Empathy is an interesting topic within evolutionary biology- it is a battleground issue within those trying to emphasize the uniqueness of humankind, versus those trying to dig into the mundane origins of these higher impulses. Those who think altruism or empathy is exclusively human, reading Frans de Waal or watching his TED talk is a good start. It’s clear that intelligence- defined by me here for ad hoc purposes as increasingly-multistep calculation abilities- is a precursor to increasing ability to handle complex social relationships that bend and weave through time. The idea that someone who did you a favor years ago, is someone you remember your debt to even now, is an example of this idea. You are juggling decades’ worth of experiences and yet your complex brain has not only simultaneously assigned rough values to actions, objects, but also perceived future actions and objects. Those same multistep calculation mechanisms that have allowed for complex math, engineering, planning, etc, had their origins in humanity’s self-domestication fueled by our ability to navigate complex social situations.
Ideologically, I have long ago accepted that wherever we look in emergent intelligence, we see the precursors of our universal positive human values, like altruism, empathy, solidarity, amongst others. It has gotten me thinking about how many grower’s manuals, for garlic or other plants, seems to have not yet made the same breakthrough into plants. Though, popular books like “The Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben are starting to break into this idea. We are not vainly anthropomorphizing trees, but rather we’re finally at work dendromorphizing humans. Since all people who work on the issue accept that there was a single origin of life for Earth (be it here or on Mars, or elsewhere, we don’t know), it means that the specific chemical pathways we have for communication may vary by species, but they’re still “the same” in that they’re bound by the same usage of elements, bound by the same laws of physics, whether we use sound, visual cues, chemical cues, etc. Electron pathways, hormone generation and reception, etc, are the language of intelligence, or at least the script, across species. All intelligence is transmitted or accumulated under the same laws of physics.
So...I had this thought while planting garlic. I was thinking about the issue of removing garlic debris from the field before replanting. Believing in the Fukuoka principle of returning organic matter immediately to the field, I often think of putting my garlic stems and papers on the field they came from. I also think of applying them to the field the garlic is going in. Of course, the usual belief about vegetable debris is to definitely NOT do that, due to disease risks. This presumes (rightly so for many crops) that the debris is full of pathogens that are a risk to the next year. Many crops only barely survive their annual pathogens and can’t handle them if they have them right from the start in the next year. The debris may harbor living space for everything from fungi, viruses, to higher order things like insect eggs, etc.
The thing I thought, though, is WHAT IF there is an absolute basic sense of “empathy” within garlic, or any other asexual crop which stays in place and spreads through bulbs and cloves? I don’t mean in some vague spiritual sense, but in a mechanistic understanding that survival, in evolutionary terms, includes the advancement of your genes, even by proxies beyond just your offspring- if you show kinship bonds to cousins, to second cousins, etc, in enough of a fashion to advance your community’s wellbeing.
We assume that the garlic is this finite being in time and place- it’s how it’s shoe-horned into our spreadsheets and minds- that when we plant it in autumn, it has this simple goal of selfishly accumulating as much as it needs to be as healthy and big as possible, which as a proxy result leads to increased vigor for the next generation. However, studies have shown that even the storage temperature that a garlic bulb experiences will code into it a set of instructions of when to sprout, months later. It has the rudimentary elements of a memory- I know, it’s a stretch, but how is it fundamentally different from ours? DNA code is activated or deactivated by environment. Is it “learning lessons” of scarcity, abundance, preparation for any of the above?
My theory, then, is maybe the garlic, when it senses an excess of a nutrient, will try to benignly accumulate it in tissues where it won’t do damage. Similar to the idea that bones started as benign sequestrations of excess calcium in invertebrates (on their way to acquiring vertebrae), until they evolved to be shaped into ever more useful bony shapes. Maybe the way garlic skins exhibit striking iron-sourced coloration in their skins in a year of high iron (or better put, a year in which the pH allowed the already-in-existence iron to be available), they are trying to spare their children the experience of growing in excess iron. Garlic is also a specialist in sequestering sulfur- key to why we enjoy the crop, in fact. Could some of garlic’s behavior be understood as it MINING elements from deep below, and not just accumulating it within the bulb that splits into many cloves and sprouts the next year, but also benignly accumulating micronutrients within the rest of it? Before human intervention, garlic would live and “die” in place, year after year, and so could slowly accumulate more of what it likes. A clove will theoretically grow in the same space its parent has left its stem and outer papers to rot- like the outer papers are the yolk of an egg, providing the starting elements, at clove-level, for the infant, til its roots access the depths to find their own. Similar to how deciduous trees are mining deep micronutrients and shedding leaves all around their own base, creating their own preferred environment below- a conceptual precursor to direct, plain ole allelopathic behavior in plants. Intelligently accumulating good things, benignly sequestering things that are needed in moderation, and for some plants, intentionally creating environments that they can tolerate that other species can’t. Viewing garlic as a sulfur accumulant, it seems to be constantly ready to bring the soil in its environs to a high sulfur state. If we constantly crop off the remaining portion of the plant, are we depriving the next generation of garlic of something positive its parents were trying to do for it? Even if that biomass has some pathogens that we consider risky- won’t most of them be consumers of only the dead tissue? Do these microorganisms, breaking down the old garlic matter, give chemical signals by accident, that could trigger the equivalent of immune responses in the next generation of garlic? Could most of the bad be outweighed by even some of the good?
I started on this thread once when I first read “The Life of Trees” and learned how branches experiencing insect attacks would signal the other branches to induce defense mechanisms. It got me thinking how in the vegetable world, we constantly prune diseased leaves off of things, especially on tomatoes or other sensitive crops. Are we possibly depriving the plant of its own warning signals? Are we shutting down natural responses sometimes? I don’t know. I’m not a commercial tomato grower so I have little skin in the game on that. It does make me wonder, though. Because I know several garlic growers- some of the best, in fact, who replant the same plot each year. Crop rotation is a complex subject but suffice it to say, some rotations don’t do a damn thing, and in fact could be missing out on positive influences from hormesis or from rudimentary empathic behavior in plants that may be making multigenerational decisions in what nutrients they accumulate, and where in their tissues they put them. Some growers directly claim that things get better every year they replant- presumably, a host of microbiota are coming in who may not just specialize in predating on garlic, but predate on the predators themselves. A stable ecosystem, in balance, assuming the plants have the nutrition needed to fight off attacks. I strongly suspect that the majority of plant diseases are avoided by watching the micronutrient balance sheet and avoiding excesses almost as assiduously as avoiding deficits.
Maybe garlic plants are making multigenerational decisions, and we ourselves can make better decisions, knowing that. This applies most to studying what is taken out of the field, both in the bulbs and in the stems and papers, and what microbiota come to flourish, in an area where garlic matter is fully returned, and if it's a net positive over any disease risks.