. That said, Kohn’s book is a worthwhile, thought-provoking contribution to the inquiry into what we are and what we are to make of the rest of nature. Perhaps the author will soon translate his ideas for general readers and wide debate.

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 Melanie Challenger is the author of On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature and is currently a visiting fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College.

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The Imagined
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