Stefano Mancuso interview
Dr. Stefano Mancuso is a world-renowned Italian botanist who is the founder of ‘plant neurobiology’ – a not-entirely-possible field of study aimed at taking a crack at the establishment (plants do not have neurons) by focusing on the similarities plants have with animals: communication, community. The lessons are many, including of course a radical critique on how we organise society. (Read on!)
More than just a bright mind in the world of flora, his mission is to change the perception of the public too. To accomplish that, he’s collaborated artists and musicians, creating some blockbuster exhibitions along the way – the likes of Carsten Höller and Thijs Biersteker (at the Fondation Cartier in Paris).
Mancuso lives and works in Florence.
This interview was published 20 August 2020.
DM: I'm curious: when you look at plants, what do you see that maybe an average person doesn’t see? How do you understand them?
SM: The first thing is that you don’t have to look at plant as if they were animals. That's the problem. We all look at plants as if they are animals, handicapped animals. Let's say, animals without something. It's a big problem.
If you change your vision about plant, your point of view, everything appears clearly, very clearly. Plants cannot use the main ability of animals, that is to run away. We animals, our name, ‘animals,’ derives from this fact that we are moving. We are animate. We solve all our problems by movement.
In the case of plants this is not possible. Plants, they need to solve problems in other ways.
DM: It’s also interesting, something that you’ve mentioned before, that of course there’s a functional element to our relationship with plants, whether we’re eating them, transforming them into medicine, or using them for construction, as examples. But also, there is this psychological relationship.
SM: Well, that’s absolutely right – we evolved together with plants. We lived together with plants until yesterday, in terms of evolution. So, it’s no time at all that we’ve been living without plants, so to speak – we are not accustomed to do that.
Another interesting thing you said was that we looked at plant always as something to be used: to eat, to cover us or to create energy, to… everything! But plants are also able to teach us, as a source of inspiration. We can learn a lot from them, such as the way they are able to collect energy from the sun.
What I would say is more interesting is how they are organised. This is something completely new for us. We, animals, are all built in the same way. We have a brain controlling organs, muscles. This architecture, it’s something that informs all our organisation. If you look at any human organisation you will find a head and the organs, a pyramid, a hierarchic organisation. They start from the way we are built, physiologically.
They don’t work well. They are fragile. They are not creative.
On the contrary plants are extremely modern organisms. The functions that in animals are concentrated in specific organs, in plants are completely diffused, decentralised. It's revolutionary compared to us. A plant is able to see, to hear, to breath, to talk, everything is made with the whole body not with specific part of the body, specific organs.
Having no brain, having no centralised command, it’s something that’s extremely modern. Extremely new. It’s something like—well, the Internet is made in the same way.
DM: I want to ask about your field. I think plant neurobiology is not entirely something that everyone knows exists, because – well, it’s impossible. Could just briefly explain?
SM: Well, plant neurobiology was born in 2005, as a provocation mostly, to say that, ‘Look plants are not so different from animals.’ Of course, plants have no neurons. So, yes, in principle it would be impossible to talk about plant neurobiology. But everything that is normally linked to what neurons are able to do is present even in plants.
We normally link concepts like memory, learning, communication, and so on, with the ability to have a brain. But plants are able to do the same without having a brain.
Today, everything is changing. Just to tell you, in 2005, it was absolutely impossible even to talk about “plant behaviour.” Plant behaviour was forbidden. If you think that until 50 years, before Konrad Lorenz, was impossible to talk about also animal intelligence. This is something that takes some time.
DM: Do you feel like you’ve taken some lessons from plants for your personal life?
SM: In my personal life, yes.
One of the most interesting behaviours of the plant, is that they are normally involved in building communities. Probably because they are unable to move away, they normally start a good relationship, let’s say, with other organisms. Not just other plants, but also bacteria, fungi, animals and so on. Starting relationships that are normally comparative. I think that this is a very nice lesson today.
DM: I’m just curious about your first memories of plants, or how this became a passion for you.
SM: The love for plants is not a young love. Normally children, they prefer animals, because they are so similar to us. We are able to understand immediately their emotions.
The love for plants is an adult love. You need to learn the plant’s true logic. This is something that normally takes some time.
DM: Why do you think plants become so important later on in life?
SM: So, for many people, plants are no interest to them for their entire life. But, if you live with plants and you start a common life with plants, with time you cannot escape the fact that you can feel that they are much more sensitive. They are something different from what you are normally told plants are. It isn't something that you can really perceive.
DM: You see them as less passive?
SM: Yes – something like that. By perceiving this difference, of the plants that they are not so different, let’s say, from animals. You could start also a different relationship with them.
DM: I suppose it’s also that a lot of people who like to garden, for instance, obviously it takes quite a lot of patience – it is about the process of nurturing something over a long period of time.
SM: Yes. This is also-- It's very important. Working with plants requires a different relationship with time. That’s absolutely true. Because plants live on a different time scale. You need to understand that, and of course patience is fundamental.
