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A biologist who believes that trees speak a language we can learn to listen to (qz.com)
308 points by evo_9 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 232 comments

The question I see is what do we define as language and communicating.

Do we mean that trees can relay information to each other, as well to other species? Sure, that makes sense.

For example, you could make a case that a large tree communicates with the saplings in the underbrush. By shading them, it is letting them know that it is the alpha individual in this area, convincing them not to grow.

We can also say that trees release chemicals that have an effect on surrounding life. This could also be called communication.

Finally, we could say that a loudly creaking tree is communicating to people around it that it is growing old, getting stress fractures, and could break off a branch that could pose a danger.

Any of the above could be considered communications.

To counter this, I could make a case that a truck tire can communicate just as effectively. It can cast a shadow which would prevent vegetation from growing. It could leach chemicals over time which would have an effect on the surrounding life. Finally, it could convey a threat by making loud bumping noises while it is bouncing towards you on a freeway.

Nature is interesting and complex. We continue to discover new and exciting things about how it works. I think anthropomorphising these effects makes them exciting, but does not necessarily add to how we understand them.

One way to differentiate "communication" is whether it is possible to avoid a behavior. The tree can't avoid shading the saplings.

Another aspect to look at (or possibly this is two, tangled up together) is whether the behavior directly induces changes in the target in a generic fashion, rather than via a reception channel that receives the information and transmutes it into an effect. Allelopathic chemical release that kills off competitors is not communication. Tightly interconnected symbiotic associations of bacteria "communicate" chemically, but it's so optimized down and the feedback loops are so tight that it's more like they're a single organism. (Are hormone releases inside your own body communication?) Jumping at someone and waving your arms is communication, but it's similarly borderline, because you're probably invoking an instinctual reaction to move away from sudden large movements.

Communication should also involve some sort of feedback loop. What does the tree "expect" the results of the sound of a creaking branch to be, either consciously, or in that anthropomorphizing way we discuss fitness and evolution? Without an answer to that, I think we can file it away as "not communication".


All that said, many trees absolutely do communicate with chemical signals. Famously, they may release warning chemicals during herbivore activity, and surrounding trees (conspecifics, but IIRC this can cross species boundaries) will ramp up production of defense chemicals.

Other plants use chemical signaling to attract predators of the herbivores that are munching on them.

And I believe I recall some process by which trees advertise themselves to mycorrhizal fungi that they would like to establish partnerships with, but I could be mistaken.

Some trees can avoid shading each other. See (1).

Your progression of thought makes a lot of sense. The question of whether any of this is deliberate, or a behavior encoded into genes and/or physical and chemical processes that can not be avoided. That being said, some people make an argument that our consciousness is also a chain chemical reaction with lots of feedback loops, and that our consciousness is just an illusionary byproduct.

I know that I presented multiple examples and all or not on the same level, no matter along which axis you evaluate them. The point is that deciding whether anyone/anything communicates is not an easy question to answer.

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crown_shyness

I suppose I would avoid any involvement of the terms "deliberate" or "intentional" in this discussion, for the reasons you mention. (Does the tree have free will in attracting herbivore predators? Do you have free will in deciding to go to work?)

Another thing to chew on: Does communication involve a level of indirection? What if your chemical signal directly modifies a behavior pathway in the target, rather than starting a cascade that dispatches to that mechanism?

I think what you’re looking for is that languages are more language when they are interpreted by something that looks more like a VM, and interpreters are more VMy when they have constructs that look like “if” and “load from memory” (letting you choose how to act on observing current data, based on past experience).

If it’s easier to study the language as a what you term “direct,” it seems less languagey, or whatever.

I personally think this distinction is distracting because you can always create a (large) bijection between encodings and their output when interpreted and then it looks “direct”, without actually writing the VM (just a huge lookup table).

I feel like smart languages just look nicer to use because they compress better (length to output blowup is exponential), and we think that seems more like human communication.

I think the dividing line is deliberate communication - a dog barks because it "wants" to communicate. But then the counter-argument rejects the will, and comes down to "aren't all our actions because of basic chemistry?". I reject that assumption - not because there's a some sort of supernatural element, but just because a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. There's a massive rift between "sun makes tree grow, preventing other trees from getting the light" and "I'm trying to sell my wares by expressing concepts of value, numbers, and desire".

I think the level of complexity is so different between these two examples that we perceive them as conceptually separate, but it is still possible that in absolute terms the same laws are being applied.

It could be that as humans we do not have enough intellectual power to understand the second example in terms of these laws. But then it could be argued that this is exactly what makes these two examples fundamentally different, since all human knowledge is limited by our intellectual capabilities.

> There's a massive rift between "sun makes tree grow, preventing other trees from getting the light" and "I'm trying to sell my wares by expressing concepts of value, numbers, and desire".

Like a tree bearing bright red, juicy-looking fruits filled with sugar and vitamins?

Are you arguing that's communication, or somehow driven by a tree's desires?

Arguably, you could say that it is driven by evolutionary pressure. Could you convince me that the term "evolutionary pressure" is a form of desire? I don't know. Does desire require consciousness? Are trees conscious?

The bar for communication isn't whether a message is decoded, but whether any given arbitrary message can be encoded, that is, you are looking for signs of encoder capability. Though I can't prove that trees do encode, I can at least prove that they can encode, and that tires cannot, because tires don't have free energy.

Also disagree about the last statement, and not specifically in this case, but generally. It isn't necessarily about anthropomorphizing, but about using abstract and compact representation of what you're talking about. Humans emit sound waves, but we abstract that to segments, time-frequency descriptions, then phonemes, morphemes, ..., and finally language. You get the point. It's easier to reason about that way.

I really like this discussion! I'm loving all these different points of looking at the situation. Thank you.

A tire bouncing along at 65 mph seems to have a lot of free energy (kinetic), as does one stuck on an icy slanted roof (potential) :). I may be unaware of the concept of "free energy" you are using here though. Can you point me to where I can find out more?

I absolutely agree that abstractions are necessary to efficiently convey concepts in a discussion. I also understand that abstractions are never perfect. What I wanted to really say is that I would be much more inclined to agree with the first and less with the second of these two statements:

Trees can transfer information to each other, and we have the ability to understand these mechanisms. Trees speak to each other in a language, and we can listen in.

It's a matter of phrasing, nuance, and insinuation. Different listeners may form different ideas when they read the above two statements.

Doesn't communication require intent?

The truck example is weird, cause it isn't trying to communicate. The person who made it may be trying to communicate something, but the truck would be a use of language, not using a language itself.

I don't think so. I get angry occasionally. I don't intend to, nor do I like it. However, my anger is communicated to those around me.

This is just an example off the top of my head.

This is a really interesting conversation and I think we will find that the true definition will elude a simple answer with solid boundaries.

> I don't think so. I get angry occasionally. I don't intend to, nor do I like it. However, my anger is communicated to those around me.

You're distinguishing conscious intent and latent or subconscious intent.

Your body and instinct are very much intending to communicate that you are upset.

Couldn't you argue that instinct doesn't "intend" anything - it's just adaptive, because evolution selected for it?

Having a temper is useful, but it wasn't designed in by any conscious entity, it's just that people who get angry tend to do better than people who don't.

> Couldn't you argue that instinct doesn't "intend" anything - it's just adaptive, because evolution selected for it?

You can argue that if you want. I'll argue the opposite: If a dog growls at me when I reach for his steak - but doesn't bite - I take that as him intending to inform me that he doesn't want me to take his steak.

It may be instinct, it may be adaptive, but it sure as hell was intended to get a message across to me.

Communication is about sending and receiving messages. A car tire cannot send or receive - it cannot communicate.

It's not adaptive for anger to be communication though. For instance, a small dog may not be willing to fight to the death against a much larger creature. But the visceral response of anger comes automatically, and the reason it's useful is because it doesn't convey information, but conceals it. You snarl so that people think you might be combative, but you are quite definitely not communicating that you are combative. A world where a growl really was communication would be a world where anyone who didn't growl could be abused.

Linguist here - in the field of biology, the word communication is also used to describe signals that are being sent out by organisms, and received as information by others, regardless of the intent of the 'sender'. This has confused me a few times as well.

