Stefano Mancuso

by Lina Vergara Huilcamán

photo © Lina Vergara Huilcamán

photo © Lina Vergara Huilcamán

An encounter in a bookshop. Among so many new titles, a very pretty white and green book, with beautiful cover paper, the right size and title: The nation of plants.
This is how this story begins: with a book, the reading of it and then the purchase of the other titles by the same author until I get to know him in person, in his office full of books and plants. Here follows the transcription of what he told me.


We humans always look at life from our point of view, because as animals we cannot look at the world in any other way than according to how we ourselves are organized. We all, animals of this planet, have a governing brain, we have organs specialized in particular functions: one specialized in sight, one in hearing, some specialized in breathing, digestion, problem solving... and this type of organization only has one advantage, just a single one: speed, due to the fact that it is only one organ that takes all decisions, the brain. Speed of processing and response is fundamental for us animals, because it is the most important factor for solving the problems of our existence. We are called animals because we are animated, we move, from the Latin word animalis, «what gives life, animated», this is our fundamental feature, and we solve problems through movement: we move where the problem no longer exists, namely we avoid problems.
This type of centralized organization is convenient because it allows an immediate response, but it is also extremely weak: if only one of our specialized organs breaks, our whole organization collapses. The interesting thing is that we have replicated the model of our inner organization everywhere: universities, hospitals, computers… there is always an organizational chart with a boss to whom problems are reported, wherever they are, who is in charge of elaborating a solution and solving the problem. Take, for example, a big multinational corporation, with a management board, a CEO and factories and companies all over the world. Let’s assume there’s a problem in a factory in India and this problem is solved by a management board on the other side of the planet… how can this management board have the same information they have locally? It’s impossible. Locally you always have the best possible solutions to solve the problem. Handing over information, even assuming that all information can be passed on to those in charge of finding the solution, simply because that information is moved, produces errors.
We animals are incredibly different from plants…
Plants can move, but they cannot change places, and because of that they are inevitably subjected to predation, and have evolved in order to survive it. Unlike animals, plants can lose 90 percent of their body and continue to live on. How is such a miracle possible? It is due to the fact that the organization of plants is distributed: whereas we animals have organs, each with their own function, plants have distributed their functions throughout their body and this makes them much stronger. Plants see, feel and reason with their whole body, therefore they are able to find the right solutions to survive.
We humans look at life from our incredibly narrow and minority perspective. All animals together make up only 0.3 percent of all the life on the entire planet, and we do everything according to this percentage, believing that this is the general rule for everyone. This is also an act of presumption, which always amazes me, because it is plants that represent 85 percent of all living creatures on this planet. Not only are they superior in number, but there is evidence that they are much better than us: for their ability to propagate, solve problems, stay alive, colonize complex environments… they are better than us in every area.


The general intent of my books is to make people change the way they look at life, make them understand how blind we are as to how life really works.
A very trivial example: how many times have you heard that life is competition? Or struggle for survival? Or have you heard expressions such as the law of the fittest, or the law of the jungle… expressions that are so ingraned in us as to guide our behavior, but are completely false. In life, the driving force of evolution is not competition but COOPERATION. Competition only works in specific restricted areas of the animal world, but all the animals, including humans, as I have already said, are only 0.3 percent of the living beings of this planet. People ignore the fact that for 85 percent of life on this planet, it is cooperation which is rewarding in terms of survival and evolution. We look at life, at our relationships, at society – at everything! – from an exclusively animal perspective, although figures perfectly demonstrate who has taken the right direction, whether plants or animals.
We have a big brain, provided with logical capacity, and if this brain really were an evolutionary advantage, we should be able to understand that our vision is limited and restricted, and only concerns a minimal, irrelevant part of life. If we were able to appreciate and understand how plants live in general, in every environment, we would gain a huge advantage for ourselves, for human life and consequently also for our ability to survive which is really scarce at the moment.
We humans have only been on Earth for 300 thousand years, namely a very short time if you think that the average life of a species is five million years. Should we match this average, we may expect to live 4 million and 700 thousand years more, but we will never get there! We have big problems concerning our survival as a species, we have reduced our environment to a situation which doesn’t guarantee our future…
We should learn to look at life in a different way. Understand that everything can be done differently. Our organizations, for example, are centralized, although we know and there is enough evidence that any non-centralized organization has more advantages. Let’s take Wikipedia, for example, which I find amazing, the best source of information currently available on the planet, which has managed to produce about 45 thousand volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica so far, in a ridiculously short time, and its organization is completely based on the distribution of tasks. There isn’t a plan, there isn’t a head of the enciclopædia… nothing! Only people who enter information and self-regulate themselves. In the field of science, we know by now that this type of organizations is capable of obtaining unimaginable results in a ridiculous fraction of the time which would be needed to solve the same problems through a hierarchical structure. We know that but we go on living in an inefficient, unjust and unconscious way that destroys everything it comes into contact with.
It would be enough to look at things in a different way, to change our point of view about the real world and an enormous amount of solutions we would have never imagined would appear right before our eyes.