I have always the idea that those who are really interested in plants are also those who are interested the next generation. We do not plant a tree for us. We plant a tree for the next generations. Today when everything is becoming so fast, so compressed, having a relationships with plants is probably a kind of counterbalance.
DM: Is your relationship with plants mostly scientific?
SM: No. Today plants are part of my life in general. I live in the middle of plants.
I have some trees, close to my house in Florence, that I perceive as my closest friends. Just to give you an example, one of the normal functions of a friend is to hear your problems [chuckles], and to help you when you have bad times. When I feel myself in a stressful condition or have some problem, spending some time with such friends, it’s always very relaxing for me.
DM: There's also cultures that develop stronger relationships to plants than others, even thinking historically versus today. In some cases, plants would even become important cultural symbols–
SM: Yes, yes, yes. Yes, you're right. That is also true. In our culture, it’s very materialistic and completely detached from everything that is related to nature. In other cultures, or in other times, yes, there is something different.
For example, something that astonishes me is how our indigenous people living in the forest are able to orientate themselves. I spent quite a lot of time in the Amazonian forest. The Amazonian forest for a European, let’s say if you are alone for 30 second, you are completely lost. You will never find the way back. Trust me, impossible.
DM: Because of the density of it?
SM: Yes. It’s completely dense green stuff, so no signs for us. No way to find a pathway. For these indigenous people, they move in this forest as we move in a town, but not because they already knew about that specific forest. Even in the region that they’d never seen before, they are able to orientate themselves in the same way we are able to orientate in a town – in the same way, we are able to identify signs in a town like in a shop, a town square or something like that.
DM: Obviously now there’s a growing concern about nature, and specifically climate change and the fragility of the natural world we’re a part of. I'm wondering what you think that means for your work even in just in terms of how people’s relationship with plants might be changing.
SM: It’s extremely relevant. Everything is changing. I was telling you that in 2005, 2010 even, so not so many years ago, all these kind of issues about plants were interesting to just a very small part of population. Very few people. One percent, two percent.
Today everything has changed. When I have a public talk, I have thousands of people come to see it – that is also something completely crazy. And this is not because of me, it’s because of there is an interest in it. Everything is related to nature that is extremely rising, and why?
For many years, we felt that we were able also to be outside of nature. We didn't need nature, because we are human. This is something else today dramatically showing us that this is not true. To be able for us to survive, we need an ecosystem.
DM: I think it’s interesting that in your background, you've also had some collaborations with contemporary artists, you’re moving it outside of the scientific community –
SM: Well, yes, it’s probably at the moment the most interesting part of my life. For so many years, I spent all my time producing ‘new knowledge’ about plants, let’s say. Just writing scientific papers, thousands of pages, about the ability of plants – but no one was reading them! [Laughs] Except my colleagues.
I start to be interested in the popularisation of the results. I'm collaborating with contemporary artists, with musicians, with filmmakers, everything – but what I am interested is not to make anything elitist. Something so very scientific, precise, but popular, so you don't need any specific knowledge.
DM: Can you talk to me about maybe one of your artistic collaborations that you found interesting?
SM: I collaborated with Carsten Höller. Carsten Höller, he’s quite well known, contemporary artist. That was also a fortunate collaboration because he’s also a former scientist. He has a PhD in plant science but–
DM: Has he? I didn't know!
SM: That was a natural relationship. We started to talk, and we came out with this Florence Experiment that was – Carsten is building, all the time, these slides. We built two slides in Florence and we had a scientific part, by giving it to the people sliding a very small bean plant to bring with them, and after we analysed the plant to for levels of stress in the plant.
The people were enthusiastic. The Florence Experiment was the third most visited exhibition of art in Italy, but not just contemporary art. We were just after Michelangelo, and… I don’t what was second – but we were third place. It was completely unexpected. That was a wonderful experience because, even today there are literally hundreds the people that are writing me and saying that just bringing this plant down the slide was changing their vision of plants as communicative or sensitive organism.
DM: It’s interesting, the Carsten Höller project, because I think there’s also this idea that people quite like to talk to plant and are actually kind of aware of an emotional state of plants.
SM: Yes. Exactly. This is the point. Just to tell you, now, with Carsten, we are thinking to do another project. The idea would be to build two greenhouses inside an exhibition.
One greenhouse will be called Love, and another one will be called Hate. In one greenhouse, all the people visiting this greenhouse would need to have a good feeling for the plants, love feelings for the plants. And the other one, they need to hate the plants.
It’s something they perfectly able to perceive. Perfectly able. I know that it appears to be something completely unscientific, but it’s something that can be tested.
DM: In 2019, you curated an exhibition as part of the Milan Triennale, called the Nation of Plants, about all of your work. What did you want visitors to come away with?
SM: Well, the best result would be if they were able to look at plants from a different perspective, a different point of view. This is absolutely my dream, that the people who visited entered the exhibition by looking at the plant as usual, as some green stuff, and left having a different vision of plant.