I think it can add to behaving with them well because we can use the tools of empathy, which is natural for us, to decide how to work with things we deem capable of empathy (often to some extent by anthropomorphising). This is why we create a story of “ownership,” say, for pointers in Rust, to provide some empathizable account of how they work, by attributing names as being capable of owning references to other names, such that our intuitions of how those dynamics play out among people and the lifetimes of things they own help us intuit about lifetimes of pointers / their use concurrently.

I think being clear that we are using a narrative where we empathize with something by imagining its features in terms that seem familiar to our own features (somewhat overlapping with “anthropomorphising”) is ok if done mindfully.

One observation about communicating would be : the information transfer should be voluntary. Trees should be able to kind of shut up and speak up without threatening their own existence.

This article is annoyingly fluffy. Trees absolutely do communicate with each other, and with other creatures, and it's amazingly cool -- but you don't need to anthropomorphize them so drastically! It's OK for them to be a bit alien.

If you want a somewhat more solid take on the subject, The Songs of Trees is a lovely book. (Mentioned in the article.) It has digressions into geology and anthropology and politics but ties it all together, using specific trees as focal points. I don't know exactly how much of the chemical signaling stuff it goes into -- I'm still in chapter 2 -- but I found the chapter on ceibo to be fascinating. I particularly liked the section this quote is from, talking about how the natives of the area think about the forest network:

« The Western mind can perceive and understand abstractions such as ideas, rules, processes, connections, and patterns. These are all invisible, yet we believe them to be as real as any object. Amazonian rainforest spirits are analogous, perhaps, to Western reality dreams such as money, time, and nation-states. »

(I wish I had a quote with more context, but that's the best I could do on short notice.)

>Trees exchange chemicals with fungus, and send seeds—essentially information packets—with wind, birds, bats, and other visitors for delivery around the world. Simard specializes in the underground relationships of trees. Her research shows that below the earth are vast networks of roots working with fungi to move water, carbon, and nutrients among trees of all species. These complex, symbiotic networks mimic human neural and social networks. They even have mother trees at various centers, managing information flow, and the interconnectedness helps a slew of live things fight disease and survive together.

>Simard argues that this exchange is communication

That's pretty much the gist of the article without the fluff. I think the term "language" is an extreme hyperbole here, but it's interesting that rudimentary information can be passed between different trees.

How is a molecule different from a word? How is a spatial and temporal sequence of molecules different from a sentence?

I think language, like consciousness, is one of those things that a lot of people have a chauvinistic definition for...

This has been posted here before, but your comment put me in mind of http://www.davidbrin.com/nonfiction/dogmaofotherness.html. Might be worth a quick read.

I keep coming across popular discussions of this research. Each time, I am struck with the emphasis on trees "speaking", scientists understanding their "language". It's gotten to the point that it seems unlikely this is a journalist getting it wrong, or trying too hard to communicate scientific ideas. It strikes me as clickbait. This looks like the creation of intentionally overwrought analogies to fool the rubes and garner attention.

Trees emitting various molecules in reaction to environmental conditions? Sure, completely believable. Other trees picking up on those molecules, and reacting to them? Very interesting, and I can see why it makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. But to use terms like "speaking" and "language" is to conjure up ideas of consciousness, intelligence, and mental states that obviously don't apply.

I think the article goes beyond hyperbole, this is approaching the realms of esoteric pseudoscience.

The actual phenomenon of intra- and interspecies communications in the plant kingdom is absolutely fascinating - unfortunately, not much actual science shines through in this writeup.

I think the term "language" is hyperbole in the context of computer algorithm notations. I'm willing to bet that tree communications far surpass computation notations in sophistication, complexity and subtlety.

To me, there needs to be a differentiation between communicating and speaking. If you broadcast information and another entity receives it, and uses it, that is not dialogue - just reactions. Even if through an evolutionary game the species reaches effective communication (predators, plagues, etc.), and complex feedback loops emerge, resembling a dialogue, there seems to be something lacking - perhaps the ability to query the other for specific information would be a good litmus test for it?

I’ve had house cats ask me things plenty. They’ll ask whether they are welcome in my lap by stopping short of stepping on my leg and looking at me for feedback. There’s much more to communication than human spoken word.


I've had dogs communicate with me by angrily running towards me and barking. This conveyed danger and told me to get out of the way.

I've once had a small avalanche do the same as well.

People would call me looney though if I told them that the mountains communicate with me, and I listen.

The dog conveyed to you its intent to harm you (even if it was being deceitful).

The mountain communicated nothing to you.

If you were hunted and killed by a mountain lion, it would be akin to the avalanche. It did not intend to send you any message, even if you managed to spot it before it attacked you.

The dog fully intended for you to know.

According to one definition of communication, you are absolutely right. There are other ways of defining it.

You define it as requiring intent. Fair.

I can formulate just as valid of a definition of communication without intent. The way you dress communicates certain things about you, whether you intend to do so or not. My pheromones communicate a lot of things about me, even though I don't intend them to do so.

Again, it's not so simple unless you use a single narrow definition and forcefully ignore all other ones (some of which are easier to accept than others).

> perhaps the ability to query the other for specific information would be a good litmus test for it?

Do you know of Alex the grey parrot? It seems to be the only animal that we have recorded actually asking questions:


Jagadish Chandra Bose[1] was one of the earliest Indian scientist who proved Plant perception[2] experimentally

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jagadish_Chandra_Bose#Plant_re... [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plant_perception_(paranormal)

In fact paranormal link is more relevant in context of above article.


I guess a better way of putting this is that trees are communicating / fungus and other things that live in symbiosis with trees relay certain types of info.

Language and speaking not so much and it does seem s little far-fetched.

Makes me think of Wittgenstein saying "if a lion could speak, we could not understand him."

Coincidentally enough, there was a comic about this yesterday: https://existentialcomics.com/comic/245

I was thinking about communication the other day and came up with an aphorism:

“We can’t even understand other people when we speak the same language - what hope do we have of communicating with an alien life?”

By which I mean we wouldn’t even recognise the nature of the intelligence presented to us, never mind work out how to exchange information.

"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place" -GBS

It's a bit sad we can't yet fully communicate with other life here effectively. I wonder what ethical implications it would have if we ever got there. An analogy to the current state may be that of a man from another language trying to ask for directions to an autistic kid.

What does it mean to understand?

Thats why we think something like this;


These theories of humanizing trees become more and more popular lately. But it seems based on observation and speculation only, which is almost certainly completely biased against what people would like to hear: that trees are like the lord of the rings ents. How cool!

Not to mention that Waorani just evidently lack abstraction in their language, which is at the root of understanding the world, not missing some obviously networked nature of trees.

I'm disappointed that such nonscientific articles are published in hacker news.

Yes, and this is even worse:

> Haskell points out that throughout literary and musical history there are references to the songs of trees, and the way they speak: whispering pines, falling branches, crackling leaves, the steady hum buzzing through the forest. Human artists have always known on a fundamental level that trees talk, even if they don’t quite say they have a “language.”

All of these "songs of trees" are purely physical phenomena, which don't have any connection even to the biological communication of trees, let alone any mystic "language". This kind of argumentation is incredibly unscientific. ("Proving" biology from poetry? As in seriously?!)

Recommend this incredibly interesting article on plant communication and intelligence by Michael Pollan.


Even before I opened the link I had an inkling that this would be Michio Kaku level good for a documentary kind of sensationalism filled piece. I was not wrong.

While glancing through, I didn't come across any mention of "intent to communicate". Not sure if any of the links have. It seems like too much is made out of the act of "dropping off things", and perceived as communication. While it is something that we all have done in high school (or at work, sheesh) while analysing the actions of our crush to check for signals, I am pretty sure it has no place in science.

its a horribly lazy click-bait article with no references.

Often on Ayahuasca I feel extreme empathy for plants and feel like I communicate with them without spoken sounds. Sometimes I wish that it would work that way in real life, it is really wonderful and humbling feeling.

Paul Stamets would argue that IS real life, just with that channel amplified so you can finally hear it over the other channels jamming it.

One thing I find rather interesting is that a lot of people who trip on mushrooms mention that they see the world around them much more vivid and alive, especially when being out in nature. I've always wondered if this was something beyond some kind of chemical reaction in our body.

This is what alien life will be like. We will decide it is alive but not understand fully what that means.

> We will decide it is alive but not understand fully what that means.

I don't understand fully what this comment means.

