How botanist Francis Hallé’s ‘In Praise of Plants’ challenged the way Hong Kong Biodiversity Museum founder saw nature

In his 1999 book “Éloge de la plante” (“In Praise of Plants”), botanist Francis Hallé, an expert on tropical forests, argues that the nature of plants and their profound differences from animals raise fundamental questions about the nature of life.

Benoit Guénard, founder and director of the Hong Kong Biodiversity Museum, and an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, tells Richard Lord how it changed his life.

I read it in 2005. I was doing my MPhil in ecology at the University of Quebec, in Montreal. Francis Hallé gave a conference there, so I had the chance to meet him and have lunch with him. He kindly gave me a copy of the book.

I read it and found that it was absolutely amazing. For me, there was definitely a before and an after reading this book.

Cover of “In Praise of Plants” by Francis Hallé.

He gave one of the best speeches I’ve seen in the past 20 years. He is a poet and is so passionate about forests and plants and other living organisms that listening to him is absolutely contagious.

He has a way of expressing and presenting the beauty of the world. Few scientists I have met have such an impact on others.

What he was saying really challenged the way I was seeing the world but also the way I was seeing science.

We are mammals, but that doesn’t give us the keys to understand this world

Benoit Guénard

He taught me so many things about the need to think about nature differently from our narrow mammalian scope and constantly question even the most fundamental concepts and established paradigms.

We tend to see the world through the scope of mammals. But there are many ways in which life has evolved, and plants don’t function like we do. You can say the same of insects, which is what I study.

Take the notion of species, which is absolutely fundamental in biology. We tend to think it means a population that can breed, but with plants, genetic material can cross from one species to another. And if you look at your genome, it’s the same all over your body.

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Some plants can have multiple genomes within what we call an individual. If you are a plant, you have multiple genomes, and multiple ways of interacting with your environment, some of which will do better than others.

This is strange for us: imagine your right arm doing better than your left arm. It sounds completely crazy.

One other thing I found interesting, which I now explain to students, is the notion of time and movement. We move; plants don’t on a scale that’s perceptible.

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A forest that’s been there for thousands of years has plenty of opportunities to cope with its environment, or even to wait for it to be at a particular point for producing flowers or fruit, for example. Seeds can stay underground for centuries, waiting for the right conditions to germinate.

It really forces you to think about the world in different ways.

Biology has been dominated by zoology, especially vertebrates, but in terms of life, of biodiversity, it’s anything but that. We are mammals, but that doesn’t give us the keys to understand this world.

We need to think in different ways for different species. It’s difficult but we need to do it if we’re going to comprehend the world and conserve it.


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