Tree Rights: Do Trees Have Feelings?

Tree Rights
A German forester and author named Peter Wohileben has written a book titled The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. The book has sold more than 800,000 copies in Germany and has hit the best-seller list in 11 other countries including the U.S. and Canada. He was quoted in the March issue of Smithsonian magazine as saying, “We must at least talk about the rights of trees.” Since we are concerned about human rights should we also be thinking of tree rights?

According to the article in Smithsonian, scientific evidence indicates “that trees of the same species are communal, and will often form alliances with trees of other species.” Wohileben says that trees in every forest “are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate.” What Wohileben is talking about is a symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi underground. The hair-like root tips of trees join together through fungal filaments to form a mycorrhizal network. The fungi consume sugar from the tree roots as they pull nitrogen, phosphorus, and other minerals from the soil which are absorbed by the roots for use by the trees.

The trees communicate through their “wood-wide-web” by “sending chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals.” The large trees with deep roots draw up water which benefits the shallow-rooted trees. The article says that trees also share nutrients with each other, even between species. In addition to the underground network trees also communicate with each other through the release of chemicals into the air, and they release large amounts of moisture into the air feeding rain systems.

Wohileben presents his story of the trees as if they have intelligence. He says that we must “allow some trees to grow old with dignity, and die a natural death.” Multiple scientists refute Wohileben saying that trees are not “sentient beings” and call Wohileben’s ideas anthropomorphism.

We believe that God has given us the duty to protect the environment. That includes trees. (Genesis 2:9, 15) However, we see great danger in talking about tree rights. Plants and animals are here to serve humans, and we are here to serve God.
–Roland Earnst © 2018

Anthropomorphism Extreme

Anthropomorphism
It is very easy to anthropomorphize the behavior of animals. According to Wikipedia anthropomorphism is, “the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities…It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.” When your dog cowers after you scold it for doing something, is the dog indicating guilt or remorse? It may look that way, but it may be that the dog has learned that by showing that behavior it will receive less scolding.

There has been an upsurge of scientific material suggesting that humans are not unique in their expressions of grief, guilt, patriotism, devotion, love, hate, etc. Several books have been written promoting the view that no human emotion is missing from members of the animal kingdom. How Animals Grieve by Barbara King and Beyond Words–What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina are two examples. There have also been numerous articles in scientific journals promoting anthropomorphism.

The problem is that it is very difficult to avoid anthropomorphism of animals. Frequently we see articles describing how an animal reacts to the death of its offspring. A recent magazine has pictures and discussions of giraffes, whales, dolphins, elephants, gorillas, baboons, chimps, and zebras seeming to grieve at the death of an offspring or a mate for periods of days. (National Wildlife magazine for February-March 2018 page 30-39) The question is whether this is an evolutionary trait of all life and humans are just more highly evolved, or whether we are anthropomorphizing the behavior we see. We have all been influenced by Disney with stories like Bambi, so the question is complicated.

The biblical definition of humans is that we are the life-form created in the image of God. We see that image reflected in the things that humans do that are not physical in nature. We worship. We create art and music and express our emotions in art and music. We feel sympathy and experience guilt. We have an agape type of love that is unrelated to reproduction or survival. We can be taught to think. These properties are made possible by our spiritual nature. We can debate whether all of these characteristics are really unique to humans or whether they have survival value, but our uniqueness as a species is not a function of our intelligence or any physical characteristic.

The difficulty in interpreting animal behavior is that we cannot easily ascertain the role of instinct. Reproduction in animals is instinctively driven. In most mammals the role of the female is determined by her reproductive capacity. It is the lioness that drives the pride, not the male lion. The wonderful work that has been done on gorillas and chimpanzees has shown the role of reproduction in determining the social structure of the entire troop. Study of baboons and chimps shows that stress hormones called glucocorticoids increase when a close relative dies. The release of the hormone oxytocin which inhibits glucocorticoid increases when there is physical contact with other partners after the death of a close relative. What we see in animal behavior is the result of the instinctive drives being disturbed.

There is no question that animals think and that they have emotions, but we should avoid excessive anthropomorphism. Animal emotions are tied into their instinctive drives–not to political or religious values. We suggest that those instincts are part of the design of these animals which provides them with the greatest probability of survival.

The unique nature of all humans should motivate us to value human life. We are not instinctively-driven robots that obey the drives built into our DNA. We can change the world in which we live both physically and spiritually. Valuing all human life and working together to solve the conflicts that divide us is a necessary product of understanding our spiritual uniqueness. When Jesus taught us to love our enemy and to do good to those who do evil to us, He was calling us to express that which makes us human–our spiritual nature created in the image of God.
–John N. Clayton