If alien life has DNA (chemistry) like ours, we learn that life as we know it either started somewhere and spread or was re-invented.

If it doesn't, but is obviously alive (move on its own will, hunts, i dont know) we learn that life can exist with different chemistries.

If it's not obviously alive but we determine anyway, whichever way we do that, we've learned of a new aspect of life.

what does "what that means" mean ? ? ?

It means all of that. We find something we've never seen before. There's something about it that seems "alive". It's an instinctual feeling. We have to decide how "alive" that is. Is it alive like a human, a tree, bacteria, AI? I'm being general on purpose here. It's just neat that this conversation is still so relevant here on Earth. It's kind of like how alien the deep ocean still is to us.

I'm really enjoying this comment section conversation. I had to look up "Panspermia": the theory that life on Earth originated from microorganisms or chemical precursors of life present in outer space and able to initiate life on reaching a suitable environment. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panspermia

The odds that alien life would reinvent DNA are basically nil. If we find DNA based life elsewhere that is a slam-dunk for panspermia.

I agree, but I'm not too sure about that, but I also don't know enough chemistry to convincingly argue for the opposite..

Are there many varieties of self-replicating molecules? (which I understand is needed to start life) Maaaaybe there's only so many ways that this can get started and RNA is the "only" way to do it. In a similar way that we have a hard time imagining non-carbon life since no other element behaves in the ways that carbon does

Presuming we are exceptional finders. I think it's safe to presume the opposite though.

If by "speak a language" you mean "have unique ways of sharing information", then of course trees speak a language and of course we can learn about it.

It's not "of course" obvious that trees "share information." That's pretty cool if true and not something that all or even most plants are known to do.

Anything with DNA shares information.

Here is also slime mold 'communicating' their knowledge to other slime mold https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17491547 .

For anyone that is fascinated by nature studies and would like to be exposed to more of them rather than the article about the article I can't recommend PNAS enough. Part of what motivated me to continue graduate studies.

Here is an article from 2010 about slime mold building a network which is a more efficient version of the Tokyo subway system [1]. This is absolutely fascinating.

[1] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2010/01/22/brainle...

I remember there was some experiments on plants that were treated differently. Both receives the same physical treatment (water, sunlight, etc). The difference was the other plant used to get yelled at, or cursed at. While the others is treated with kindness, talk positive in front of it. The result was, the plant who got cursed died. I forgot where I found this, would be helpful if anyone else encountered such researches.

You're probably referring to this story which got a bit of buzz earlier in the year. https://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/ikea-bullied-a-potted...

Since it was conceived by an ad agency to promote anti-bullying (and furniture giant IKEA) there's a fair chance it wasn't the most scientifically valid experiment ever conducted.

Mythbusters ran their own test in the past and found that both insulting and being kind to plants stimulated them more than allowing them to grow in silence, but they liked death metal even more (their conclusion was that the basic theory of sound vibrations mildly stimulating growth was plausible). There's more serious research going on into plant bioacoustics: the theory some plants have evolved to respond to specific sound stimuli

This reminds me of Masaru Emoto's "The Secret Life Of Water" <https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masaru_Emoto> where he exposed water to intensely positive and negative words and sounds and photographed the crystals of frozen water from each state. A beautiful book, but also seems to have been debunked as lacking any scientific evidence, as it was more an art project then a peer reviewed experiment. <http://www.beliefnet.com/news/science-religion/2006/03/sensi...

There's another great book about this subject called The Secret Life of Trees. The basic premise is that in response to physical conditions trees will produce certain chemicals that when received through the root system by other trees cause a similar, pre-emptive response in those trees, mainly for things like fighting off diseases and bugs.

Yes, I liked that book as well. Especially because it has a lot of references to actual studies and research done at a university.

This is to the admin and mods: it appears to me that my comment got removed from the conversation. Is that correct or am I simply not seeing the entire thread of comments? Or does the system automatically remove comments that get negative points? Please advise so I understand how the commenting system works. Thank you.

Just set up Wireshark in their fungal network system and capture the packets being sent around.

I once listened to a great radio show [1] on trees communicating (in a way) and sharing resources through a network of fungus that connects their roots in a forest. I can recommend listening if that interests you more than reading a related wiki page [2], but both are cool.

[1] https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/from-tree-to-shining-tree/ [2] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mycorrhizal_network

>trees communicating (in a way) and sharing resources through a network of fungus

when i listened to that (or similar) show i was wondering - whether it is trees communicating through fungus or whether it is the fungus managing and herding the trees like say we do with cattle.

Yes, I felt the same way! It is extraordinary to consider that the fungus is able to convince the trees to trade with it, seeming almost like it has plans to facilitate many such relationships over a network of exchange - like an underground market runner.

Obfuscation via personification. It's funny how chemical communication can be sugar coated to such an extent. There's an old rule for teaching quantum mechanics -- avoid low-hanging "honey-pot" analogies, you'll just lead people to a false, but easy misunderstanding. Does that apply here? Is personification really useful here?

I recently read The Hidden Life of Trees and found it fascinating, even if I left not entirely convinced. There are certainly characteristics of some tree species that look like pro-sociality. I'll be interested to watch where the research goes.

Language is found everywhere in nature. Personally, I'm looking forward to when google translate can do cat language

"My hovercraft is full of eels"

If you were to ask what is human language, it would be the superset of sign language, spoken language, body language, etc. If you take that kind of approach when deciphering the language of cats, just as convnets can decipher the hidden logic of recognising faces, I'd imagine a rudimentary form would be a mixture of visual and auditory signals designed to "trick" the cat into responding.

Cats are smart enough to communicate with humans, I have no doubt of that. N=2, but once I had a cat that woke me up at night to point out a possum had entered the house and was hiding under a piece of furniture, and once I had one which (different house) gestured me to follow him in the chase after shooing away the intruder cat that kept stealing its food.

touche. ah yes, the mind of a cat no doubt is a very strange place

Reminds me of "Once upon a forest". A great mixture of scientific facts and research scaled against the cultural hearsay and mysticism around forests from various cultures.


Reminds me of Peter Wohlleben and his book "The Secret Lives of Trees".

Literally mentioned in the article…

He’s mentioned about halfway down.

what's the definition of language? You can communicate emotion through sound/voice, is it considered as language? Language is what makes human superior intelligently. It is the software makes us a computer rather than calculator. Language is where we store knowledge. A language needs to be able to store logic as well as data, and it needs to have a written form so that the knowledge can be stored for a very long time. I wouldn't call any signal language.

This is how a title like this fails to make impact. Whether it's information theory, semiotics or grammatology, language is soon reduced to the merest coding of information, implicit or explicit, as any medium of sense (or non-sense). I could argue an algorithm is, by virtue of its operation, a language exchange. The universe too.

One should perhaps ask if there is something akin to grammatical structures in this system of roots and fungi.

Humans can't perceive a lot of things, and on top of that, we have egos that makes us feel superior even though in reality, we are the only ones on the planet who can't live in harmony with other species.

If you ever had a cat and really observed it and communicated with it, you know it has feelings and emotions. Birds have it also, so does pigs, horses... But we just ignore all that when it's convenient for us to eat them.

I'm not a big fan of humanity. We are pretty awful.

> we are the only ones on the planet who can't live in harmony with other species.

This "harmony" is really just interlocking loops of unconstrained growth, followed by running out of resources, and starvation while the food supply regenerates. It only looks pretty if you ain't looking very carefully.

In fact, human beings seem to be the only ones observed with a capability for restraint. We're not very good at practicing it, but we are at least capable of it. Have you seen a pack of animals or plants jointly deciding to voluntarily forgo extra food, so that they don't exceed carrying capacity of the place they live in?

Your definition of restraint seems based on that one example.

What about when my cat restrains from eating all of its treats at once? Or the restraint any animal takes through a farming process like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphid#Ant_mutualism?

Well, your cat will also likely be very cruel if it ever caches a mouse or a bird, so I'll raise you that for harmony :). And I'm a cat owner. RE ants, I'm not a biologist so I won't speculate how exactly that relationship came to be, but it doesn't seem to me that there was any meeting of minds involved - I would guess evolutionary feedback loops again.

I made a pretty generalized argument, but the point is, what we observe as harmony in nature - the balance between predator and prey, the various species of animals and plants (and bacteria and viruses) living next to each other - is a dynamic process that involves lots of blood, death and starvation. The order in nature isn't negotiated - it's an aggregate of countless number of conflicts.

