Review: Brilliant Green by Stefano Mancusa and Alessandra Viola

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Cover for Brilliant Green by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra ViolaBrilliant Green is a look at plant intelligence that is as much philosophical as it is scientific. Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola survey attitudes and beliefs about plants and their place from ancient Greece until now. As they are quick to note, the question of “Are plants intelligent?” depends on the way one defines intelligence—always a contentious area. Mancuso and Viola define intelligence as “the ability to solve problems” and describe the kinds of problems plants face and their methods of overcoming tehm.

They travel the road to plant intelligence starting in ancient Greece where philosophers discussed the question, with Aristotle placing plants firmly in the inanimate category. Further discussion of differing views moves forward through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth and twenty-first, with references to Darwin, Linnaeus, and Michael Pollan among others. Scientific studies are also brought to bear as when plant roots are examined in terms of swarming and plant senses are investigated. Mancuso and Viola end the book by suggesting that some recognition of the dignity of plants might be in order—though they stress this would not mean giving up eating and using them—fortunately for us, as, as they repeatedly point out, we are utterly dependent on plants for our existence.

It is a solid survey, though there are occasional references to “common sense” that are jarring—common sense having dictated for a good long time that plants are not intelligent. Also, possibly as result of translation, sentences tend to be short and arrhythmic.

Readers looking for a quick, approachable look at attitudes and studies on plants and plant intelligence are advised to pick up Brilliant Green. Gardeners, in particular, are likely to be interested. More in-depth studies can be found elsewhere, either as a complement or a follow-up to the book.

Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence comes out March 12, 2015 from Island Press.

Pairs well with:

An interesting hour on plant communication.

Anatomy Of A Rose: Exploring The Secret Life Of Flowers by Sharman Apt Russell

Mancuso and Viola reference this on more than one occasion.


If you can find it in a Region 1 version or have a Region 2 player. It’s BBC which means gorgeous filming and David Attenborough. It was made in 1995, so it’s a bit older, but it is really good for seeing plants in action. The book version of The Private Life of Plants has wonderful photographs, but is not as compelling.

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