The Silence of the Yams: Dignity for Plants?

Chuck Colson | BreakPoint | Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Silence of the Yams: Dignity for Plants?

August 4, 2009

In the recent movie The Happening, plants, threatened by the growing human population, release a toxin into the air that causes people to kill themselves. A nursery owner tells the hero that plants can not only “target specific threats,” they can also communicate with each other and coordinate their “defense.”

While The Happening was panned by audiences and critics, one country appears to have taken the threat from plants seriously enough to sue for peace with the plant kingdom. That’s Switzerland.

How? By enshrining the “dignity”—their word, not mine—of plants in their constitution.

A molecular biologist at the University of Zürich recently sought permission to field test wheat that had been genetically modified to resist a particular kind of fungus. He not only had to prove that the test wouldn’t have unintended environmental consequences, he also had to “debate the finer points of plant dignity with university ethicists.” Then, he had to satisfy government officials that the trial “wouldn’t ‘disturb the vital functions or lifestyle’ of the plants.”

Dignity? Lifestyle? Of plants? Like many a farcical road, this one was paved with good intentions. In the 1990s, Switzerland amended its constitution to require that “account to be taken of the dignity of creation”—Switzerland’s word, not mine—“when handling animals, plants and other organisms.”

Then, last spring, the parliament asked a panel of “philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians” to determine how this requirement applies to plants. The panel’s report concluded that people do not have “absolute ownership” over plants and that “individual plants have an inherent worth.” Therefore, they concluded, “we may not use them just as we please, even if the plant community is not in danger.”

Plant community?

As ethicist Wesley J. Smith has pointed out, phrases like “plant community” and the “dignity” of plants is evidence that our rejection of the biblical worldview “is driving us crazy.” Having rejected the “unique dignity and moral worth of human beings,” it was logical that “we would come to see fauna and flora as entitled to rights.”

More than that, this shift in worldview, Smith writes, regards “treating people differently from animals simply because they are human beings” as “invidious discrimination.”

Unfortunately, the damage from this worldview isn’t limited to making Alpine countries look silly or creating more paperwork for researchers. While some of the sought-after parity between man and the rest of creation is achieved by raising the status of animals and plants, most of it comes through lowering our status as humans.

That’s where the real danger lies. Research that could help feed countless millions is made more difficult and even impossible because of concerns over plant “dignity.” Even worse, carrying the logic to its conclusion, the sanctity of human life becomes a matter of what you can do, not who you are—that is, someone created in the image of God.

By the end of The Happening, the threat from the plants creates a renewed appreciation for human life. For once, I wish that life would imitate the movies.

Chuck Colson’s daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.