Related, recently on HN, "Trillions of Viruses Fall from the Sky Each Day": https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16839636. The money quote from the article is mentioned here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16840575.

"One study estimated that viruses in the ocean cause a trillion trillion infections every second, destroying some 20 percent of all bacterial cells in the sea daily."

That's nature's harmony at work.

> Well, your cat will also likely be very cruel if it ever caches a mouse or a bird, so I'll raise you that for harmony :)

We had a cat once who, we found out, liked to sit in the berry bushes in the garden, wait for a bird to land, and then kill them. She didn't didn't eat them - she much preferred the cat food she got. She just murdered bird after bird and left them to rot.

Cats certainly are not the best examples of harmony.

Humans wanted cats that would kill all the pests in their farms.

Don't leave cats like this outside. It's not okay for them to kill wildlife.

Would you yourself consider lifetime seclusion? Why, you cause harm to billions of living creatures every time you venture outside. (Although sitting in solitary jail cell only reduces that by a negligible factor). And that's only taking into account direct harm, third or fourth-order consequences of being out there are impossible to even start comprehending.

If not, why you think it's okay to condemn another living creature to such a life sentence? After all, its well-being is just as important as yours, is it not so?

Christ, just don't keep a cat if it bothers you so much.

It's pretty clear its well-being is not just as important as ours — as a society we have decided this; we don't give cats open-heart surgery, it's not illegal to kill a cat, and cats also have no rights.

Cats seem pretty alright with "lifetime seclusion", anyways. As with other domesticated pets, the only reason they exist is because they are, on the whole, happy being domesticated; if they all hated their lives (in a way that we were aware of), we wouldn't breed them to begin with.

Are (aren't?) cats the only animal that kills for fun, rather than food?

(Apart from the scum that are some humans...)

>Are (aren't?) cats the only animal that kills for fun, rather than food?

Obviously not. All kinds of animals kill. Also it's not "for fun" in the way we're having fun. They don't plan on entertaining themselves that way, weighing and ignoring the moral impact, etc.

It's an instinct they have. It's training to hone their hunting skills -- which they need evolutionary to survive -- even if they we take there of them for the last 5-10.000 years (which is very little in evolutionary terms)

Actually, there are quite a few. [1]

Since it seems to me that "fun" or "malice" or other motivations cannot be measured that precisely in animal kingdom, i think it is fair to say that surplus killing covers your question.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surplus_killing

Depends on what you define as fun, what we're observing is more like "not for immediate need" and/or "not for food" - and when the immediate need for food arises, the first reflex is the cat food, but that obviously doesn't happen in nature. A dog is most certainly capable of attacking you even though it's not hungry or feeling unsafe.

It's like you say my cats took and hidden my sunshades, car keys, electronic components from my lab desk to make fun of me.

It's not, it's just their nature, which in other words is what they evolved to do.

Lots of animals have been observed to kill others for no known or obvious reason; primates and dolphins are two I’m aware of. My working dogs would, too, considering they wouldn’t eat the pests they killed and there was no upside for them other than praise. That should count I think.

... dolphins ...

The amount of birds and mice our cats used to bring in perfectly alive and unharmed was quite astonishing and one time ended up leaving a large amount of Sparrow droppings all over my room. Of course they were probably just trying to teach us humans to hunt.

> Well, your cat will also likely be very cruel if it ever caches a mouse or a bird

I'm no expert but I vaguely recall hearing from non-trivial sources that this is a common but inaccurate misrepresentation as regards their "intent". They are not "toying" with their hunting target so much as obeying a powerful instinct to be careful to kill it with the minimum risk of infection from getting even a small scratch in return from a target that is "playing dead" as a defense/evade tactic.

>What about when my cat restrains from eating all of its treats at once?

What about it? Other animals don't restrain, and even a cat can eat too many of its treats at once, and end up obese.

Here's some info on cats:





Whoa, domesticated cats are exactly not an example of wind animals. They're more like part of human culture.

Restrain is all over the place in nature. Unconstrained growth followed by starvation is the hallmark of primitive processes like fire and basic life forms.

Most individuals grow up to a genetically predetermined size. Colonies adapt their size to the amount of resources they have available, optimizing for long term perenniality.

The human economy behaves like a primitive life form, at the moment.

Ecosystems are usually resilient to such threats, but the fact we've been able to tap into fossil fuel gives us too large an advantage for them to strike back.

I'm not sure "restraint" is the correct word in the examples you cite. Individual size is typically the result of a combination of evolutionary selection pressure and physics. Colonies are constrained by resources which influence reproductive rates.

Everything in biology is the result of a combination of evolutionary selection and physics, I don't understand where you're going with that.

These are both instances of restraint hard-coded in DNA. Not growing/reproducing in some circumstances is part of the program.

Contrast it with cancer, or breakthrough, overaggressive infectious agents that kill their host quickly (but gradually give way to milder versions of themselves).

Some cancers grow so fast that part of the tumors die of necrosis (and off course most often the host ultimately dies).

Maybe you should qualify this as "planned restraint" o "deliberate restraint". In most animals "restraint" is a largely automated mechanism. E.g.: if the food is scarce, fertility decreases (and/or post-birth mortality increases).

Many species have finely tuned territorial instincts that have evolved to do exactly that: restrain growth to sustainable numbers. Individuals who fail to dominate sufficient territory won't breed at all. Just yesterday I observed two swans in busy border negotiations, a quiet "dance" that has more similarities with a proof of work algorithm than with an actual fight.

On a macro level, sure, it was unconstrained growth and the resulting hardship that caused these patterns to evolve, but that evolution has happened many times.

You're very right, and I don't like the way the OP framed the argument. The problem is 1) even though we're capable, as you note, we're terrible at utilizing it, and 2) we're so much more powerful than any other species, so when we do lack restraint, we cause much more damage.

There's fed sharks at aquariums and there's tigers with human trainers. When well fed, predators don't care about the potential food presented.

For nature? There's reports of predators in wild ignoring humans, possibly because they ate already. One obvious example are snakes.

> Have you seen a pack of animals or plants jointly deciding to voluntarily forgo extra food

Actually, the only animals I know to become obese are humans, and animals that are attached to humans.

You may say it's because they don't have an unlimited supply of food, but actually, many animals do, or used to have before we destroyed it.

Of course, they don't really forgo extra food, they use it to multiply their number instead of providing more to an individual. So it's not real restrain.

Obesity comes from the type of food you eat, not just quantity. Humans are the only species that invented glucose-fructose syrup and other highly processed foods. Feed that to any wild animal an they will become obese as well.

Obesity comes from quantity, the type of food is what overrides our natural restraint mechanisms to enable quantity.

Not. At. All.

Obesity simply comes from consuming more calories than you need. You can (and people have) loose weight by eating McDonalds if you wanted—you just have to make sure the amount of calories you get from it is less than what you actually need.

As the other commentator mentions, the only thing processed foods might bring, is trying to break our self-restraint by being delicious in certain ways.

This is overly simplistic. Our bodies process sugars in vastly different ways. Fructose for example was historically rare for us to have and is metabolized in basically unlimited quantity as fast as possible by the liver and transferred to fat reserves.

So yes, quantity matters but you will have incredible difficulty not putting on weight from high fructose foodstuffs because your body will tell you "eat more food" to feed your muscles well before it decides to give up any fat reserves.


Sure, but the view that it's just sugar that's bad, is even more overly simplistic, and in fact harmful. Obesity is always more deeply rooted in habits, comfort, stress and the way a person deals with things, than it is with just sugar---it's a behavioral issue that needs to be tackled at a deeper level. One calorie is one calorie, regardless of were it comes from.

You'd find very little actual scientific backing for your statement, from papers that haven't been debunked[0]. That sugar itself is bad is an age old meme that needs to die. Similarly, that kids get hyperactive with sugar is also a myth[1].

Now, your other argument that you might "feel" hungrier, is something else. You have still gotten the energy you needed, it just doesn't feel as filling, perhaps.

