June 23, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Plants Do Arithmetic

For keeping track of their food stores for the next day, plants perform “sophisticated” arithmetical division.

The BBC News reported a discovery by UK scientists that “astonished” them: “Plants have a built-in capacity to do maths, which helps them regulate food reserves at night, research suggests.”  They were “amazed” at this, the article said.

Researchers were “amazed” to find out that plants perform arithmetic with chemicals:

Amazing FactsOvernight, when the plant cannot use energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into sugars and starch, it must regulate its starch reserves to ensure they last until dawn.

Experiments by scientists at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, show that to adjust its starch consumption so precisely, the plant must be performing a mathematical calculation – arithmetic division.

The inputs to the division are the measures of starch (S) and the biological clock that keeps time (T).

If the S molecules stimulate starch breakdown, while the T molecules prevent this from happening, then the rate of starch consumption is set by the ratio of S molecules to T molecules. In other words, S divided by T.

“This is the first concrete example in biology of such a sophisticated arithmetic calculation,” said mathematical modeller Prof Martin Howard, of the John Innes Centre.

This may be a widespread phenomenon in the living world.  Birds, for instance, might use arithmetic to calculate their food stores for long-distance migrations, or for storing energy when deprived of food while incubating eggs.

Another researcher indirectly calls this evidence for design:

Commenting on the research, Dr Richard Buggs of Queen Mary, University of London, said: “This is not evidence for plant intelligence. It simply suggests that plants have a mechanism designed to automatically regulate how fast they burn carbohydrates at night. Plants don’t do maths voluntarily and with a purpose in mind like we do.

The article did not mention evolution.

The comment by Richard Buggs is telling.  For one, it distinguishes humans from plants, by pointing out how we act with purpose and intention (intelligent design).  Second, it points out that plants have design programmed into them to perform the arithmetic.  The implication is that they were programmed much the same way robots are programmed with software.  Plants don’t have to “be” intelligent designers with minds to perform arithmetic on purpose.  They just have to show the marks of design imputed into them.  If the robot is evidence of intelligent design, so is the plant.  Darwinism would add nothing to this science project but a tall tale.

Brits should follow American practice of dropping the “s” from maths to math.  Not only is it more grammatical, it’s easier to pronounce.


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