I have not loved plants since I was a child, children love animals, because they are similar to us. The love for plants requires some filter of logic, we need to understand them, this is not something instinctive like love and fear for animals. The love for plants is an adult love, which requires awareness and logic, but once we have learnt it, we cannot help being fascinated. The huge number and variability of the responses plants are able to elaborate – all of them – comply with parameters and features that concern the protection of the environment, an honesty towards and in help of those of their own kind we cannot even imagine… and when I understood and saw that, then love sparked. But this is the philosophical part of my work, there is also a scientific part that takes place in the laboratory, where I can see what plants are able to do and this is really a source of continuous amazement. We have always considered them as passive beings, much more similar to inorganic than to organic matter, but they are incredibly skilled at solving any kind of problem. A root, for example, can solve a maze in a much more precise way than any animal could do. Not to mention the fact that, in the course of their evolution, they have elaborated a series of systems to manipulate animals in order to have them transport their seeds or defend them…


We are absolutely unable to destroy the planet. Even if we detonated all the atomic bombs we have and released all our poisons in the environment, we would only destroy ourselves, not the life that has existed on this planet for 4 billion years. The planet and life would surely survive, whereas we would be instantly forgotten.
We are so proud of what we are able to do from a scientific and technological point of view, of our reasoning ability, we are so proud of our brain that, in spite of being aware of it, we pretend we do not know that our behavior is leading to the destruction of what we need for our own survival.
Human beings believe they are above and outside of nature, although this doesn’t make any sense, because they would not survive without the other living beings. If plants disappeared from this planet in the future, beside the fact that whatever we eat comes from plants and so does everything we breathe and therefore we completely depend on them, in a short time the Earth would become like Mars: sterile, a ball of rock.
Plants, not humans, are the real holders of the capability of life on this planet.
We as a species have proven unable to survive. We think we have tamed plants, but taming requires consensus, it is a path that is taken by two beings together: there must be an agreement, therefore the idea that we are the ones who tame is one of human absurdities.
It is true, instead, that we are symbionts of some plants: corn, rice and wheat provide 70 percent of the calories consumed by humanity, we depend on these three species, and therefore we cannot claim we are the ones who have tamed them.
We would need some kind of Copernican revolution. We thought that man and Earth were at the center of the universe and that everything revolved around the Earth, until Galileo and Copernicus showed us that the Earth is quite an irrelevant planet revolving in a distant arm of one of the billions of existing galaxies. The same goes for life: we are only destroying ourselves. We should respect plants instead. We would only need to answer one of the ten commandments: honor your father and your mother. Father and mother, our ancestors, what we come from, what is necessary for our survival: plants.


A plant shares its information. It is a scientific truth, we can avoid to see it, we can ignore it, but this is in fact how life works. Therefore, being a scientist and having understood this truth, I thought that conforming to the behavior of plants was the best possible way. And I still firmly believe that if everyone of us behaved like plants, our world would be a better place.
It is true that humanity will always be too strong in us to fight, but I continue to trust our brain, I think it is a sort of tool that we are not using or that we use in the worst possible way, like when we give a hammer to a child. At the beginning, he destroys the house but, if he becomes an adult, over time, he will able to build new houses using that same hammer. We humans are currently quite a young species… I hope that, over time, we will manage to become adults and to use this hammer in the right way.
I write and talk about plants to try and behave like plants.
Plants show that cooperating instead of competing is much more profitable for survival, and once our species have understood this, we will be able to move on to distributed organizations, in terms of human evolution. Distributed organizations would allow us to find solutions that we are currently not even able to imagine. It would be the first step towards a new form of humanity.
There is a natural law whose value is similar to the one of the gravitation law: in nature, the decisions made by the majority of the group are always better for the group itself than any decision made by the best individual in the group.
This is a golden rule of nature, and I am optimistic, I hope we will evolve. Whereas politics are a human idea, and every political position can be evaluated from different points of view, scientific results are in a sense indisputable. Nothing prevents us from denying them, but this doesn’t make sense because it is indisputable.