[0] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6

[1] http://www.mortenelsoe.com/blog/sukkeroghyperaktivitet great write up if you can read Danish or translate it, or just check the sources in the bottom

Your reference [0] is talking about the concept that such a thing as "sugar addiction" exists. That is not at all what I was arguing. The fructose metabolic pathway is well known, and particularly in the US, excess fructose in the diet is common due to the corn industry.

have you ever seen a jaguar let caught gazelle go, just because it's full? llamas restraining pooping only on specific spots to not ruin grasslands (maybe not direct example but I saw it recently all over Bolivia, pretty impressive environmental protection).

you can find abundance of examples of both restraint and greed/cruelty in animal kingdom, although it seems to me restraint is far more prevalent. Just like among humans

I'm not a big fan of humanity. We are pretty awful.

Self loathing of the human race needs to stop, there are an incredible number of hard working people making the world a better place one step at a time. Our impact on the world barely registers to past extinction level events. Humanity has just as much right to exist and be as any other species. If you don't like what we are doing, work to improve things.

Are you aware how many countless people have and do work to improve your quality of life, protect you, make sure you are fed and watered and provided with distractions like HN to complain about how awful we are.

"Self loathing of the human race needs to stop"

I completely agree.

"Humanity has just as much right to exist and be as any other species"

I completely agree.

"Are you aware how many countless people have and do work to improve your quality of life, protect you, make sure you are fed and watered and provided with distractions like HN to complain about how awful we are."

It is a symbiosis. You make it sound like a parasitic relationship.

I completely agree with your first paragraph, but I have some things about the second one:

> "Are you aware how many countless people have and do work to improve your quality of life"

Aren't most people do it for selfish reasons? (Money, feel good about yourself, ...)

Police protects us, for the money they get. Agriculture delivers us food, for the money they get. Water stations deliver us water, for the money they get. Touristic attractions give us joy, for the money. PETA, "saves animals", for the money. Youtube provides fun and education, for the money.

If these organisations didn't receive our money, will they still provide us with those things?

The only noble profession these days is a fireman, which don't get as much money as they are worth to the society!

Of course there are people that are genuine "good", that will help others just because they want it to, but most of the people do something, wanting something in return.

I don't agree with the parent poster that we should hate ourselves, but we aren't angels too ;)

What if money didn't exist, where would we be right now as a civilization?

if we didn't develop a system of exchange (which reduces to a single unit, 'money' in any sophisticated civilisation), we wouldn't be a civilisation


There has been global cancers before. With the difference that we may be able to restrain ourselves.

As an example see the great oxygenation event. Where bunch of selfish green algea pumped waste product into the atmosphere killing almost all anaerobic life.

Then there is the carboniferous period where trees grew so much that due to lack of lignin breaking fungi they basically sucked out all CO2 from atmosphere causing global glaciation and killing themselves in the process.

Life has been crapping itself since the very start. We are no worse than others, however we have the chance to be better.

"As a species we seem to be a cancer on the planet."

This platitude is actually interesting in this context. It connects multiple threads:

* One of the previous major extinctions was the Oxygen Holocaust [1], caused by photosynthesizing cyanobacteria. It killed pretty much everything alive back then. And turned our Earth into a snowball to boot.

* This oxygen is a major contributor to CANCER, via free radicals etc. It leads to a faster (and more ruthless, more side effects) metabolism, enabling evolution of highly reactive creatures such as us.

* And trees, the "speaking organisms" under discussion, are one of the major producers of this highly volatile, carcinogenic O2 substance.

Tongue in cheek? Maybe. But hopefully no worse than the naive "humans are a cancer to the planet".

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Oxygenation_Event

> we are the only ones on the planet who can't live in harmony with other species.

Oh boy, this is a very naive and emotionally involved perception of things. A tendency to restore ecological equilibria is not the same as harmony. There is no trend for stability or perfection, that's only an illusion based on the short lifespan of humans. That's not what science and archaeology tells us.

For most species there is no resting in appreciation of creation, no moment of weakness, no mercy. Most everything wants you dead. Wants your air, your food, your space, your niche. You fall, you stumble and there is already mold growing between your toes. In the eyes of a human there might be a fiction, a notion of meaning and beauty. For everything else there is just thermodynamics.

Especially in light of the Great Oxygenation Event, we really seem more like the only species to ever have the option of creating a global ecosystem collapse and also the option of maybe not! Those early photosynthetic microbes had no choice and no idea what they were doing.

"Humans are the most unique creatures on Earth. Well…not really. Yes we have developed technology, language, society, and have a great capacity for abstract thought. But if you look at our genetics, at our biology, we find that we may not be that unique after all. Primates share a vast majority of our genes and have organized their families into something akin to a social structure. Dolphins and whales communicate with diverse types of language using their larynx in ways similar to how we make sounds." - Carl sagan, pale blue dot

I too enjoy watching the perfect harmony of a lion eating a live impala

The huge difference is that lions dont put impalas into huge factories, where they feed them afwul food, rob them of any dignitiy, slaughter them by the masses, ship them across the globe in order to throw half of it away because it didnt hit the market’s taste of the month!

Hey, you're right. Although another huge difference is that lions didn't evolve to be intelligent enough to learn to farm, invent mathematics, leave the planet etc. We are hunters, and what is going on now is a logical progression of what hunters who got smarter and more powerful would do. It sounds silly but I think that if any other hunter animal evolved like us, it would lead to very similar results.

I am not a fan of the mass farming, but there are thousands of variables that lead to our current treatment of cattle and so on.

How many people do you know have left the planet, or could solve a mathematical theorem, eh?

The difference is that before, we hunted enough to eat, but not so much that the species died, whereas now we are willing to exterminate a species if it means we can get rid of other versions of us ('Every buffalo dead, is a dead indian').

Seems like we've got more callous and stupid the more this 'intelligence' was displayed.

The name of the people that had leaved the planet is not exactly a secret.

> we hunted enough to eat, but not so much that the species died

Yep, the myth of the good savage. Mammooth, Moas, European Wolly Rhino, Megalania giant varanus, Meiolania turtle, Sabre tooth tiger, Cave bear or Australian Diprotodon could tell us a different hystory.

> The name of the people that had leaved the planet is not exactly a secret.

Yes, but all that proves is that some subset of humanity is capable of doing it. Not humanity as a whole.

> Yep, the myth of the good savage.

Actually a lot of the verbal culture of many tribes show that they understand how they are dependent on the animals for their food source, and you can find active efforts not to overhunt in many cultures. It seems to me the main thing that has increased isn't necessarily intelligence, but greed.

> Yes, but all that proves is that some subset of humanity is capable of doing it. Not humanity as a whole.

What's the point of this argument? Yes, humanity as a whole has become very specialised. With the consensus of the community and enough will power a subset of humanity can achieve almost anything we can conceive. Is this any different than toting dolphin pods that pass on their hunting tricks? Or captive gorillas that can communicate? Potential is not limited to the lowest common denominator.

> How many people do you know have left the planet, or could solve a mathematical theorem, eh?

Infinitely times as many as there are lions which can do these things – namely, more than zero people vs. zero lions.


> How many people do you know have left the planet

Not yet but she's planning[?] to leave "soon"


Mars One is noted as being very short on funding, lacking critical concepts about hardware, life support, electrical power supply, and has been criticized as glossing over logistics, medical concerns, and protection against space radiation.

>> The huge difference is that lions dont put impalas into huge factories, where they feed them afwul food, rob them of any dignitiy, slaughter them by the masses, ship them across the globe in order to throw half of it away because it didnt hit the market’s taste of the month!

If they could, they would.

They would if they could

Who knows... i don’t believe intelligence necessarily implies tendencies for mass murder

It's not about tendencies. Intelligence is about being better at getting what you want. A lion wants to eat impala. A smart lion would figure out how to breed them in captivity, and it's only a small step from there to factory farming.

Agreed. Every hunt a lion does imposes fatal risk of its own. The lion could break its leg running and falling in some hole. It could break its teeth getting kicked in the face by the impala. Any of that even could cause it to not be able to hunt any more, and lose its status in the herd.

A smart lion wouldn't want to risk itself like that just for a meal.

How many smart lions would kill every impala and then wonder if they can switch to grass? :) Farming is after all pretty sustainable. But how about the things that aren't? We're over-exploiting basically every limited resource we have. Ironically we kind of ignore the unlimited ones, like wind, solar, etc.

We're cutting down forests like there's no tomorrow and they literally make our oxygen. And worse, sometimes this destruction is totally gratuitous and avoidable. Save for those who really need a couple more millions of $ to "survive".

