No one wants to inflict pain on other living things, and we are all too aware that other animals like us can feel pain in the exact same way we do. They express pain in a similar way, and because they have a similar biology to us, we have a very good understanding of how they feel pain. But with plants, it isn’t so easy to understand. They lack muscles and expressions which we use to show we are in pain, and because they are so very different to animals we cannot really interpret anything as plants feeling pain. It is because of this that most people don’t even consider the possibility that plants can feel pain, and if they did, they would disregard it, but do plants really feel pain?
For us as animals to feel pain, our nerves transmit an impulse to our brain, which is then interpreted as pain. Plants lack this kind of nervous system, or anything that resembles it as far as we know. In addition to this, pain is often accompanied by an emotional response, and by definition, pain is a combination of physical damage and emotional distress. Plants lack the capacity to to feel anything like emotion, and there is no debating this. To feel emotion, you need something like a brain, which is pretty easy to find. The brain is important, often pretty big in relation to the organism, and lots of things in the organism lead to it. In general, a brain is pretty easy to find, and in humans, lots of blood, nerves and a big boney skull give it away.
So we can safely say that plants don’t feel pain in a conventional way.
If you think of ‘pain’ meaning a response or reaction to damage, then plants may not feel pain, but perhaps they can recognise it. Many plants have evolved to produce toxins and increase healing in response to damage. But they don’t feel anything, because to feel, you need a nervous system. Besides, this argument that plants respond to damage and so can feel pain is flawed, because their response is much closer related to our immune response (inflammation etc) than our pain response, which is largely emotional.
You may hear of studies that have shown that cucumbers ‘scream’ when cut, and so plants must feel pain, but these are absurd. Firstly, screaming requires vocal chords, something that cucumbers don’t have, and secondly, screaming is again an emotional response to pain, and plants lack the nervous system required for an emotional response. These ‘screams’ are actually gasses released when plants are cut, and are simply part of the chemical response to damage, not pain.
To you and me, pain is a useful tool (despite it not being very nice). It indicates damage and allows us to respond accordingly. If you put your hand on a hot stove by accident for example, you feel pain, and so know you need to remove your hand from the stove quickly. However, plants have no need for pain, and a nervous system would never have evolved in such a thing as a plant. They are rooted in the ground and lack muscles, so they can’t respond in the same way to damage. If an insect takes a bite out of a plant, it can’t swat the insect away, but it can release nasty or toxic chemicals to get rid of the insect.
Plants cannot in any way feel pain because they lack the nervous system to facilitate such an emotion and understanding of damage. They do have their own ways of dealing with damage, which suites them just fine. Rather than feeling pain, plants will release chemicals to deter herbivores, and heal themselves. This release of chemicals is not in a scream of pain, but simply a reaction to damage.
Image courtesy of Doug Bowman
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No, plants do not feel pain because they lack the complex nervous system required to feel pain and emotions. They do respond to damage in a similar way our immune system does though.