Stigmergic coordination and minimal cognition in plants

Ric Sims  and Özlem Yilmaz

Adaptive Behavior

The tricky question in the plant cognition debate is what theory of cognition should be used to fix the reference of cognitive concepts without skewing the debate too much one way or the other. After all, plants are rather different to animals in many respects: they are not motile, do not possess central nervous systems or even neurons, do not exhibit an invariant morphology, interact with the world in a distributed multi-centred manner, and behave through changes in their physiology. Nonetheless, there is a significant strand in the debate that asserts that plants are indeed cognitive. But what theory of cognition makes sense of this claim without baking in prior zoological assumptions? The aim of this paper is to try out a theory of minimal cognition that makes the claim of plant cognition plausible. It is primarily inspired by the distributed cognition literature and the sensorimotor coordination theory of cognition proposed by van Duijn et al. (2006). We take a cognitive system to be a coordinated set of semi-autonomous processes running over the organism and items in its environment. Coordination is characterised in terms of two functional conditions that ensure that the system generates goal-directed action in the world. The system is stigmergic in the sense that the material results of its actions in the environment are a crucial part of the processes that coordinate further actions. The account possesses a degree of scale invariance and helps unify cognitive explanation across microorganisms, plants and animals.

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