> How many smart lions would kill every impala and then wonder if they can switch to grass?

Probably a few, then they'd figure out the concept of saving something for later, just as human farmers did countless of centuries ago :).

> We're over-exploiting basically every limited resource we have. Ironically we kind of ignore the unlimited ones, like wind, solar, etc.

A nit, but the reason we're "kind of ignoring" renewables is because fossil fuels are better. They're much more energy dense. They're easier to handle (just burn to release energy; meanwhile, photovoltaics is a very advanced piece of technology, and we most likely wouldn't have it if we didn't start with fossil fuels). They can be processed for other things - e.g. lubricants, plastics. Fossil fuels are absurdly useful. That's why they're so popular. But we're slowly getting there with renewables, not that both the tech and the will to use it seems to be here.

> We're cutting down forests like there's no tomorrow and they literally make our oxygen. And worse, sometimes this destruction is totally gratuitous and avoidable. Save for those who really need a couple more millions of $ to "survive".

Here's the thing - it's a social problem at this point. Something I believe smart lions would face too. We've spawned an economy that makes us do these things to survive, even though at least some of us individually realize they're monumentally stupid. Those are hard problems, because they involve getting a lot of people to agree to something that isn't in their immediate short-term interest.

Actually most of the oxygen is generated by ocean plankton. The trees, sure have their part.

A lion wants to eat. It's not murder, it's feeding. Putting a cow in a field of grass is no different than putting a lion in a field of cow.

"Awful" food? "Dignity"? It doesn't make sense to judge the lives that these animals have chosen on human standards. Chicken is the most successful bird in the world, and cattle and sheep the most successful mammals. I'd say the symbiotic relationship with humans has worked out quite well in terms of reproductive success.

The OP may not have realized it but “the dignity of animals” is really a parsed reflection of how we treat and see ourselves. In a sense, It’s not about the animals.

Life feeds on life. No animal would hesitate for a second to eat you, if it could without risk. Even herbivores, have you seen cows/deer/horses eat little chicks? Life then replicates without limits until all resources are consumed and it cannot be supported anymore.

We are in fact, (we can't know for sure but I think it's very reasonable to assume) the only species capable of seeing this and MAYBE,hopefully control ourselves before we do the same thing.

We are pieces of shit, but at the same time we're the only animal with potential to escape the bad parts of our nature

Most animals live in constant fear, dirt, with parasites and depressing social relationships. I bet that if you got to know few impalas, you would state that most of them are jerks who don’t live long anyway. Lions also may leave their prey’s parts to smaller carnivores. The only difference is that they don’t throw it out since they eat right from the floor and then walk away.

  Humans can't perceive a lot of things
More things than any other organism. Already more than most organisms using our biological sense organs. Our sight and hearing are pretty good, even by animal standards. But then we developed tools to transcode signals not directly observable by our biological sense organs. We perceive more than all other organisms combined.

  we are the only ones on the planet who can't live in harmony with other species.
We are the only ones that partially attempt to live in harmony with other species and partially succeed. All others care nothing for any other species than their own. And often not even that.

  We are pretty awful.
We are awesome and can become even more amazing.

>Humans can't perceive a lot of things, and on top of that, we have egos that makes us feel superior even though in reality, we are the only ones on the planet who can't live in harmony with other species.

Harmony is just the result of a struggle + emerging balances.

Left to their own devices, even cats could eradicate entire species of birds, diseases could exterminate whole populations of animals, and so on. And of course a big rock from space could end life on earth in its entirety.

>If you ever had a cat and really observed it and communicated with it, you know it has feelings and emotions. Birds have it also, so does pigs, horses... But we just ignore all that when it's convenient for us to eat them.

Well, there's no rule that something with feelings shouldn't be eaten.

In fact animals (who you said "live in balance") eat other animals all the time.

Besides, we hurt people's feelings all the time. An employee might not want to flip burgers for 10 hours every day and little pay , but we don't care about their feelings, we take advantage of their life's circumstances and need to pay the rent and have them do it.

With animals, we go a step beyond, and also eat them.

Besides, isn't the main story of the article that trees have a sort of language and a sort of feelings too? Which means that the "has feelings, we shouldn't eat" theory would leave us with nothing to it, since plants now have feelings too.

Maybe crops and vegetables don’t feel like trees, still something. As for fruit trees, we eat only their specific reproduction phases, who I believe can’t talk to each other anyway and have no parental connections.

Cats, birds, and pigs are in turn happy to eat humans when convenient.

I think he mean the main difference would be that animals mostly kill (probably applies to most of their other actions) out of need (protection, food). Humans destroy things because they can many times. Sometimes it's not about needs... unless for example you consider greed to be a need.


It's not the behaviour that is unique to humans; it is the ability to act counter to instinct, counter to appetite, to choose and be aware of the consequences. We alone can be held accountable for our actions.

Unique? I specifically used the word mostly and not unique. And the scale is vastly different. Also "killing" was just an over-encompassing metaphor.

I'm not implying that needless killing is the only, or the main thing that sets us apart from animals, except in the context of the comment I was replying to (about lions feeding on an impala). But it's taking this kind of actions despite having the ability to be aware consequences that makes us special. You would expect the threshold for some of these actions to increase with these newfound abilities but it went the other way around. A person is willing to kill a last member of a species not for survival but for little more than a trophy on a wall.

There are probably far more things that set us apart from animals than instinct or awareness of consequence. Most children actually lack these abilities because they are partly taught, they have to be groomed. So the main difference might be that we are able to learn up to a point that no animal can rival us. This is the perfect example of what a human can be without "learning": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxana_Malaya

Learning English: They kill out of need, out of seems to me more like without. They kill without need. In Spanish we should say they kill because of need. How "out of" became because?

Anyway, if you are out of luck I hope it is not because you are lucky.

Well... "out of necessity" is actually an idiom, meaning "because you have to". Since need and necessity are very similar in meaning I assume this is a correct statement. But I'm not a native English speaker this may of course be a common mistake.

Regardless, I hope the idea stands.

Since we are trying to learn the tree language, I hope people don't get annoyed if I wonder about what is the mental state that converts "out of" into "because".

If necessity was a generator, a vector or force for movements or actions, then I could understand that use of "out of". Out of indicates the result produced by a force, algorithm or oracle. But I consider necessity not as a generator or force but as a passive state. Hence I wonder what is the mechanism for this use. If we collapse the concepts of passive and active then I think language get corrupted and poissoned. Analogies are not fruitful because they go far beyong the logical ground. I believe that if you are going to get something out of a state then that state should be a generator. I don't know if what I am trying to say is sound but I sharply feel the unsoundness of linguistic non logically generated derivations

There is a great explanation of the difference between 'because of' and 'out of' in an answer to this question on English Language Learners SE [1]:

> You should use "because of" in cases like this when the thing in question is the catalyst for something to happen, and use "out of" when the thing in question metaphorically "gives rise" to something else.

[1]: https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/115445/can-i-use-bec...

I always assumed out of necessity idiom means no other choice. And because of would mean I have choices and this is the justification for the one I made.

For the purpose of the comment "out of need" felt a lot more appropriate for an animal that kills.

Perhaps originally this use of "out of" indicates a mental state in which change is promoted, in which you fight against an hostile passive state, so you bootstrap from your needs.

Perhaps that kind of mental state could be used for sentiment analysis. The probability of that use of "out of" increases when you are in a mental state that promotes flipping active and passive states. For example, when you not any longer want to cope with your actual state, going to extremes: you put yourself in a fight for survival state that promotes a revolution by beating the slavery chains.

Edited many times.

If you want a rationalization for that idiom, think of a state machine: they are in a state of need, therefore they kill. Note also how acting "out of" does not necessarily imply transitioning away, e.g. company x operating out of city y.

The grammatical nuance between out of need and out of luck (nice find btw) would be doing (out of need) vs being (out of luck): you might win out of luck, and later lose because you are out of luck. Wastefully spend out of wealth, then be out of wealth, and so on.

I think it’s somewhat reasonable if you interpret it “the killing came out of need”. As in, the animal had a need (to eat, or defend themselves) and from that need came killing. So they “kill out of need”. Not sure if that helps!

