Misreading the Book of Nature: Intelligent Forests?

“Then shall the trees of the wood give praise before the Lord: because he is come to judge the earth.” — I Par. 16:33

Trees of different species, acrobatic bugs, and hunter-gatherer fungi all form a sort of underground “brain,” indicating to some scientists that in the complex subterranean network just beneath the forest floor there lurk networks of intelligent organisms that belie the sylvan simplicity of its surface.

That’s what I learned from NPR this weekend.

I have admitted on this site my weakness for listening to NPR on those rare occasions when I go out on errands in Keene, N.H. This past Saturday, while on my way back from some business in the Elm City, I listened to a regular NPR show called “Radiolab.” The episode, which I found on YouTube and have embedded below, is called “From Tree to Shining Tree.” For the uninitiated, Radiolab is a science show produced in a chatty and light style that is at once heavy on high-end audio production, complete with minute editorial splicing of field interviews with in-studio recordings, quirky sound effects, and evocative music. All that is packaged in a fast-paced format that some would find irksome, others entertaining. I am of the latter camp, even though I find some of the chic flourishes a little over-the-top.

A disclaimer is in order: I am not a scientist, neither professional nor amateur, and I therefore lack the tools to critique the show from a scientific perspective. For my present purposes, I’m assuming that all the raw data and observations that the show narrates are completely accurate. Any real scientists reading this may feel free to comment on the facts presented in the show.

Now, to the subject of the show. Piecing together interviews with several scientists, the hosts explain how trees form networks underground by which they share nutrition with each other. Up to 47 trees can be part of such a network, which one clever observer named “the wood-wide web.” The networks are not peculiar to one species of tree, either. In fact, it is more beneficial to have different species. Just how trees share nutrition was a mystery that went unsolved till the discovery of very thin but very long tubular fungi that connect all the trees in the network. The fungi are integral to how the trees assimilate nutrition in the first place. From rocks which they chemically “mine,” to decaying animal life (e.g., fish carcasses left behind by bears), and even live bugs (springtails) that they immobilize and drain of nutrients, these fungi draw nitrogen, minerals, and other nutriments that they pass into the tree roots. In exchange, trees give the fungi lots of sugars that they produce through photosynthesis.

This is an amazing symbiotic relationship, and it has some fascinating complexities to it. For instance, when one tree is in distress, a chemical signal is passed through the network to the other trees. For instance, if a type of beetle is endangering a tree, this is communicated to the other trees, which then secrete a chemical that makes them unpalatable to the beetle. Also, if a tree of one species is dying from some distress (e.g., high temperatures), it dumps its carbon into the underground fungus network — but that carbon is generally assimilated by trees of another species which, presumably, might deal better with the changed circumstances of the forest.

Near the end of the very informative half hour, “From Tree to Shining Tree” gets weird. My philosophia perennis senses were tingling when one scientist referred to this whole process as “intelligent,” a reference that provoked in one of the show’s hosts a surprised reaction. After all, mention of the “I-word” in connection with plants is not exactly conventional science.

At this point, I said out loud, “They’re going to mess this up!”

It didn’t take long. The last couple of minutes of the show went on to imply — not argue, not document, not even claim, mind you — that these networks of underground roots and fungi form subterranean “brains” that are themselves intelligent. One scientist even pointed out that the underground structure formed by these different, interlocking organisms “looks like” a brain.

Where to begin? First, though we cannot think without our brains (owing to their being the organic faculty of our internal sense knowledge), we do not think with them. We think with our intellect, which is a super-organic faculty that resides in the soul. Second, the human brain (or any animal brain) is part of one integral organism. But each individual tree, fungus, bug, etc., is also one integral organism. To assign to a collectivity of plants, animals, and fungi an intelligent, organic unity is, well, unscientific. Such a conclusion would lead us to believe that the myriad symbiotic relationships we observe in nature are not groups of organisms in relationship with each other, but single organisms. In other words, the remoras and shark are organs of a single organism, as are the crocodile and plover, the clownfish and the sea anemone, etc. But that defies common sense at multiple levels.

In spite of its scientific packaging, the intelligent underground brain idea hinted at in the show is redolent of ancient and modern systems of pantheism, complete with their theory of a “World Soul.”

But if we were to grant to these scientists not only the accuracy of their observations and biological theories about this fascinating transfer of nutrition across the “wood-wide web,” but also their conclusion that there is clearly intelligence at work here — which there must be for such teleological complexity to operate — then what do we have?

God, that’s what.

Hey Red, can you pass me some nitrogen? I’m starving! (Coast Redwood forest in Redwood National Park, photo by Michael Schweppe, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link.)

When we see a thing that is not intelligent acting in an intelligent manner — that is, acting with some clear purpose — we conclude that intelligence is at work, even if the intelligence is not in that thing. So, for instance, if I’m teaching a class and a spitball were to strike me on the back of the head, I would not waste my time trying to figure out how the moistened paper came to direct itself at me. I would, rather, inquire which intelligent being in my classroom abused his rational faculties to manufacture and launch the offending projectile. (Thankfully, no IHM School student has ever done this to me!) We draw such conclusions every day and perhaps hundreds of times a day based on sheer common sense. When we take common sense thought and systematize it into an ordered body of knowledge, we call it philosophy. This particular common-sense argument about inanimate things and intelligence is found in Saint Thomas’ observation about the arrow and the archer, which figures into his fifth proof for the existence of God.

The empirical sciences come to conclusions based upon observation. The processes by which scientists form, test, discard, prove, or refine their theories depend upon sound philosophy. Throw out philosophy or add bad philosophy, and you end up with scientism, pantheism, or some other wrongheaded -ism.

As for me, assuming again the veracity of the observations narrated in “From Tree to Shining Tree,” I find it utterly fascinating that God would do such things, hiding underground clues to His own intelligence for scientists to unearth in the skeptical times in which we live. But the scientists must use their God-given intellects correctly, otherwise, they will misread the Book of Nature and miss the forest for the trees.

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WARNING: Apparently, the bleep I heard in the on-air edition covered an “F-bomb” in the original, something that the YouTube version below does not scruple to let drop.