Field of Science

Weedism vs. anthropocentric botany

This was awhile ago, but scholarship got in the way of blogging showing some misplaced priorities, but still this deserves a reply by way of understanding how things go.
Over at
Casaubon’s Book, the Phactor added a comment stating that “Weeds were any plant growing where you didn’t want it, ” and Darwinsdog jumped my case:
Who are "you" (or "me" or "we") to say where a plant should or shouldn't grow? I say inoculate the planet from orbit with the propagules of everything, and let flourish what will wherever it will. And let be out competed and go extinct whatever will. How about that? If it works for humans, why not for every & all other organisms? What's with such blatant anthropocentrism?” Oooo!

An old cartoon shows a dog at a computer saying to another dog, “The niftiest thing about the internet is that no one knows you’re a dog.” And maybe that explains why darwinsdog seems to dislike a human perspective so much. However, in one sense, and only one, is the charge of my being “blatantly anthropocentric” true. The current success of weedy species is completely a product of human activities. Just as a thought experiment let’s do as this cur suggests and let the chips fall where they may after inoculating the entire Earth with weeds of all sorts, with no regard for what humans want or need, and now, based on a knowledge of ecology imagine the outcome if humans were not involved.
Weeds in a biological sense are adapted to disturbed habitats, so there are two kinds of weeds, natural ones, and those that exist because of our activities, and without the agricultural/horticultural activities of humans disturbances largely disappear becoming smaller and less common. Nature produces disturbances too but as patches in a much larger landscape although some patches can be pretty big. Weeds grow fast and produce lots of offspring that are very good at dispersing, a necessary response to surviving in a patchy environment. A few weed offspring must find a new patch of disturbance because the patches themselves are short lived, replaced by a succession of organisms among which weeds are poor competitors. Initially weeds would have a field day, but their success would be short-lived as a success of better competing organisms began to push them back into the patches of disturbance that would naturally occur. In the long run, weeds would be put back in their rightful place. Weeds would be a minor element in the landscape as a whole, but only a very small population of gatherer-hunter humans would be able to make a living in that type of environment. So to take anything but an anthropocentric perspective simply ignores the current state of affairs, or you end up suggesting the human population should be reduced to pre-agricultural levels, which is a pretty drastic reduction. So our survival demands that we decide what plants will grow and where, up to a point. And this is my point, as it now stands, with vast tracks of land disturbed by human activities, we have provided vast opportunities for weeds, and we either let them take over, briefly, before nature relegates them to their proper place, or keep them in check in favor of our pet plants. If darwinsdog wants, he can have all the weeds recently removed from my asparagus for din-dins, while keeping my pet plant for myself. After all that’s the balance of nature, even if darwinsdog doesn’t seem to understand it.


Eric said...

I agree completely with your assessment. What Mr. Dog failed to do was address your actual statement: there is a significant difference in discussing where a plant should grow ("Should" implies fulfilling a duty or obligation. To whom is that duty owed? Does a plant have will?) and where you or I want it to grow. Unless we talk about where we want plants to grow, the very concept of weediness is eviscerated. Of course it was anthropocentric and couldn't have been otherwise.

Diane said...

Species other than humans may not be able to call something a weed but I think they can experience "weediness". This weekend I found a large patch of black swallow-wort nearby. It is not only invasive, according to humans but monarchs may mistake it for related native milkweeds and lay eggs on it. According to the website (who remembers?) they will not thrive. So maybe it is a weed to the butterflies too.

Anonymous said...

Considering the parasitic disposition of modern human beings, the species' various generally accepted definitions of "invasive", "weedy", and "non-native" have always struck me as somewhat ironic.

Good thought fodder: What is parasitic to a parasite?

The Phytophactor said...

Anthrome said...Considering the parasitic disposition of modern human beings, the species' various generally accepted definitions of "invasive", "weedy", and "non-native" have always struck me as somewhat ironic.

Yes, but being dependent does not make an organism parasitic; to do that you must live upon or in your living host. Humans are certainly weedy, invasive, and non-native. Perhaps exploitive is the correct word, and in this sense our "foot print" upon nature is mighty large and heavy.