(Also, fwiw, you could also say “they kill because of need” or “they kill because they need to”, so because works in English as well)

The construction "out of need" is actually good old Latin - ex necessitas. Which I hope makes sense to a Spanish speaker.

"Out of luck" is weirder. German has ausgehen to mean "run out" (as in "our supplies are running out"), but it's not quite the same...

"out of" just means "from" in many cases, you can switch them and be understood even if it may sound weird. The parent is an example, here's another:

Where are you from? / Where are you out of?

Animals kill "for fun" too. Not just cats (example: https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2018-04-30/wolf-a... -- note: that was a single wolf, not a pack; and do you know what happens when a marten finds its way into the chicken coop? Chicken genocide).

This discussion reminds me of the Tsavo Man-Eaters - a pair of lions that decided to focus mainly on hunting humans for food.

Although there were possible health factors that drove these lions to preying on humans, I find it an interesting aside to this conversation.


Do other animals go to war, commit genocide, or in the context of our relationship with other animals, do anything similar to factory farming.

Yep, if they have sufficient intelligence and social organisation:


Ant wars and ant/termite wars are fascinating to witness.

Humans cannot perceive a lot of things. However, given the right conditions (post-apocalyptic world?), it would not take a lot of time before humans become perceptive again. A lot many will be wiped out, but as a species we will find a way.

I have a couple of dogs and I know what you mean. With the level of intelligence we possess, we should have achieved more. Technological achievements mean nothing when 70+% human population of the world struggles to survive. I think we use too much of our left brain and too little of the right. A balance is what is needed. Understanding this needs intelligence.

In that vein there is "The Great Silence" - a short, beautiful and sad story by Ted Chiang: http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/texts/the-great-silence/.

Relevant short story from Ted Chiang et al: http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/texts/the-great-silence/

> But we just ignore all that when it's convenient for us to eat them.

I don't necessarily agree with your misanthropy (I don't see the broader point of it - "my plan for humanity: let's self-annihilate, we suck"?).

But I'm interested in psychology. And there are studies that show that people perceive cows as dumb while eating them. When they get asked before and after eating meat, the same people said that cows are intelligent beings.

So there are cognitive processes in place to make it possible that we eat meat despite the fact that we normally know about the human-like qualities of the animals we eat.

I think we can learn a lot about the difference between humans and other animals when we focus our efforts on understanding the excuses and biases that we develop using our cerebral parts of our brains and the prefrontal neocortex.

> I'm not a big fan of humanity. We are pretty awful.

Bear with us and have a little bit of compassion. I'm glad every time a human being is able to be positive despite the fact that every human has the potential to destroy other lives.

I would love to read some of those studies. That sounds fascinating!

> despite the fact that we normally know about the human-like qualities of the animals we eat.

Didn't there used to be whole cultures (like the Aztec, I think) where cannibalism was a mostly normal part of life? That seems like a pretty extreme version of this cognitive dissonance.

"You're human but you're tasty and I'm hungry soooo ..."

Start here [1] and see this [2] for a light introduction. Then proceed with cognitive dissonance, implicit belief systems and cognitive biases [3]. Have fun!

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychology_of_eating_meat

[2]: https://youtu.be/ao2GL3NAWQU

[3]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

I found the book "Beyond Words - What Animals think and feel" pretty interesting in this case


Humans have lots of failings, its true - in terms of perception in particular. On the other hand, we're also horribly prone to anthropomorphism.

I assume you have - or have had - a cat? Which you watered and fed, provided with shelter and a modicum of social interaction?

...and then the cat goes out and catches a mouse. Not because it is hungry, only because it saw the mouse and just had to catch it. After discarding the mouse - it wasn't hungry, you see, just having stuffed itself with KittyPro (tm) (with Bull Elk, Nearly Extinct Herbivore and Baby Seal) - and goes on to catch a few birds which were happily hopping around, unaware of the presence of a killer in their midst.

Can you blame the cat? No, not really. Cats are hunters, being hunters they are playful - play being a way to keep their hunting skills sharpened - and they just have to strike when the opportunity arises.

Can you blame the human? No, not really. If the human would not water and feed the cat and provide it with a modicum of social interaction the cat would walk, simple as that.

Does this mean the cat 'lives in harmony with other species'? Of course is doesn't, that cat acts like a trophy hunter in a safari park.

Ever seen a chicken coop raided by a weasel? We lost 16 chickens in one night once, all of them killed by some nasty critter which had managed to wriggle its way into the chicken's safe space. All of them bitten in the neck and left to bleed out.

Can you blame the weasel who clearly killed far more than it could ever hope to eat, let alone the fact that it even could not get any of the chickens through the keyhole it used to enter the coop in the first place? Can you blame the human who thought to protect the chickens against just such mayhem but failed?

Does that mean the weasel 'lives in harmony with other species'? Of course is doesn't, that weasel acted like one of Stalin's henchmen, killing everything in sight.

Humans are intelligent primates and as such are capable of bigger feats. Bigger in both ways, from the human equivalent of what those cats and weasels are doing to, say, a group of humans cooperating to get a beached whale back into the sea.

> we are the only ones on the planet who can't live in harmony with other species.

That's not true. Every species can't live in harmony with other species. Go read about what happened to native species on pacific islands when rats, cats, snakes, etc were introduced. They wiped out entire ecosystems of islands.



Go read about ants.


They won't live in harmony with each other. A single ant colony has wiped out much of the world's ant population.

Even fish like the european carp in a span of a few hundred years wiped out much of other fish in the US and now dominate pretty much every lake and river in a continent.

> If you ever had a cat and really observed it and communicated with it, you know it has feelings and emotions. Birds have it also, so does pigs, horses... But we just ignore all that when it's convenient for us to eat them.

Cats, birds, pigs and even horses eat other animals. As a matter of facts, cats are devastating ecosystems around the world and causing many birds and mammals to go extincts.



> I'm not a big fan of humanity. We are pretty awful.

You are the one putting humans on a pedestal. Humans are animals just like cats, horses, etc. We are no more awful than any other animals.

Actually, you could argue humans are less awful than other animals because we actually consciously decided to save some species. A cat or a wolf or a pig would never do that. They will consume/kill until there isn't an animal left.

How do other species live in harmony? Ever listed to the into scene in lion king? We're just animals who got smarter. It's part of the "harmony" you speak of for animals to eat other animal.

One of the most awful trait in humans I observe is disdain fo the own species in favour of other. There is no harmony in the nature, just an equilibrium. We are the nature as is everything else.

I agree. If we're speaking about an understanding of the deep connection between all species in this planet, and how it all relates to extinct species and old ecosystems, the human being is the only species in all of Earth's history that ever became aware of it.

People often seem to assume non-human species partake of some universal wisdom that humans have left behind. This is a pretty shallow narrative of "lost innocence", that ignores what other species are and how they relate to each other.

If there is an animal that does care, that is Homo sapiens.

We are definitely not part of any equilibrium right now.

> If you ever had a cat and really observed it and communicated with it, you know it has feelings and emotions. Birds have it also, so does pigs, horses... But we just ignore all that when it's convenient for us to eat them.

But isn't nature so metal?

Through all its self-judgment, I view mankind as a way out of local maxima. A complete death might happen with or without humans, but I put my chips in humanity.

Umm, no, more like humans are a lot more like other animals than we care to admit.

We have some oppossums ND raccoons that constantly try to break in to our chicken coop. If successful, they will, without fail, kill every single chicken they can get their hands on. They'll only be able to eat one or so. But they will kill all of them. Either out of greed or just for the fun of it.

I think you can be more empathetic with humans too, interpret me right. One could object that you are anthropomorphizing the natural world, meaning your sentiment is still in the end just rooted in the human experience. But I think that's fair to do. I'd just like to add, as the Swedish dramatist Stringberg once wrote: "Human beings are to be pitied!"

I agree and emphathise with all your points.

I have an alternative perspective on the question of how harmonious we are with our surroundings. I'm not peddling a wordview here, but I think this is an interesting thought exercise. What if we are in harmony with nature? Yes, taking into account all our seemingly disharmonious traits, greed, self-obsesssion, social and environmental irresponsibility.

Conceptually, it's simpler (or more elegant?) to consider that we are in harmony with nature, like every other of its elements, but our definition of harmony, in other words it's our perception that is lacking.

If nature, as in life on earth, is a fractal of ecosystems, when we perceive that one fails, we change our focus by one level to the containing or a contained ecosystem and repeat the process of perceiving whether or not it is failing. The most basic example is a sickly animal that is then fed upon by predators, or medium-height plantlife withering due to expanding tree canopy. If it's failing, we again step to the next ecosystem; if we perceive that it's ok, then we consider the previous ecosystems to be ok too. As an extreme case, we could keep going this way, if we thought that everything on earth is failing, until we got to the "top-level" ecosystem of life on earth -- the earth itself. We could then just generalize the definition of nature to the cosmos as well, and the process would continue.

To come back to humans, while it's true that we are killing life on earth, we don't have to step far in terms of the cosmos to find harmony in it. In this view, the deeper point is that harmony is a property of perception, not the universe. Or in other words, the universe is universally harmonious.

I think you are misunderstanding the equilibrium of nature. There's no great and beautiful mutually orchestrated harmony. What happens invariably is a predator hunts a prey to the point of scarcity. At this point, assuming that prey was the predator's primary diet, the predators begin to literally starve to death which lowers their population. This, in turn, gives the prey a chance to increase their population with fewer predators. Over time this results in a dynamic equilibrium that gives the illusion of harmony - though it's really just controlled by starvation. At times, this equilibrium is never reached and one species or another ends up completely dying off (or getting killed off). And if that species that died off had not spread elsewhere, we get an extinction. Something that's been happening for millions and likely billions of years. Long before humanity entered onto the scene in any case.

I think humans today are, by far, the most harmonious creature on this planet. We have the ability to hunt absolutely anything to the point of extinction if we so desired. And while on occasion we do end up doing just that, for the most part we manage to create an artificial balance by restraining ourselves, diversifying our diet, and artificially multiplying the numbers of the species that we prefer to eat the most to ensure their sustainability.

And as another aside here, even in modern times with extinctions related to human activity you'll often find that while we did play a role, it's often also driven by other animals. For instance it's often said that the Dodo was hunted to extinction. That's entirely true, but it wasn't just by humans. The other animals introduced to the Mauritius also had a taste for the Dodo and its eggs in particular. A human might begin to take note of a population becoming more and more scarce. Another animal isn't going to think twice of it until they start starving for lack of their prey.

And also I do not think people just ignore the personalities of animals when choosing to eat them. If you've ever known anybody who's raised goats or even pigs. They're incredible critters that are friendly, cute, playful and in the case of pigs - even quite intelligent. Nobody, for the most part, enjoys slaughtering these guys, but meat is something our bodies have evolved to consume and is still the most straight forward means of living a healthy life. Hunting is a different story, but in many ways that's even more humane. An animal killed on a hunt undoubtedly lived a life magnitudes more free and pleasant than the conditions of many in the farms that produce the food you buy at the grocer or restaurant. In any case you'll find a strong overlap both in modern times, and premodern times, of hunters and animal conservationists. The circle of life is something those closest to it tend to understand all too well.

>The other animals introduced to the Mauritius also had a taste for the Dodo and its eggs in particular.

Which species introduced the other animals to the Mauritius?

Indeed in this case it was humans, though the same thing happens with regularity without humans. Creatures migrate, environments change leading certain creatures to prosper and others to flounder, and so on. Acting like there's some beautiful harmony in nature is missing the fact that it's a cruel and selfish system that humans, as a whole, have managed to rise above and indeed had to rise above for the sake of all life on this planet.

Humans are to blame for the extinction of the dodo then. It doesn't matter if such things happen without humans. The point is that humans are directly responsible for the extinction of many more species on top of the normal extinction rate. I'm not talking about beauty and harmony and balance, I'm talking about the facts.


> Because they relate to the trees as live beings with intimate ties to surrounding people and other creatures, the Waorani aren’t alarmed by the notion that a tree might scream when cut, or surprised that harming a tree should cause trouble for humans.

That sounds like textbook anthropomorphizing, and the article seems to follow down that path as well...

I always wondered, why is anthropomorphizing looked upon with such disdain? To me, that attitude smacks of the idea that humans are "special." Additionally, if it really is wrong to generalize from human internal experience to that of animals, logic implies that it is wrong to generalize from a specific human's internal experience to that of any other human. Since we don't seem to want to give up on making sweeping generalizations about humans, we should probably also stop making such a stink about anthropomorphizing.

Finally, anthropormophizing is a useful metaphorical aid to help people understand. I don't think it's a big deal as long as you avoid making absolute teleological claims.

> anthropormophizing is a useful metaphorical aid to help people understand

Absolutely. So does simplification. Simplifying things to make them understandable to non-experts is an incredibly important skill - ask any teacher (or their students, for that matter). The problem comes with oversimplification, simplifying explanations to a degree when they are just dead wrong. At that point, the simplification doesn't only not help with the understanding, it can actively hinder future understanding by suggesting that you have already understood (when in fact you haven't).

This article over-anthropomorphizes.

Absolutely. I study ecology, and I have to say this article sounds like quite a lot of hogwash to me.

Of course, trees do communicate - but obsessively trying to frame mindless chemical ecological processes in such extreme anthropomorphic terms is dangerously close to the border between extreme oversimplification and rank pseudoscience.

If you want to say that trees can talk, you just have to redefine language.

The title is misleading, the article is says "...a language we can learn to listen to", the title says "...a language we can learn", big difference.

OK, we've added that phrase to the title.

Anthropocentric behavior typical precludes respect of life unless it’s cute and usually a tetrapod.


fifnir 9 months ago [flagged]

So choosing to believe that a person 900 years ago actually talked to animals (and incidentally had nothing better to say to them besides how god is great) is now "knowing the truth" that there are molecular systems that would be interpreted as communication between plants?

raadore 9 months ago [flagged]

Who’s saying anything about believing?

Just stating facts based on eye witness accounts from 900 years ago.


I'm gonna need a better source than what you sent to consider this "facts".

Please don't do religious flamewar on HN. It's one of the things we most don't want here.


"help, help I'm being cut down!"

If we learned how to speak to trees, it could be terrifying.

If you keep posting unsubstantive comments, we're going to have to rate-limit your account again.

Steady on, it's mentioned in the article.

"the Waorani aren’t alarmed by the notion that a tree might scream when cut"

That's not the issue.

What is the point, dang?

It was a whimsical comment, and you are being overly critical. And I was considering the way man affects our environment. And yes, it is mentioned in the article.

Your hair trigger response says far more about you than me. I literally have made one whimsical comment in literally hundreds of comments, and you decide to threaten me.

The issue is that you have a long history of posting borderline comments and creating drama on the site as well as in abusive emails. This was a problem. We took the rate limit off your account out of courtesy to you, but that's provisional on the problem not starting up again. Since multiple unsubstantive comments were starting to show up again from your account, I thought I'd better say something.

I posted a response, then thought better of it and deleted it.

The title is funny. lOl.

Could you please stop posting unsubstantive comments to Hacker News?


Ok, as I screwed up anyways, here is one more "unsubstantial" comment: ooops!

No, he is one of the admins. And this is not the place for low-effort comments like "me too" or "first!" or "lol"

I found the title funny, it's not a low effort to share this reaction with everyone.

No, it definitely is. I think you should reread the welcome page: https://news.ycombinator.com/newswelcome.html

"The most important principle on HN, though, is to make thoughtful comments. Thoughtful in both senses: civil and substantial.

The test for substance is a lot like it is for links. Does your comment teach us anything? There are two ways to do that: by pointing out some consideration that hadn't previously been mentioned, and by giving more information about the topic, perhaps from personal experience. Whereas comments like "LOL!" or worse still, "That's retarded!" teach us nothing."

If that doesn't sit right with you then maybe you'll be more comfortable using Reddit or something similar.

yeah at least people have fun on reddit and don't blow up scandals from innocent LoL comments.

The problem is more complicated and more interesting than this. You can have many innocent comments, none objectionable in its own right, that add up to a situation no one wants or enjoys. The issue isn't that the individual comments are bad; in principle they could add fun to an otherwise good and substantial site. But in practice you can't have a stable equilibrium that way: if you allow it, you end up with a snowball effect in which such comments take over and it's all downhill from there. Therefore we can't allow it. It isn't about being killjoys, but about protecting the viability of the site.

This guy seems to have copied his thesis from an M. Night Sham movie

I was thinking Avatar.

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